Mileson savours taste of big time

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The Independent Football

Just after noon yesterday it was time for Brooks Mileson to make his latest investment. At the corner of Aikenhead Road, in the shadow of Hampden Park, the multi-millionaire stopped at "Michael's" and splashed out £4.20 on his lunch. "The best fish supper in Scotland," he said.

It was probably a little different down in Cardiff, but on the south side of Glasgow yesterday the romance of the Cup was not just alive but running passionately rampant. Fittingly enough, it arrived via Gretna, the world's original marriage capital before Las Vegas got in on the act. Not that there was much hitching being done in the blacksmith's shop there yesterday. With 12,000 Gretna supporters at Hampden, few of the village's 2,705 population were left behind. The officers of the Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary were on red alert for fear of the ghost village becoming a burglar's paradise.

It would have been different had Gala Fairydean won the vote for the Scottish Football League vacancy created by the demise of Airdrieonians four years ago. Instead, the nod went to the Borders club from England's Unibond League. And thus the Gretna Fairytale began: bankrolled by Mileson, a Sunderland man who made his millions (75 of them at last count) in the insurance business and who has an unbridled passion for grass-roots football.

He is not what you might call your typical football club owner or managing director. After fish and chips at "Michael's", it was off round the corner for a pint or two, then on to Hampden and a seat among the fans. A pony-tailed, chain-smoking figure who could pass for a Spinal Tap roadie, Mileson doesn't do football ceremony. His one luxury for the big day was a new pair of jeans from Asda, priced £3.

At 58, Mileson is a veteran of two heart attacks. He also suffers from ME. At the age of 11, he broke his spine in an accident at a quarry and was told he would never walk again. Seven years later he ran his way to the youths' title at the English Cross Country Championships in Sheffield.

From his seat at Hampden yesterday, the former English champion watched the opposition take the lead but then lose their bearings. That was down to the pressure applied by the 6-1 shots from Scottish football's third tier. Hearts rattled the woodwork after three minutes and nosed in front, courtesy of Rudi Skacel, six minutes before half-time, but Gretna sprang to life after the interval.

Playing with increasing poise and precision, they had Hearts and their captain, Steven "Elvis" Pressley, considerably shook up. Their just reward came in the 75th minute, Ryan McGuffie, a one-time Newcastle reserve, holding his nerve to bury his saved penalty kick on the rebound.

Mileson went "mental" in the stands. Rowan Alexander, Gretna's kilted manager, did the same at pitch-side. "Living the Dream," the Gretna motto, was turning into sheer fantasy. Heading into extra time, the Second Division champions were looking the more likely winners. For Mileson, a Sunderland fan in his youth, it was the 1973 English FA Cup final with knobs on.

Until the lottery of the penalty shoot-out, that is. Derek Townsley scored for Gretna in the FA Cup at Bolton 13 years ago but couldn't beat Craig Gordon from 12 yards yesterday. When Gavin Skelton sent Gretnas next kick up on to the crossbar the dream was over - in glorious, glorious defeat. Mileson leapt on to the pitch to console and congratulate Alexander and his greats. "I thought we were magnificent," he said. "I thought there were two winners out there today." On this evidence, Mileson and Grenta have not seen the last of the big time. Indeed, they could well be back here for more fish suppers and glory next year. The Uefa Cup final is at Hampden in May.

STORY OF THE SHOOT-OUT

Pressley Hearts (scores) 1-0

Grady Gretna (scores) 1-1

Neilson Hearts (scores) 2-1

Birch Gretna (scores) 2-2

Skacel Hearts (scores) 3-2

Townsley Gretna (saved) 3-2

Pospisil Hearts (scores) 4-2

Skelton Gretna (misses) 4-2

Hearts win shoot-out 4-2

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