End of the Road
Gretna's rise was a romantic fairy-tale; their collapse provides grimly real lessons for all of Scottish football
Graeme Muir leans back on a rickety plastic chair in the centre of a grubby portakabin and surveys his surroundings. "Little Gretna, eh," he says, shaking his head in bemusement. "You know, this shouldn't work…"
It's April 2007 and little does he realise just how prescient his words are, not just in relation to his own club but also — as the 2012 close season proved — for every other side in Scotland. As he speaks, the chief executive glances out of the grimy window towards the ramshackle stand and sloping pitch, upon which his side have just spurned the opportunity to earn promotion to what was then the Bank of Scotland Premier League. A listless performance against their closest challengers St Johnstone, for whom Jason Scotland scored twice in a perfunctory 2-0 victory, has cut Gretna's lead at the summit of the first division to five points with three games remaining.
Ultimately, it took until the final few moments of the last of those three matches for the Raydale Park club to secure a third consecutive title in one of the most fraught conclusions to a campaign imaginable. When the whistle blew on St Johnstone's 4-3 victory over Hamilton Academical, they were notionally champions, with Gretna being held 2-2 by Ross County in a game delayed by five minutes while a tortured soul was talked down from the parapet of the nearby Kessock Bridge. But a stoppage-time James Grady goal, some 10 minutes after the conclusion of the game at New Douglas Park, ensured the helicopter carrying the trophy changed direction.
"I've another operation on my stomach this week and I'm not supposed to be taking long car journeys," said Brooks Mileson of the 500-mile round trip to Dingwall, the stricken owner and benefactor having eventually been located behind the main stand sucking furiously on a roll-up despite his health being so poor that he was barely able to walk.
Within 18 months, he would be dead, the boy who broke his back in a quarry accident at the age of 11 growing up to be the man who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome and, fatally, a brain infection. Upon his hospitalisation in February 2008, his financial support for Gretna was withdrawn by his family, bankrupting the club. By the time of his death that November — the 60-year-old was found unconscious in a pond after suffering a heart attack at his Carlisle home — Gretna were no more, their liquidation and the end of a glorious six years encompassing a Scottish Cup final and Uefa Cup qualification having been confirmed two months earlier.
To those who had long harboured disdain for the manner in which Gretna advanced through the leagues, such an outcome was vindication. Yet even for Muir, the most devout disciple of Mileson, there was an inevitability about the demise.
Speaking to him that sunny April afternoon less than two years earlier, there were hints that not all was well. "What do you want to know?" was his regular, exasperated response to requests for an interview; cryptic references to the fairy tale having ended became more frequent; while the mysterious absence of manager Rowan Alexander with a "stress-related illness" and the consequent arrival of Mick Wadsworth was never satisfactorily explained.
Still, once he did finally agree to sit down and talk, Muir was an engaging, almost evangelical, communicator. Sentences tumbled forth with more clauses than a Scottish Football Association rule book, the lilting brogue of this unlikely missionary evincing an endeavour for answers, posing rhetorical questions that seem to hang in the air like speech bubbles waiting to be pricked by explanation.
At times, it was difficult to keep track as the 40 year old's whirring mind hurled the discussion off on a tangent. Yet, at the same time, Muir was able to view issues with the untainted mind of a child, stripping away baggage and deconstructing arguments so as to make even the most divisive appear easily salved. Perhaps it was a consequence of his relative inexperience in the incestuous world of Scottish football administration, but his tenure at Gretna mirrored the incredible rise of the club.
A player who burned brightly but briefly at Queen of the South, Muir was running a project to bring his church closer to the community when he received the phone call that changed his life. Mileson recognised a kindred spirit and wanted their Christian beliefs to work together in aligning the club with its own parish. Soon enough, though, Muir's enthusiasm ensured personal promotion.
Yet as the fairy-tale accession neared its denouement, Gretna metamorphosed from everyone's favourite wee club into a soulless entity lacking support who bought their way to success. The introduction of Wadsworth as director of football and a clinical overhaul of both the playing staff and youth structure, which involved picking up talents released by bigger clubs and, they hoped, selling them on to make Gretna self-sufficient, sparked suggestions of malcontent; the favoured theory being that Mileson's well of benevolence had run dry, with the restructuring an attempt to slash overheads. Failing to win promotion, critics said, would actually suit a club that had come too far, too fast.
"I hear it every day," said Muir that afternoon, smiling mischievously. "But if we've no money, if we're cost-cutting, if it's all dried up, why haven't we cut the community programme, which gives free football to schools every day? Why is Danny Lennon [now manager of St Mirren] taking kids in our youth set-up through scholarships at Cumbria College? In economic terms, the fairy tale's gone and there's been restructuring, so there's been contrary stories to the wee happy story. But if that hadn't happened, we could have been in danger of a boom-and-bust scenario.
"People say Gretna are successful because of Brooks Mileson's money — rubbish. It's helped — we are glad of his input — but let's look at it this year. We've taken a substantial amount off the payroll and we're now doing spreadsheets and budgets, five-year plans, when before we didn't even have basic administration and it was a case of throwing money at things. Everybody thought this Gretna story would not last but I'm not sure of that now. In fact, I'm convinced that's not the case. If things go as we expect, we'll need to rely less on Brooks. If our figures are right there is a case that if we were seventh or eighth in the SPL, we could break even groundsharing at Motherwell."
Within nine months his claims would have been proved hopelessly naive, but Muir's defence of the decision to use Fir Park as a temporary home during the planned renovation of Raydale — one he now concedes was ludicrous — was undermined even then by his own candour. "I've listened to this, Gretna playing Inverness at Motherwell on a foul February night, and how the crowd would be an embarrassment," he said, leaving his words to hang before delivering the punchline. "I'd ask, why are we playing in February then? Why do we sell short-sleeved replica shirts at £47 and then play in the winter? Okay, I'll be the first to admit that on New Year's Day you can't beat being at the football, but I've got to put my hand up and say, 'Come on, the game's bigger than this and we've got to look at it.'"
The plea was made five-a-half years ago yet Muir still finds himself making it, albeit more quietly and from the periphery. Now disenfranchised and disengaged and focusing his attention on community work with his church while helping run his local youth club, Greystone Rovers, he can reflect on the solitary season he spent among the guardians of top-flight football and wonder why nothing has really changed.
"I met some really genuine guys trying to do their best for their clubs but I'm not so sure the SPL board was the most visionary committee I've ever sat on," he admits. "I think it was tired and didn't take into account what people, fans and communities really wanted. There wasn't a lot of enterprise or forward-thinking; it was people battling with their budgets and just trying to pay the next bill. They gave the impression to me they were firefighting and just treading water."
As Rangers' scarcely believable third-division campaign continues to cause consternation, Muir recalls his prophetic words when Gretna became the last Scottish club to be wound up. "I didn't think we would be the last and people laughed and sniggered when I said that it just might be some of the bigger boys that go first," he says, his tone more sad than smug. "I didn't expect it to be Rangers, mind you, but the whole thing just didn't add up for me and it still doesn't."
The picture he paints is evocative of LS Lowry's celebrated 1949 work The Football Match, a scene that, somehow, remains redolent of 21st-century Scotland. Hundreds of working men are depicted gathered around a pitch against a backdrop of factories and billowing chimneys. It is, we suppose, a Saturday afternoon in post-war Manchester; the men warming themselves with hot drinks and meat pies after a morning of graft, aligning themselves to one team or another and giving vent to their emotions free from the constraints of the workplace.
It is a snapshot of another world, one a lifetime away, but one Scottish football is still clinging to. "When we were groundsharing at Motherwell, I still got a feeling they expected Ravenscraig to empty at midday on a Saturday and all the workers would fill their ground," says Muir, evoking another Lowry masterpiece, Going To The Match. "Even now, clubs are waiting for miners and steelworkers and shipbuilders to come out and fill their grounds because the game was built upon industrialised Britain. But the world has changed. The days of miners finishing a shift and going to football are over. They'd come along and you'd give them a pie and Bovril because that was the working man's sustenance. That's gone but Scottish football is still delivering pie and Bovril."
Football has, insists Muir, become dislocated from the communities it used to represent. Clubs that were once focal points for whole towns have allowed the erosion of that identity and, with it, lost the support of those who ensured its viability before the pernicious influx of broadcast revenue. "If you put a hospital into a town, it delivers healthcare," he says. "If you put a football club in, it should deliver football. Why should people come in here on a Saturday and support us if we don't support them Monday to Friday?"
Football is now part of the service sector but has not grasped that fact and supporters have, consequently, been lost to the game. Muir, himself, can count on the fingers of one hand how many SPL matches he has watched since leaving his post at Raydale four years ago and he knows he is not alone in walking away from the game. Indeed, even as Gretna were preparing for their Premier League campaign, he and Davie Irons — Alexander's assistant and the man at the helm when the promised land was reached — would fret over the future of a club without an established fan base.
Amid it all, did he enjoy that season? "Yes and no," Muir says, after a pause long enough to accommodate another chapter of Rangers revelations. "I enjoyed the second division more because it was fun then. The minute we threatened to get into the SPL, the constraints, demands and legislation meant it all stopped being enjoyable because the steamroller of the first team meant I had to stop the community work I had been doing and become chief executive. Once you have to stop selling ice cream in case fans throw it at each other, and have to arrange to get police horses in for a Sunday TV game against Hearts where 500 fans come through, it gets daft. I admire Ross County and the way they have gone about it; the lesson there is they did it at a slower place and built gradually."
Gretna simply outgrew their slight frame. It is remarkable to think how little time has passed since Mileson's largesse took them to within a missed penalty kick of winning the Scottish Cup, then into the Uefa Cup and the SPL. Yet somehow the Galloway club have been airbrushed from the annals of the Scottish game, the only trace of a once proud club the existence of semi-pro side "Gretna 2008" in the East of Scotland League.
Many blame the philanthropist Mileson for chasing an unrealistic dream by committing more money than he could afford but Muir insists his admiration for a man who, lest we forget, set up supporters' trusts at various clubs, is undiminished. "Brooks, I suppose, will be remembered for how Gretna collapsed but he blew all his money on taking a small village through the divisions, to a Scottish Cup final and into Europe. People forget the massive amount he tried to do for the good of the community and that's the sad thing about it. How is David Murray going to be remembered at Rangers? And Craig Whyte? You just wonder…
"Liquidation is a surreal process, whether it's Rangers, Gretna or Woolworths. The administrators come in and your feet are taken away from you. It's never nice but it's the same for anybody; people said, 'Come on, you can't lose Woolworths from your high street,' but we did. Look at the banks, too, so why should football be immune? For years you were able to get pick'n'mix up the high street but not anymore and that might happen with football if we don't act now.
"We're almost going to the cinders but I'm hoping that amid all this the green shoots of recovery can come through and, in 10 years' time, we will maybe see clubs become more focused on the people who support them and we'll have a more productive national sport with more integrity about it."