"WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?"
‘Where did they come from?’
It’s Saturday 13 May 2006, my thirty-seventh birthday, and I am sitting in the East Stand at Hampden Park awaiting the start of the 121st Scottish Cup Final. Next to me is my eight-year-old son Rufus, and two friends, Pete and Graeme, and Graeme’s wife Gill, all of us wearing the black and white scarves of Gretna FC, the tiny football miracle from the border where England and Scotland clashed for centuries. Today the opponents are Edinburgh’s Heart of Midlothian, who have just finished as runners-up in the Scottish Premier League, a full two leagues above Second Division Gretna.
Gretna are the underdogs. We support a team which have, so the detractors say, only made it to the final by avoiding top flight opposition. The fact that we have had to defeat four First Division sides en route is conveniently forgotten. There are many critics with my team in their sights, although very few of them are here today at Hampden. We are surrounded by thousands of fellow Gretna fans, most of them singing along to the clumsy cup song: ‘Living the dream we always wanted… It doesn’t get any better than this’.
Down below us on the pitch, as kick-off approaches, stands Rowan Alexander, currently the longest serving football manager in Scotland, resplendent in full Highland dress, a sprig of heather sprouting from his lapel. Alexander has been in charge at Gretna for six years and must be thinking back to the early days when the team played in front of crowds of fifty or so people in non-league games in the north of England. In those times he spent most of his waking hours (some say his sleeping hours too) at Raydale Park, the club’s ramshackle ground for nearly sixty years, cutting the grass, lining the pitch, painting the walls. These days, he stays clear of the groundsman’s hut and can mainly be found in offices at the club, using state of the art software to analyse the performances of his own team and those of our opponents.
Almost four years ago, a dishevelled pony-tailed millionaire who lives locally had begun to invest in Gretna and urged Alexander to decide whether to be a full-time caretaker or a full-time manager. Since then Alexander and the insurance magnate Brooks Mileson, his grey pony-tail shining in the Hampden sun, have struck up a partnership which, they declare, will never die. It has provoked a mixture of emotions in friend and foe alike: fear, jealousy, admiration and joy.
‘Where did they come from?’ Rufus asks me again. He is referring to the Gretna-supporting crowds that embrace us with their good humour and alcoholic laughter, all 12,000 of them. The last game we had attended, three weeks ago, had attracted 2,201 supporters – a larger than average crowd who came along to watch captain Chris Innes being presented with the league trophy. It was a fair question: the population of Gretna (if you include the adjoining Gretna Green) stands at 2,705. Even when embellished by those of us who lived outside the town but within Gretna’s self-declared catchment area (we lived eight miles away over the border), the crowd was spectacularly huge. The question was not asked with any hint of possessiveness. It was good to be part of the big crowd for once, even if it was possible by checking out the varying states of anxiety (or lack of it) to ascertain which of those in the crowd genuinely cared for the club and which were here just for a day out with nothing to lose.
But it was also a question about Gretna itself. Where had this tiny club come from, and how on earth did it find its way here to the Scottish Cup Final, with European competition guaranteed for next season, only four years after playing in non-league football in England? The answer mainly lay down below us in the figures of Alexander and Mileson. Although the story of Gretna FC had started just after the Second World War, it was only these last few years which had seen the unprecedented success – unprecedented not just in Scottish football terms, but also in a way beyond these shores. Where indeed had they come from?
This book attempts to tell the story of the football in Gretna in modern times. It starts with the forming of Gretna FC in 1946 and tracks how the club become a solid component of the non-league system in the north of England, arguably achieving better than might be expected of such a small club. The next stage began with election to the Scottish Football League in 2002. The book follows the inexorable rise through the leagues to Hampden and beyond.
Fast-forward two years after the Scottish Cup Final: Rufus, Pete, Graeme and I were once again spending my birthday watching Gretna play Hearts. This time we were spectators at the last ever game played by the club. Following what Ron MacGregor, the last chairman of Gretna FC, would call its ‘rise and rise’ came the spectacular self-combustion of the club in the spring of 2008.
The next few weeks and months would be spent in a flurry of action group and committee meetings, public presentations, debate and argument, business plans and research, telephone calls, emails, TV, radio and press interviews, meetings with MPs, MSPs, councillors and representatives from other football clubs, and the occasional clandestine rendezvous in a hotel bar. For my birthday after that, I would – as chairman of the new Gretna football club – receive a card signed by the entire squad, coaching and other staff.
These were tricky times, but there is a happy ending. This book also deals with the resurrection of football in the town, with the new club, and explains just how all that came about and how we came to be involved in the project to raise something from the dead.