For many, it is difficult to remember an SFL team as universally reviled as Gretna. Even although their spell in the football league only extended to six years, there were a number of reasons for the rancour shown towards them: the astonishing levels of hubris surrounding the club; Rowan Alexander’s touchline histrionics; that execrable cup final single; the plasticity of the majority of their support; their proposed “eco-stadium”; and perhaps most of all, the way phrases such as “living the dream” and “a real-life fairytale” were carelessly bandied around by lazy journalists who lacked the slightest notion or insight into the Scottish Football League.
It should never have been this way. Before their unnatural assent through the divisions, ten years ago to the day, the little club made their debut in the Scottish Football League in a 1-1 draw against Greenock Morton. The match at Raydale Park was to herald one of the most extraordinary stories in Scottish football.
Before 2002, Gretna had already made two unsuccessful bids to join the SFL in 1993 and in 1999. The club had spent the last two decades playing in England’s Unibond League and even qualified for the FA Cup first round on two occasions, playing Rochdale (1991-92) and Bolton Wanderers (1993-94).
Following the liquidation of Airdrieonians in May 2002, Gretna (along with Gala Fairydean, Edinburgh United and the newly-formed Airdrie United amongst others) submitted their application to take the vacant place, and the club based in a town with a population of less than 3000 was invited to join the SFL. Concerns about the size of their fan base – they rarely attracted attendances beyond 250 – and their dilapidated old shanty of a football ground were dismissed. There was an old-fashioned homespun charm to Gretna, and the club fully merited their position within the league
Their opponents Greenock Morton, meanwhile, had tumbled into the Third Division following a lengthy administration. The club’s financial footing was eventually resolved by local confectionary magnate Douglas Rae, and new manager John McCormack was widely expected to lead his side to an immediate return to the Second Division.
Around 1800 supporters attended Raydale Park on 3 August 2002 to watch Gretna’s player-manager (and erstwhile groundsman) Rowan Alexander lead his charges onto the pitch for their inaugural match. Gretna began the game with a capable squad featuring Ryan McGuffie, Gavin Skelton and Davie Irons, while Morton’s starting XI included Jani Uotinen, Derek Collins, Alex Williams and the Masiano brothers John and Marco.
The home side needed only 19 seconds to mark their entry into the Third Division. Morton goalkeeper Craig Coyle badly mishit a goal-kick to Gretna’s Martin Henney, and the midfielder controlled the ball before adroitly finishing. Five minutes later, the Ton drew level after another goalkeeping blunder. Gretna’s David Mathieson failed to handle Derek Collins’s innocuous cross, and Warren Hawke clumsily bundled the ball into the net.
The rest of the match was a dour, scrappy affair, low on quality and littered with fouls. The introduction of Alexander with 15 minutes remaining stirred the home side but they were unable to break down Morton’s stuffy defence. The scores would remain tied at the final whistle.
At the end of the season, Morton won the championship, while Gretna finished the campaign in a respectable sixth place, a position they maintained for most of the year. Their season might have been bookended with by positive results, but a long, winless streak between mid-September and early December curtailed any aspirations they had of staging a genuine bid for promotion.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. In the close season, Gretna were approached by millionaire Brookes Mileson who offered to invest in the club. The big-hearted philanthropist (or careless fantasist, depending on your viewpoint) ploughed in outrageous sums of money and soon recruited experienced players such as Stevie Tosh, Dave Bingham, Chris Innes and Alan Main. All were drafted in from SPL sides, all were handsomely remunerated.
It was of no surprise when the club secured the Third Division title in the summer of 2005. Their championship-winning squad would continue to trample over the rest of the football league, making an appearance in the 2006 Scottish Cup final en route, until they reached the top tier in 2007.
The Gretna team that tore through the divisions, the monied beast that left a trail of recklessness and resentment in its wake, was unrecognisable to the quaint club with modest ambition who made their SFL debut ten years ago.
When players like John Hore, Stephen Skinner and David Hewson stepped out of the grandstand and onto the chipped Raydale turf on that raw, August afternoon, the green breast of a new world and an infinite number of possibilities, far beyond their powers of contemplation, stretched out ahead of them. One can only wonder if they had any comprehension as to where the little club would go next. Who could have imagined that an ordinary day like that might have been forgotten or remembered as anything more or less than a walk in the park.