Long Reads

Gretna FC in England: a fantasy spell south of the border

Their rise and demise, and hopeful re-rise again with a phoenix club in Scottish football, the Gretna tale is a well-storied one. Led by from the front by manager Rowan Alexander and the goal machine Kenny Deuchar, Gretna would achieve successive promotions between 2005 and 2007, also going on to reach the Scottish Cup final of 2006 where they narrowly lost to Heart of Midlothian, and would play in both Europe, and the Scottish Premier League.

However, maintaining any sort of stability at the top table in Scotland would take it’s toll on the ‘little’ side on the Scottish Borders, and quickly, eventually resigning from the league as a whole in June of 2008. During this period they would also be seen to lose their chief benefactor, Sunderland-born Brooks Mileson, due to ill health (he’d eventually pass away less than six months later).

Reforming not long after as Gretna 2008, they still play at Raydale Park, their home for many a year, and would set up camp in the East of Scotland League, where they played until 2013, when they were promoted to the Lowland League where, under Rowan Alexander, they presently reside, biding their time before, who knows, another shot at the big time comes their way.

Brooks Mileson, however, isn’t the Scottish club’s only connection to the north east of England, they’ve actually got quite a few thanks, on the main, to the decade-long spell they had in the Northern Football League, and a further decade in the Northern Premier League Division One, between 1982/83 and 2001/02.

Playing at Raydale Park, situated just a mile-and-a-half from Gretna Green, Gretna and football actually has a long and varied history that dates back to the nineteenth century and, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, in 1947, they would depart Scotland for English football, taking their membership south o’ the border, the Carlisle and District League, in Cumbria, remaining their until the early eighties, 1982 in fact.

Gretna left Cumbria having won six successive league championships. The 1982/83 season would see Gretna become founder members of the Northern League Second Division alongside that of Alnwick Town, Bedlington Terriers, Billingham Town, Darlington Reserves, Esh Winning, Hartlepool United Reserves, Northallerton Town, Norton & Stockton Ancients, Peterlee Newtown, and Ryhope Community Association.

Not only impressing in their first season in the newly-created Second Division, Gretna would gain the adoration of fans across the league, and promotion at the first attempt, finishing as runners-up by Peterlee, by just three points, winning eighteen of their thirty matches. Gretna’s first match in the Northern League would be a home encounter, on 28 August 1982, defeating Hartlepool Reserves 4-2. It was to be a season which would see several high-scoring games, across the board in fact, but for Gretna there was a 6-1 win at home to Darlington Reserves, 6-2 win over visitors Northallerton Town and a 5-0 win over Esh Winning, whilst on their travels they saw off Norton & Stockton 4-0 and Bedlington Terriers 3-1.

Gretna’s last match of the season was a 1-0 win away to Hartlepool, Tony Monaghan. A successful start which blossomed into a beautiful relationship between club, and league, and its ever-loyal supporters whilst Mr Mileson would see the Northern League Cup named in his honour. Promotion at the first attempt to the First Division was followed up with three top ten finishes before, in 1989, they would finish in third place, Teesside club Billingham Synthonia winning the first of back-to-back titles that season.

The 1989/90 season was one of celebration for the Northern League, it’s centenary year, and with it, as representative matches were all the rage during this period, a Northern League XI would take to St. James’ Park, Newcastle, on 7 September 1989, to oppose a Juventus-Liverpool U21 select. Three Gretna players appeared in that game, goalkeeper Paul Leeming, defender Paul Haigh, and striker Don Peattie – the Northern League won 3-2, Peattie netting the third with a volley. Leeming would appear in goal in all three representative matches that season, opposing an FA XI in the November, and the FA of Ireland the following March, keeping a clean sheet at Spennymoor’s Brewery Field.

In the 1990 Cleator Cup, Gretna would see off Billingham Synthonia handsomely, 4-0, an own-goal, player-manager Mike McCartney with a 25-yarder, Ian Wilson and Chris Pickford scoring, before finishing the campaign with a defeat of Newcastle Blue Star in the League Cup final, John Wilson with the only goal late on at the Wheatsheaf. The Cleator Cup was successfully defended the following year as well, Gretna seeing off Guisborough Town 1-0.

A successful tenure, under Mike McCartney, Gretna would lift the Northern League championship twice, the League Cup, the JR Cleator Cup twice, and the Craven Cup, whilst in 1992, they would reach the First Round Proper of the FA Cup, the first Scottish side to do so since Queens Park, over a century earlier.

That FA Cup run saw Gretna defeat Cleator Moor Celtic (7-0), Bedlington Terriers (3-1), Murton (3-0) and Stalybridge Celtic (3-2), before coming up short in a replay with Football League side, Rochdale (0-0, lost replay 1-3), the famous, goalless draw at Raydale Park, would see the club attract a then record 2,300 gate.

The feat was repeated a couple of years later when members of the Unibond League, the 1993/94 campaign would see them start a round earlier, seeing off Esh Winning (1-0) in the Preliminary Round, before victories over Seaham Red Star (3-1), Evenwood Town (8-1), Barrow (2-1), and in a replay, Winsford United (0-0, won replay 5-0), eventually losing out to Bolton Wanderers in the First Round, 2-3.

The furthest they reached in non-league national competitions, the FA Vase and FA Trophy, would be the Second Round, but then, all those games are a tough ask for any side.

In the official history of the Northern League, Northern Goalfields, Alan Watson provided a rather insightful sub-chapter on the club entitled ‘The Romance of Gretna’, whilst one of the club stalwarts of their Northern League days, Marc Irwin, was also caught up with. Watson’s opening salvo in Northern Goalfields is an absolute beauty; “Gretna were unique. We were the first side from north of the border to play senior non-league football in England, the first Scottish club to play Welsh opponents in an FA competition, the first Scots for over a century to reach the FA Cup first round proper.”

He carried that gusto on in the next paragraph as well, it’s all true, adding: “We did it in style and, we hope, by setting an example of cheery Scottish hospitality. Most of all, we did it during ten wonderfully memorable seasons in the Northern League, and we will be forever grateful to the league for allowing us in and to the very many friends we made – and still keep – whilst travelling those north east roads.”

In fact, it’s that’s hospitality, and the presence of Mike McCartney, that drew both Marc Irwin, and several other non-league football stalwarts, to the romantic charms of Gretna Football Club, one of whom was the Bishop Auckland-born, ex-Newcastle United player, Alan Shoulder, who was assistant manager at the club during their Northern League days.

“Myself, I had a great time playing for Gretna in the Northern League,” explained Marc. “I also know that they regretted letting me go the season after they left (to play in the Unibond). There was around half a dozen players from our part of the north east at the club during this time, and we’d travel to every game together by bus, even my daughter would come with us on match-days, it’s the only time she’d see me (he laughed).” One of a number of Northern League clubs he played for, his is like a who’s who which includes titles and promotions aplenty.

Marc would win a third Northern League championship as captain of Tow Law Town in 1995. But it’s his decade long spell with Gretna he looks back on with those fondest of memories. “I joined them, I believe, early in the 1983/84 season, and stayed there until during their first season in the Unibond,” continued Marc. “I remember they had done a swap deal with Spennymoor (who he was playing for at the time) and I had to quickly leave a gig I was at on a Monday night, make my way to another pub, and sign the contract.

“But it was the best decision, I loved it there, and they looked after me, and my father, who came with us.

“Although I don’t believe he saw any second halves of matches as he was always in the ‘black hut’ by then, steaming.”

Rekindling ‘The Romance of Gretna’, Alan Watson adds in Northern Goalfields of those formative years in the Northern League: “During the summer of 1982, over £100,000 was spent on building a new pavilion, stand and changing room, and the erection of floodlights. We made our Northern League debut on August 28th, celebrating with a 4-2 win over Hartlepool Reserves at Raydale.

“For most of the season we led the division, but were overhauled by Peterlee and promoted in second place.

“The first was much more difficult, of course – Bishops, Blyth Spartans, Spennymoor – and the next few seasons were of consolidation, and of getting to know you. It proved a hugely enjoyable process.”

During their time of friendship in the Northern League, one which blossomed was between that of Gretna, and Whitby Town, and their respective owners, Iain Dalgleish and Bob Scaife, two sides that were geographically placed at opposite ends of the league, and some 135 miles, give-or-take, between each other, it’s how Gretna endeared themselves to the league, and it was certainly reciprocated.

“With a liberal Geordie sprinkling in the squad, we gradually became a force to be reckoned with.” Watson continued in Northern Goalfields. “In 1988/89 we finished third and the following season were runners-up to Billingham Synthonia. The championship, we hoped, was a logistical progression and, so, incredibly, it proved – 20 points clear of Guisborough Town and for good measure we beat Newcastle Blue Star in the League Cup final.”

In speaking to Marc, he reiterated the natural progression from those top ten finishes, to league championships. “We were a few players short, in midfield and up front maybe, in the previous few seasons, so we knew that, getting those in, would hopefully be enough to take us the title, and so it proved, twice,” the Northern League stalwart added. “The following season proved the most momentous in the club’s history, and not just because we knew that the gates to the HFS Loans (Northern Premier) League were open, should we win another title,” Alan continued.

“A visit to the rural surroundings of Cleator Moor Celtic’s Birks Field on September 14th 1991 would hardly have conjured thoughts in the minds of the Gretna faithful of an epic cup run – of Match of the Day cameras, of national and international attention, of the journey from Scotland to Spotland.

“Bedlington Terriers, Murton and Stalybridge Celtic had been seen off before we were presented with a first round tie against Rochdale. Crash barriers were erected at both ends of the ground and a mobile grandstand brought in to help accommodate a 2,300 crowd. It ended goalless, more than 500 fans – and the inevitable piper – taking the low road to Lancashire for the return. Despite a second-half fight-back, we lost 3-1.

“The league title was clinched with a 3-3 draw at Tow Law, however, and we bade a fond farewell to the Northern League with a 3-2 victory at our old adversaries, Blyth Spartans.”

On the back of those consecutive championships, Gretna were promoted to the Northern Premier League Division One, where they’d reside until 2002, finishing seventh in their final season before heading back to Scotland and that rise to the promised land.

Their first season in a new league would see Gretna a credible sixth out of twenty-one sides, their highest of their tenure, before eight successive seasons of tenth or lower; Gretna would finish seventh in 2002 before the following season appear in the Scottish Third Division. From 1947 to 2002, Gretna resided in English football, a Scottish side making waves south o’ the border; fifty-five years of English football, and they loved every minute of it.

Gretna are certainly one of those sides that, once loved, will never be forgotten. Their spell in the Northern League in the eighties and nineties, and their subsequent rise to the top league of Scottish football, are testimony to that fact. They have many-a-name etched in their history, names that will never, ever be forgotten, and rightly so, and a lot of people are proud, even honoured, to call some of them friends.

“They say never go back, of course, and we’re anxious to retain our status. But the Northern League – ah, what happy times they were.” Alan Watson, Northern Goalfields Revisited.

Article by Peter Mann via Football’s Finest