FOR the majority of the year, little remarkable happens on Worthy Farm. An orchard is regularly plundered to make Somerset cider, while a 400-strong herd of cattle meander lazily across the 900-acre estate. It could scarcely be more serene. And then, for one week in the middle of each year, this traditional working farm undergoes the most dramatic of transformations as hundreds of thousands of music lovers, thrill seekers, and assorted bohemian types converge for the Glastonbury Festival. When it is over and the masses have departed, an air of gentle tranquillity returns, an incongruous contrast to the frenzied madness that preceded it.

The history of football in the village of Gretna follows a comparable story arch. Prior to 2002, the team played across the border in England’s Unibond League, barely making a ripple beyond their own backyard. Since 2008 it has been a similar tale, the town served by a community-led club operating in the Scottish non-league set-up and followed by a devout but small congregation of supporters. Those two eras, however, bookend a quite remarkable period when, in the space of just six years, Gretna FC claimed a place in the Scottish senior system, won three successive promotions, appeared in a Scottish Cup final, and represented the country in European competition. What followed was Gretna’s sudden demise, as dramatic as their rise, as the money ran out and the club ultimately went into administration and then folded altogether.  

At the heart of this tale - recounted in a new book by Anton Hodge, the first chairman of Gretna 2008, the club that emerged from the wreckage of Gretna FC’s demise – was Brooks Mileson, the Michael Eavis of Scottish football. Mileson was often depicted as a ponytailed, chain-smoking, animal-loving maverick but he had money in abundance and was not shy in sharing it around. A number of football clubs on both sides of the border benefitted from his largesse, none more so than Gretna who he bought just prior to their elevation to the Scottish third division and into whom he continued to plough money until serious illness took hold and his empire began to crumble, taking the football club with it. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Gretna’s earth-scorching screech up the divisions was never going to be sustainable in the long run but that did not stop those in the midst of it enjoying it while it lasted.

“I used to go to along to watch the old Gretna as a fan with my son and it was almost surreal the way everything unfolded,” Hodge told Herald Sport. “It was brilliant to watch at times, almost like the Harlem Globetrotters in a way. You would just turn up and expect goals. At the back of our minds I think a lot of us were thinking, “well, how long is this all going to last?” but we were always reassured by Brooks that contingencies would be put in place so if anything happened to him then the club would continue. We all know now that that didn’t happen. But when you think back to days like taking 15,000 fans to Hampden for the Scottish Cup final and how special that was – it was a period that brought a lot of happiness to a lot of people.”

It is something of a tragic coincidence that Mileson would survive his football club by only a matter of months, dying at the age of 60 in November 2008. His stewardship of Gretna did not always make him universally popular – rival clubs did not appreciate his spend-spend-spend approach, some of his own fans fretted prophetically about the future – but Hodge hopes history judges Mileson kindly.

“Brooks was a lovely guy but he’s gone now and his reputation has been tarnished,” he added. “He’ll be remembered as the guy who destroyed Gretna rather than as someone who put millions of pounds into that club and many others. He was a brilliant guy and very generous. He couldn’t help throwing money at things. The problem, though, was either his inability to plan or the fact his illnesses preventing proper planning.

“To be honest, right until the last minute we had hoped the club would survive. Brooks had spent thousands of pounds on planning permission for a new stadium so we were thinking he would come along and get his chequebook out again. We didn’t think it was going to die.”

Mileson would not live long enough to experience the Gretna story taking another positive turn. Out of the ashes of the old club’s demise emerged a new club that – unlike the Rangers scenario – made no attempt to maintain any kind of link with his liquidated predecessor. It allowed those who were never comfortable with the opulence of the Mileson period to feel like they were getting a version of their old club.

“Part of the reason for putting the new club together was because there had been football in the town since the end of the Second World War and we wanted to maintain that” added Hodge. “It was like a return to the way it was before Brooks’ time and a lot of people seemed to appreciate that.”

Now ensconced in the Lowland League, the creation of the pyramid system offers a pathway for a team from Gretna to again grace the top division, reach cup finals and play in Europe. They won’t be going mad, though, trying to achieve it. The return of the quiet life suits them just fine.

  • In Black and White: the Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Gretna football by Anton Hodge, Chequered Flag Publishing, £11.99