Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Abyss

Remember when Gretna were a good news story?

Come on, it wasn't that long ago.

Elected to the Scottish league only in 2002, the team spent three season in Scotland's division three. From there, bankrolled by businessman Brooks Mileson, they went on a Roy of the Rovers run - two more promotions in succession plus a Cup Final against Hearts, a spot in Europe, and playing in Scotland's top division. Not bad for a club based in a town with a population of less than 3000.

But unlike, say, Chievo (another small-town team with whom they have been compared), this fairy tale has unravelled rather quickly. There is no Bentegodi nearby - home games this year have had to be played at Motherwell's Fir Park, a full 70 miles away, in order to meet SPL stadium standards. Crowds have fallen into the hundreds.

This wouldn't be fatal if Mileson hadn't fallen ill with a brain infection about a month ago. At this point, he ceased being able to sign checks for the club. Within a week, players found themselves without their paychecks. Press reports are unclear about the connection between these two events - did Mileson really leave no power of attorney so that others could discharge the club's fiscal obligations? or did his family, eager to get their hands on his millions, cut the team off as soon as possible? Either way, after just a month without his money, Gretna are not only into administration, but only a couple of hours away from being wound up entirely, with 30,000 pounds being due by Friday lunchtime being required to stave off a wind-up. even then, with no wages and no insurance, only ten players (and no keepers) have made themselves available for selection for Saturday's match against Aberdeen.

A lot of people have taken this with the usual schadenfreude. Gretna were financial dopers, they said, having bought their way up the pyramid. Conservative nonsense, I say. Unlike, say, Granada 74, Gretna played their way up the divisions. Yes, like Fulham they had a wealthy patron, but it was a wealthy patron who bought at the bottom and worked up (unlike, say, Roman Abramovich) and one who actually loved the game of football (unlike, say, the Glazers).

Unfortunately, the suddenness of his illness meant that Milseon couldn't pull a Jack Walker and try to create some kind of trust arrangement which might have given the club a more secure future after his departure. Maybe that would have been impossible in as small a community as Gretna, but at least the club might have been permitted a graceful decline instead of catastrophic extinction.

And so, after a brief and giddy run to the top, including a run in Europe (OK, it was only as far as Derry, but still), Gretna's fans are left with nothing but memories. You might not think their fans deserved all that success, but you'd be a mean bastard to think they deserve what they're getting right now.


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