Saturday, March 08, 2008

Too Much, Too Young?

Some of you will have already seen the piece that I wrote for "Pitch Invasion" on the boom & bust football culture in Essex over the last fifteen years or so. The dangers of being dependent on a single benefactor are being thrown into even sharper perspective north of the border, where Gretna FC's existence is now under threat as the result of a serious illness contracted by their long-time owner and benefactor. With few assets and money draining out of the club in an alarming fashion, the big concern is that they will not be able to survive a spell in administration. It is, I have to say, yet another cautionary tale for supporters hoping that a multi-millionaire will walk into their club and make everything alright.

Gretna spent their first few decades scrabbling around in the lower reaches of the English non-league game, before transferring into the Scottish League in 2002. With Mileson providing considerable financial backing, they soon showed that anyone with a bit of financial muscle could overpower the semi-professionals of the Scottish lower divisions, and they became the first club in the history of Scottish football to be promoted from the Third Division to the SPL in successive seasons. As they won the Scottish Second Division title in 2006, they also made it to the Scottish Cup final. They lost on penalties at Hampden Park against Hearts after a 1-1 draw but, with Hearts having already booked a Champions League place after finishing second to Celtic in the SPL, Gretna had already booked themselves a place in the UEFA Cup, although this ended in defeat against Derry City.

Their problems started last summer, with promotion to the SPL. Their stadium, Raydale Park, had not been significantly developed in tandem with the team and fell well short of the standard reqiured for regular visits from the likes of Celtic and Rangers. The club were faced with an almost impossible dilemma. Should they redevelop their ground in Gretna? What point was there in building a 6,000 seater stadium in a village with a population of less than 3,000 people? They elected to play their home matches for the 2007/08 season 75 miles away at Motherwell's Fir Park whilst planning permission was being approved to redevelop Raydale. Their first season has been a more or less unmitigated disaster. Unsurprisingly, crowds at Fir Park have been poor (the 501 hardy souls that turned up for their recent match against Dundee United is a record low for the SPL), and the club's inspirational manager, Rowan Alexander was sacked in November. More troubling, however, was the health of Mileson, who was admitted to hospital last month and found to be suffering from a brain infection which has left him unable to run the club.

Matters came to a head in the new year, when it became apparent that the players and staff hadn't been paid for some weeks. Gretna's contract at Fir Park is costing them £600,000, and to put this into perspective, they have had Raydale Park valued at just £800,000. Fourteen players left during the transfer window, and the club have been rooted at the bottom of the SPL for the entire duration of the season, with just four wins to their name. Mileson's son, Brook Junior, is running the club in his father's absence, but he is not authorised to sign cheques on his father's or the club's behalf, and there have been widespread rumours that he is not quite as committed to the Gretna cause as his father was. Alexander's replacement, Dave Irons, has left to go to First Division club Morton, and the club are now considering going into administration, although the danger with doing that is that the trustee appointed to manage the club's finances might just decide that it is simply not feasible to even continue until the end of the season.

Most worrying of all for Gretna is what seems to be a somewhat defeatist attitude within the club itself. Consider this interview with the club's chief executive, Graeme Muir. Comments such as some of those made are probably at best unhelpful in securing the club's long-term future. Ultimately, though, it may all prove to be academic. With the level of debts and the sort of wage bill that Gretna are labouring under at present, it seems unlikely that the club can survive in its current form. The fact of the matter is that the club have allowed themselves to become over-reliant on Brook Mileson and his money (in spite of the setting up of youth academies and free travel initiatives, both of which hinted towards a club aiming for self-sufficiency), and the harsh reality is that the club allowed itself to become run on a hopelessly unsustainable business model that was entirely dependent upon the goodwill of one man.

There is little doubt that Brook Mileson is a man of honourable intentions, and we obviously wish him a safe and speedy recovery. It has to be said, however, that a tempering of ambitions may be in order at Gretna Football Club. It's all very well to talk about "fairy tales", but a club expanding too quickly with no sensible business plan is always likely to end in the death of the club concerned in the long term, which doesn't sit particularly comfortably with the belief that all fairy tales should have happy endings. With Raydale Park having been allowed to run to rack and ruin since the club switched to Motherwell, it's difficult to see how this will end well for them - one would hope that a sustainably run club, owned by its supporters will be the eventual outcome, but it will probably take the death of this Gretna Football Club for that to happen.


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