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The Sad Demise of Gretna FC- A Warning for Clubs South of the Border

Jun 14, 2008
Gretna Football Club was formed in 1946 and spent most of their existence languishing in the lower leagues. During the 1980s and 90s they made applications to join the Scottish Football League, which were unsuccessful. Eventually, in 2002, Gretna were elected into the league after the Airdrionians went out of business. It is important to note that clubs going out of business is not a regular occurrence in Scotland, Airdrionians were the first club to fold since Third Lanark in 1967.

During 2002, the relationship between Brooks Mileson, a multi-millionaire, and Gretna began. Mileson had always had a passion for football, making donations to many football clubs, including Whitby Town and Carlisle, a club he had tried to buy. He had turned up at Gretna's rundown Raydale Park and offered manager, Rowan Alexander, 20,000 pounds for investment into the clubs youth development system. Mileson's commitment couldn't be questioned, as he invested heavily in the club's academy and community projects, including anti-drugs and racism initiatives.

By 2003, Mileson had taken control of the club and set about making this village team into a footballing force. Mileson provided Alexander with the funds to bring in players nearing the end of their careers from higher divisions. Gretna won the Division Three, Division Two, and Division One titles in successive seasons from 2005 to 2007. During their seasons of successive promotions they scored 297 goals.

Some people believed that Gretna were a breath of fresh air that could break up the monotony of the Old Firm's domination. In 2006, Gretna became the smallest club to ever reach a modern Scottish Cup Final, and journalists from all over the world gathered to watch them lose to Hearts in a dramatic penalty shoot out.

Regulations for entry in Scottish Premier League state that the club must have a minimum 6,000-seater stadium. It is worth bearing in mind that the population of Gretna is just 2,705 and the average attendance around just 1,000. As Raydale Park did not meet the Scottish Premier League standards Gretna played their 'home' games at Motherwell's Fir Park, an 150 mile round trip for Gretna fans.

The truth is that Gretna's meteoric rise was never going to be sustainable post-Mileson. The benefactor was quoted in 2004 stating "We're not Rangers or Celtic, nor will we ever be. We're just a nice, little professional club who try to do things properly. Of course they can't sustain themselves. Of course there is no population, but I've never walked away from anything in my life. No matter what happens, I will always make sure Gretna are looked after".

Life in the Scottish Premier League was not the fairy tale ending for Gretna. The club had accumulated debts of nearly 4 million pounds, and Mileson withdrew his financial support for the club after becoming seriously ill. Gretna were always a loss-making enterprise that were supported by the health and wealth of one individual. Inevitably, Gretna finished the season fielding a youth team in administration at the base of the Scottish Premier League.

Worse was to come, the Scottish Football League relegated the club to Division Three, which deterred any potential investors. The administrators have stated that Gretna have ceased to exist as a football club and the club have withdrawn from the Scottish Football League. Mileson's intentions appear to have been entirely admirable, yet have ended with disasterous consequences for the club. Whilst Gretna have sampled the heights of the Scottish game, the community that they had been supporting has now been left without a football team.

With the current climate of foreign investment in the English Premier League it can be argued that the situation that unfolded on the Scottish border could be replicated in England. The key lesson to learn is to ensure that clubs do not become over-reliant on a benefactor and to ensure that the club would still be sustainable as a business without that financial support.

I has been reported that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich has spent in excess of 600 million pounds at Stamford Bridge, with the club experiencing annual losses of 87.8 million, 140 million, 80.2 million and 74.8 million pounds during his tenure. Another worrying trend is individuals taking huge loans to secure club ownership. The Glazier family refinanced Manchester United's debts so that they owe 660 million pounds. At Anfield, Tom Hick's and George Gillett takeover of Liverpool has added a reported 105 million pounds worth of debt to the club. There is an added 245 million pounds worth of debts in their Kop Holding company, which has recently increased as the owners attempt to secure funds for the construction of a new stadium.

Deloitte, a top business advisory firm, recommends a 55 percent wages to turnover ratio to ensure financial stability. Only three Premiership clubs currently meet that criteria; Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham. With clubs spending vast amounts on player salaries, it is vital to limit wage growth to ensure profitability. All 20 Premier League clubs reported an increase in wages for 2006-07, with only 12 teams bringing in more revenue. This has contributed to the Premier League losing it's place as the top league in terms of operating profits for the first time in the Deloitte report's 17-year history. The most profitable is currently the German Bundasliga, which also boasts the highest average attendances in Europe.

With the Premier League pushing for 'Game 39', and many chief executive's travelling the globe in order to spread their 'brand' many fans are being left on the sidelines. With ticket prices rising and foreign investors taking control, there is a growing gap between many fans and their teams. No matter who owns the shares, it is essential to recognise that the fans are the life and soul of any club. It is often the fans that are left to pick up the pieces, such as those unfortunate and clubless Gretna fans.
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