GRETNA, the club who have traded so memorably in living the dream since their admission to Scottish senior football five years ago, found themselves engulfed by their worst nightmare as their European debut turned horribly sour last night.
After promising to translate the ease of their rise from the Third to First Divisions and a Scottish Cup final place into UEFA Cup success when Ryan McGuffie gave them an early lead in their second qualifying round tie, they were swept aside by a Derry City team who matched a devilish work ethic with some stunning finishing to record the biggest away win ever by a League of Ireland club in Europe.
At the same time, it saw Rowan Alexander's crestfallen team equal the heaviest margin of defeat suffered at home by a Scottish club in over 50 years of European competition, joining the 4-0 reverses inflicted upon Dundee United by Vitesse Arnhem in 1990 and Rangers by Juventus in 1995.
The second leg of this tie at the intimidating Brandywell Stadium in Londonderry on 24 August is now no more than a formality, with Gretna making the trip simply seeking to avoid further embarrassment and damage to Scotland's withering UEFA co-efficient ranking.
As if anyone needed reminding just how momentous this was for Gretna, the match programme informed us that their only previous encounter with foreign opposition was in 1992 when they defeated those Icelandic luminaries Stjarnan Gardabjaer 2-0 in a friendly at Raydale Park watched by a crowd of 75.
UEFA stadia requirements meant they could not stage this far grander occasion on their own patch but they could at least savour the biggest 'home' attendance in their history at their rented accommodation in north Lanarkshire, eclipsing the 3,000 who crammed into Raydale for their Scottish Cup tie against Dundee United two seasons ago.
The bulk of the Fir Park audience, however, was bedecked in red and white as the noisy 2,000-strong Derry support filled the Davie Cooper Stand with noise and colour long before Croatian referee Marijo Strahonja blew his whistle to set Gretna's European adventure underway.
Derry's players made a turbo-charged start to the contest, immediately looking to exploit space on the flanks and get the ball in behind the Scottish team's three-man central defence. Martin Canning was happy to swipe one cross from the flying Kevin Deery behind for a corner during an opening spell which did not augur well for Alexander's team.
Gretna gradually steadied themselves, however, and were soon asking questions of the opposition in the manner to which they have become accustomed during their prolific surge through the Scottish League. McGuffie was unfortunate the ball did not break to him more kindly after a dreadful miskick by Derry goalkeeper David Forde who had rushed outside his penalty-area, the midfielder unable to make the connection which would have guided it into the unguarded net.
It was McGuffie, though, who provided a terrific finish to the 12th-minute move which gave Gretna their first European goal and a precious lead. Derek Townsley's free-kick from deep inside his own half appeared to catch the Derry defence unawares, with James Grady and Brendan McGill combining swiftly to carve out the opening for McGuffie, who drilled his low shot from around 14 yards beyond Forde's right hand into the corner of the net.
The goal sparked a period of slicker, more confident play by Gretna who might have put themselves in firm command of the tie had McGuffie been able to take advantage of some clever work by Grady down the left. On this occasion, however, he lacked the composure he had shown earlier and the chance was lost.
It proved costly as Derry equalised in 22 minutes. Full-back Sean Hargan, who had scooped their previous best scoring opportunity over the crossbar from 12 yards, redeemed himself when he collected captain Peter Hutton's long free-kick wide on the left before turning and delivering a fine cross which unmarked defender Darren Kelly headed home at the back post.
The concession of the away goal was a shuddering setback for Gretna but they showed impressive resilience in their efforts to reclaim the lead before half-time. Their best opportunity came after another moment of madness by Forde, the goalkeeper gifting possession of the ball on the left edge of his penalty-area to Steve Tosh. The former Aberdeen midfielder wasted the chance, however, electing to try and score from an acute angle rather than looking to pick out either Grady or Kenny Deuchar inside the box. His effort predictably hit the wrong side of the net, to the anguish of the Gretna management team.
John O'Neil, the former Scotland midfielder, replaced McGill for the second half but any hopes he might turn the tide back in Gretna's favour were shattered by two extraordinary strikes from Deery within the space of three minutes.
Chris Innes, the Gretna captain, picked up the game's first caution for a cynical trip on Ciaran Martyn as the midfielder threatened to race clear on goal. There was heftier punishment to come for the Scots, however, as Deery brilliantly struck the resultant free-kick from 25 yards over a poorly-constructed three-man defensive wall and beyond the grasping left hand of Alan Main into the roof of the net.
Before Gretna were able to regroup, they saw their prospects of reaching the first round drift further away when Deery administered a repeat dose. This time, he did so from open play, latching onto the ball some 30 yards out and lashing a ferocious right-foot drive beyond the stunned and static Main.
Alexander withdrew a defender in Townsley and sent on another forward, Allan Jenkins, but it got worse, edging towards complete humiliation for Gretna, when a now rampant Derry made it 4-1 in the 63rd minute when Martyn romped through to slot home from 14 yards.
If it was at all possible to send the frenzied Derry support, who had maintained a wall of sound all night, into even greater raptures, the visitors achieved it with a fifth goal 15 minutes from time. Gary Beckett's through ball picked another gaping hole in the Gretna defence to allow Martyn to steer his second goal beyond the exposed Main.