Gretna grit forged in FA Cup battle with Bolton
It was the road to Wembley rather than Hampden which consumed the thoughts of Gretna in 1993. Then playing in the second tier of the Northern Premier League, they had emerged from no fewer than five qualifying ties to reach the first-round proper of the FA Cup.
They had been there once before, two seasons earlier when they lost out to fourth division Rochdale in a replay, but this time the draw handed them a far more attractive assignment. They were paired with Bolton Wanderers, then in the first division but who had been the FA Cup's headline-grabbers the previous year with a run to the fifth round which included a famous 2-0 victory at Liverpool - with goals from Scottish strikers John McGinlay and Andy Walker - which signalled the end for Graeme Souness as the manager at Anfield.
Gretna came out of the hat first but, in those more austere pre-Mileson times, opted to switch the tie to Bolton's Burnden Park in order to secure themselves a 20,000 pay day.
"The only money the club made back then was from the Gretna Sunday Market in the car park," recalls John Halpin, a member of the team who travelled to Bolton anticipating little more than a welcome break from their usual dreary trips to Northern League rivals such as Congleton Town, Curzon Ash and Bamber Bridge.
Halpin, the former Celtic winger, had joined Gretna at the start of the season. Although still just 31 at the time, he had actually retired from football earlier that year after finally giving in to a catalogue of serious injuries which included two broken legs.
"I'd just started work as the community officer at Carlisle United when Mick McCartney, the Gretna player-manager at the time and an old mate, asked me if I would be free to play for them at weekends," says Halpin. "Although I was no longer fit enough to play league football, I felt I could still manage at the level Gretna were playing in, so I agreed.
"It was like a Scottish junior club, really. It was really well run, the people on the committee were terrific and the club had a great reputation as being one of the friendliest and most hospitable in the Northern League.
"When we got through to the Bolton tie, it was all about looking to make a few bob for the club. I know it's an old clich, but we really did just go down there to enjoy the day out. I think we all expected to get a bit of a doing, because Bolton were a right good side."
Instead, Gretna found themselves 2-1 in front after 25 minutes at Burnden Park, a lead they held until 11 minutes from time when Owen Coyle equalised for the shaken Bolton side. When Coyle then headed home McGinlay's cross in the 84th minute, Gretna had lost 3-2 and were robbed of even the replay which was the least they deserved for their heroic efforts.
"We were one very relieved team in the dressing room after the game," says Coyle, now player-manager of St Johnstone. "I don't know if we were complacent that day, but Gretna played brilliantly and we were in trouble and certainly pushed the panic button. As it turned out, we went on to have another brilliant run in the FA Cup that season which just shows you the fine line there is between success and failure in cup football."
A Bolton side which also featured Alan Stubbs, Jason McAteer and Alan Thompson reached the quarter-finals, defeating the Premiership trio of Everton, Arsenal and Aston Villa on the way before losing to Oldham in the last eight, but found no tie tougher in a memorable campaign than their scare against Gretna.
"I remember the Bolton punters were absolutely slaughtering their team," says Halpin. "We were on fire because of the occasion it was for us, while I think the Bolton lads maybe thought we would be an easy touch. For about an hour, we just couldn't do anything wrong and they could hardly do a thing right."
Derek Townsley, in his first spell at Gretna, had put them in front after 11 minutes when he capitalised on a mistake by Stubbs. While the lead was cancelled out just three minutes later when McGinlay converted a penalty won by Coyle, Gretna were by far the better side and deserved to go back in front through Mark Dobie.
Bruce Rioch, the Bolton manager, was a desperately unhappy man as he stomped up and down the touchline, facing the prospect of elimination from the FA Cup by a little-known team from the country he once captained.
In his programme notes, the former Scotland captain had warned his players that they should expect the unexpected, but added: "The fact is that, if we play to our maximum we expect to beat Gretna."
It didn't quite work out that way.
"Bruce certainly didn't mince his words at half-time," says Coyle. "We were looking at being on the wrong end of one of the biggest shocks in FA Cup history. We had been used to being the giant-killers ourselves and it was a horrible feeling to suddenly be experiencing the other side of it."
Ultimately, full-time fitness told in Bolton's favour. Halpin, who had rolled back the years with a vintage display on the left wing which terrorised his close friend, Bolton right-back Phil Brown, was among those who flagged in the closing stages.
"The old legs just petered out," he said, "and it was the same for most of the lads. We only trained two nights a week and we just ran out of gas on a heavy pitch. Fair play to Bolton, they got the job done, but we gave them a hell of a fright."
The proceeds of the tie went to improvements on Raydale Park and Gretna's first application to join the Scottish League later that season. They lost out to Ross County and Inverness Caledonian Thistle, and missed out again in 1999 before finally relocating to their own country's league in 2002.
"It's incredible what has happened to Gretna," says Halpin, still working at Carlisle United. "I know Brooks Mileson fairly well, he is a big Carlisle fan, and what he has done with Gretna is brilliant. You just can't compare the club now to what it was when I played there."
One link, though, is Townsley, one of the scorers at Bolton and now enjoying his second stint with Gretna. Halpin remains close friends with Townsley but will not be at Hampden to cheer him on today.
"He has banned me from watching Gretna," revealed Halpin. "I was going to go to their game against Clyde earlier in the tournament, but he told me to stay away as I would be a Jonah. I'll watch it on the telly instead. We have had a great season ourselves at Carlisle, winning League 2, but there has been a lot of interest from this area in what Gretna are doing. We are all hoping it's a great day for Brooks and his team."