How Gretna left their mark on Europe

It wasn’t glamorous, it wasn’t glorious. But it is right up there in the list of Scottish clubs’ ignominious European failures.

By Craig Shields

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

Rome? Paris? Madrid? It was never going to be one of Europe’s dream destinations for Gretna’s first foray into Europe, but surely some far-flung town in Azerbaijan would have been preferable to a quick trip across the Irish Sea? In hindsight though, you could argue that they didn’t even make it out of Scotland before their European adventure ended.

In recent years, Scottish clubs have become synonymous with hidings in Europe. Whether it’s Celtic’s infamous trip to Paris last year, Rangers’ humbling in Luxembourg or Aberdeen’s capitulation in Cyprus; you don’t have to look far to see a Scottish team being unceremoniously dumped out of European competition. A decade or so ago, things were a little bit different. 

Since the turn of the century we’ve had two clubs in major European finals, Aberdeen held the mighty Bayern Munich to a draw, Rangers took a point against Valencia and who could forget Celtic beating Barcelona and Manchester United. It’s the drubbings that we tend to focus on though, letting them linger and fester before wondering why our players can’t compete with the best that the world has to offer.

One defeat in particular though, in the fullness of time, seems to have been forgotten.

When you take the entire history of Scottish football into account, it will never rank up there with the country’s most infamous results.  Artmedia, Progres Niederkorn, Malmo and Sigma Olomouc will all retain their place in our catalogue of embarrassing tales of woe. However, Gretna’s humiliation at the hands of the League of Ireland’s Derry City in a UEFA Cup qualifier must be up there. The team from the village on the border with England had just narrowly lost a Scottish Cup final on penalties, were aiming to gain promotion to the Scottish Premier League and were prepared to take on their first European adventure all within a matter of months. They were on a high. Everything was in Gretna’s favour going into the game despite the fact that they had to play at Fir Park due to their own ground, Raydale Park, not being fit for purpose. Defeat never came into the equation, until it happened, that is.

Gretna started proceedings as expected, with Ryan McGuffie getting on the end of a McGill header to strike low into the corner and give the home side (or should that be away side?) a 12th-minute lead.  One that would seem like a distant memory just an hour later.

Stephen Kenny, a man who would later on that season take Dunfermline to an infamous relegation and Scottish Cup finalist double, rallied his Derry side and it wasn’t long before they struck back.

As the Lanarkshire sun stretched across the pitch at Fir Park, engulfing the fans in attendance in a late-evening golden hue, Derry equalised. Sean Hargan collected the ball on the left and sent in a floating cross towards the box that evaded everyone except the head of Kelly, who neatly found the corner, away from the outstretched Alan Main who couldn’t have extended himself any further if he tried.  Half-time soon approached in a match that outwith the two goals, was a fairly even, if uneventful, contest.

However, a calamitous 20 minutes in the second-half would see Gretna exit European football before they had even managed to get out of Scotland.

Ten minutes after the restart, Derry earned a free kick 30 yards from goal to the left of the penalty box. The appropriately named Deery caressed the ball with just enough care and velocity, to see it travel up, down and eventually into the top right of Main’s goal. Had it been a Motherwell player who had scored it, it would’ve been a goal that the Lanarkshire faithful would still be talking about to this day, such was its beauty. Those inside the ground didn’t have long to reminisce on the strike though.

In the blink of an eye, it was 3-1 to the Irish visitors. Kevin Deery again, with a strike that rivalled his first in front of the 3,000 travelling Irish fans just two minutes later. After a well worked Derry move that cut through the static Gretna defence, the ball dropped to Deery around 25 yards out after a cross was deflected away. Deery struck the ball on the half-volley and saw it gravitate towards the top left-hand corner so hard and fast that even an Alan Main hand couldn’t stop it. Gretna were shell-shocked. The Scottish giant-killers were unravelling at the seams. ‘Oh Deery me’ the Gretna fans must have thought to themselves.

Less than ten minutes later, Martyn got in on the act, racing towards Main’s goal and weaving in-between Gretna’s helpless centre-backs before rounding the Gretna keeper and coolly slotting home the fourth. 

Gretna lasted a whole 12 minutes before Martyn, again, made it five. He took aim and ruthlessly finished a shot from outside the box that found its way into the top right-hand corner of Main’s net. Derry and their fans were jubilant while Gretna were downtrodden, deadbeat and defeated. Gretna one, Derry five. The anguish was over.

At the time, the result was the biggest ever away win by a League of Ireland team in Europe, but for Gretna, a team who were looking to gain promotion to the Premier League after coming so close to Scottish Cup glory, it was a taste of things to come just a year or so later.

Gretna’s return trip to Derry was more positive than their first leg, managing to obtain a 2-2 result in the second leg but the aggregate scoreline was still a paltry 7-3 to the League of Ireland team. Gretna missed out on a dream tie as Derry went on to draw French giants Paris Saint-Germain in the first round proper of the UEFA Cup, holding the French side to a 0-0 draw at home in the first leg before eventually losing 2-0 in Paris.

The wee team from the border won the SFL Division 1 that season and earned promotion to the Premier League. However, Gretna went on to be relegated from the SPL in their debut season, narrowly avoiding the lowest ever points total after accumulating just 13 points all season and failing to pay any of their staff for the final few months after running into serious financial trouble.

Like the club itself, Gretna’s capitulation to Derry City was quickly forgotten. Gretna FC ceased to be in 2008, just months after being relegated from the top flight and just over a year on from that fateful summer’s evening in Motherwell where they played against superior European opposition.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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