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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

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Ex-Gretna boss Mike admits: I’ll be cheering on the Jambos

Carlisle City Line up: Andrew Wills, Craig Wilson, Guiseppe Amato, Carl Armstrong, Gary Milne, Nigel Nichol, Matty Lea, Paul Pattinson, Graham Lupton, Joseph Blaylock, Scott Priest, Wayne Cannon, Barry Pilkington, Kyle Armstrong, Johnny Hall, Paul Todd.

WHEN Mike McCartney takes his seat at Hampden Park tomorrow, he could be forgiven for casting a wistful glance at Rowan Alexander in the Gretna dug-out and thinking: “That could have been me.”

McCartney will be sitting among Gretna’s 12,000 fans for the Scottish Cup Final, but the club’s long-serving former manager will secretly be willing Hearts to win.

It’s nothing to do with jealousy or spite as all traces of bitterness at the way he was ruthlessly jettisoned by the club in 1999 after 11 years in charge have faded – it’s simply because Edinburgh-born McCartney is a died-in-the-wool Jambo.

After playing a pivotal role in helping Gretna win Scottish League status, it’s a strange irony that the biggest day in their history sees them take on his boyhood idols. But there won’t be any divided loyalties.

Tomorrow will be the first time the former Carlisle United full-back has seen Gretna since he was sacked with the club anchored in the bottom three of the UniBond League – three years before the Borderers joined the Scottish League and embarked on one of football’s most incredible rags-to-riches tales thanks to their super-rich sugar daddy Brooks Mileson.

“I’ve never been back to Gretna since the day I left,” said McCartney, a former Scottish schoolboy international from Newcraighall, a former mining village on the east side of Edinburgh.

“It just doesn’t interest me. In many ways, I’ve turned the clock back to when I was a kid. I go to watch Hearts again, occasionally Manchester United and also up to Scotland games.

“I grew up watching Hearts and even had the chance to join them as a kid.

“There’s no question about who I want to win...Hearts! Remember it’s not very often Hearts get the chance to win the Scottish Cup, so I’ll be making the most of it.”

McCartney is no longer involved in football at any level after his painful parting with Gretna – a team he moulded into a formidable force in non-league football.

The man who made 278 appearances in two spells with Carlisle United after first signing under Alan Ashman in 1973 and who played alongside Kevin Keegan and Mick Channon at Southampton initially joined Gretna as a player in 1987 under Peter Feenan.

He dropped into non-league football after two failed operations on an ankle injury he suffered in Carlisle’s 2-2 draw at Sunderland in the old First Division in February 1986 forced him to retire from the professional game at the age of 33 after clocking up more than 400 appearances.

By the following season he was player-manager of the Northern League club and led them to back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992 with a potent mix of Carlisle-based and North East players – former pros, youngsters released from league clubs and players

They also became the first Scottish team in living memory to play in the first round of the FA Cup when they faced Rochdale in 1991. For the first time, the town most famous for its quickie marriages was gripped by cup fever almost as frenzied as the build-up to tomorrow’s Scottish Cup Final.

After holding Rochdale to a 0-0 draw at Raydale Park in front of the Match of the Day cameras, they lost 3-1 in the replay at Spotland.

“The whole experience of reaching the first round was just incredible for everyone involved with Gretna,” recalled McCartney.

“It really raised the profile of the club. We were a highly respected non-league team.

I think there had been a feeling among clubs in the North East that we were just a village team from a sleepy backwater but that soon changed when we were winning everything. People really sat up and took notice.”

Two years later, the club had the chance to relive their FA Cup dreams when they again reached the first-round proper – this time giving Bolton Wanderers, then in the old First Division, an almighty shock by leading 2-1 with ten minutes to go.

The team, which finally lost 3-2, included former Carlisle United players like John Halpin, Paul Gorman, Craig Potts, Jason Priestley and Derek Walsh, while McCartney himself was also still playing a key role on the pitch.

By this time Gretna’s plans to join the Scottish League were gathering pace. McCartney and the Raydale Park committee were convinced they had to potential to compete in Scottish football.

During the close season, McCartney toiled as a labourer, painter and decorator and roofer so Raydale Park could meet the ground criteria for their first attempt at winning Scottish League status in 1993.

They missed out when Inverness Caley Thistle and Ross County were voted in, and by the time Gretna were given the nod by Scottish League chiefs at the third attempt, McCartney had been sacked.

His axing did not come as a shock – but McCartney believes he would have survived had the club listened to his pleas not to join the UniBond League.

The step up had a crippling effect on the club’s finances and led to them floundering on the pitch. Mammoth journeys to far-flung destinations in Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Cheshire had a draining effect and the Sunday market which had traditionally financed Gretna was no longer thriving.

Finding players who were able or willing to travel for midweek games was also an uphill battle.

In February 1999 the club couldn’t even pay the players’ wages. The club’s saviour was Ron MacGregor, today’s chairman, who put his hand in his own pocket to pay the players until the end of the season.

But there were wage cuts for the following season and McCartney had to sack his No2 George Norrie in a cost-cutting measure.

But by January 2000 it was the manager who paid the price for the club’s struggle.

“The budget I had been given for the season was next to nowt,” recalled McCartney.

“I ended up having to play young lads who weren’t ready for that standard of football, but I only had a squad of 14 players.

“I was up against it winning games and finishing in mid-table was a massive effort. The club was going backwards because of what it was costing.

“We were in the relegation zone by Christmas. I saw the sack coming – managers always do when they’re not getting results. I also knew Paddy Lowery was being tapped up behind my back to replace me.

“In some ways it was a kick in the guts, in other ways it was a relief because of all the hassle. I was a little bit bitter at first. It was disappointing because of what I had done for them over the years.

“I thought we were better off staying in the Northern League, doing well in the FA Cup and making money to improve the ground with a view to going into the Scottish League, but he wouldn’t listen.”

Brooks Mileson and his millions came along three years too late for McCartney. Rowan Alexander is in one of the most envied hot-seats in Scottish football while McCartney will be in the stand for tomorrow’s Cup Final.

Gretna defender Derek Townsley – a player McCartney sold to Queen of the South for £10,000 during his time at Raydale Park - has provided his old boss with a complimentary ticket.

Another of his former players, striker Andy Walker, gave him a job with his joinery firm when Gretna handed him his P45.

“If Brooks had come along, I would have had the chance Rowan was given and been able to do what they’ve done,” said McCartney.

“But to be fair to Rowan he knew the Scottish scene better than me having played there during his career.

“They have been expected to achieve what they have after going full-time and playing against part-time clubs.”

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