I guess just about every charity has moments when the coffers threaten to run dry and everything looks as bleak and unforgiving as a railhead at a Siberian Gulag. First Base has certainly had its share of such torrid times. The worst came six years ago and for a while things were touch and go to say the least. That autumn we had a Management Committee meeting that was probably similar in mood to a 1940 Cabinet Meeting when the topic of the day was the fact that what remained of the British Army was stranded on
I remember all too well the sick feeling in my stomach as I laid out the facts. There was enough cash to see us through until Christmas. Then not a brass farthing until April. Three gaping, empty cashless months. It was our Greek economy moment.
Our Chair, Hilary, was forensic in her examination of the plight.
Applications in the pipeline?
Other options were kicked around but none seemed to offer much chance of success. Finally I summoned up the nerve to throw a final and ridiculously hopeful card onto the table. At home in
we call it ‘muck or nettles’.
I said that I had been looking into a larger than life guy who was starting to attract attention as the new owner of Gretna FC: Brooks Mileson.
The word was that he was a wildly eccentric millionaire who hailed from a
Sunderland council estate and
held the view that football clubs should play their part in tackling issues
that affected the communities from where they drew their support. He was
starting to gain a reputation for spontaneously supporting a variety of
So why not First Base? No doubt the estate where he grew up would be home to the same kind of heroin plague that was sweeping Dumfries and
Galloway at the time. Surely he would have witnessed at
first hand the kind of havoc Smack could cause to families and communities. If
my gut feeling was right, then maybe he might be interested in a small charity
with a decent track record of telling it straight to 2500 school kids every year.
Our Treasurer’s dad was once upon a time the Chairman of our local team, ‘Queen of the South’. Did Norman know Brooks? Sure. They sometimes stood together behind the goal for home games. This was one of the elements of the Brooks legend: he hated Director’s Boxes and refused to sit in them. Instead he preferred to stand with the regular fans.
Was there any chance that
would be able to fix me an
Only one way to find out. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Hilary raised an eye brow at the idea and it said all there was to say. We were in ‘Stoppage Time’.
A couple of days later
was on the phone saying that a meet was fixed. He collected me the next day and
we took the 20 mile drive down the A75 to the small village famous for
accommodating eloping couples wanting to tie their knots in a hurry. Norman
The home of Gretna FC is
and in every respect it is a far cry from the cathedrals of the Premier League.
The office was a Portacabin round the back of the main stand which boasted a
capacity of about five hundred. Raydale Park
The office had the kind of set up you would expect to find in a well run scrap yard with the exception of a rather impressive boardroom table.
There was no receptionist and ‘please take a seat whilst I let him know you are here’ routine. No pot plants and coffee tables with magazines and corporate brochures. Instead there was Brook leaping to his feet and striding over to shake hands. It is fair to say that Brooks never much looked like your archetypal football club chairman. Long greying hair in a ponytail, rigger boots, non designer jeans and a tatty anorak. I was immediately struck by his constant energy. He was a man who would never sit still for very long. His mind jumped from one thing to another like a rabbit on a hot plate. Now sitting. Now standing. Now pacing with arms waving about with endless enthusiasm.
Now anyone who knows me will confirm that I can smoke with the best of them. Fifty a day is average. I hate to think how many it is when I am writing. But Brooks made me look second division. It would have taken a Chinaman to keep up with his chain smoking.
Ridiculously and typically, he had only taken up the tabs in his fifties when the doctors had told him that his health wasn’t going to see him through for much longer. But defying the odds was something he was an old hand at. A childhood accident had left him bedridden for over a year. The doctors had told him that it was unlikely that he would ever walk again. His view on their diagnosis was that it was all a load of bollocks. He gritted his teeth and set about proving them all wrong and did he ever. Not only did he walk, he ran. And he became a cross country champion.
He took the same ‘can do’ attitude into his business career and made a pile of cash in insurance. I can picture his trademark grin now as he explained his vision for what remained of his life through a billowing cloud of smoke.
“I’ve been lucky Mark. Made a tonne of cash. And now the doctors tell me there isn’t long left so I’m having the time of my life pissing it all up wall on Gretna FC.”
At the time the team was sitting top of Division Three and set for promotion. There was a deal of grumbling at the fact that
were a fully
professional team in a league of part timers. But what struck me was the fact
that the budget for community programmes was more than the budget for player’s
salaries. Just imagine the impact on the tough streets of Anfield, Gretna Salford and the like if the Premier League giants ever
took a similar approach.
I explained the parlous state of the First Base finances and pitched the idea of a book telling the tale of a prodigiously talented young player crashing and burning his life through drugs only to find salvation through football. Brooks signed on for the whole thing. He was delighted to hear that one of the prime reasons for our precarious state was the fact that the local establishment was hell bent on shutting us down for exposing the inconvenient truth about the local Methadone programme. He had an instinctive affinity with the little guy: the maverick: the voice in the wilderness. He was a football loving Trotsky with an anorak and the next fag lit off the butt of the one just smoked down to the butt.
‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to let the bastards knock you down Mark. No chance. And let’s do the book thing as well. I like that. That sounds great.”
After three hours I walked out of the Portacabin with a cheque for £20,000 and commission to write a book.
The next couple of years were one hell of a ride. I cracked on with writing ‘Stoppage Time’ which seemed a rather appropriate title. And no matter how far fetched my fiction might have seemed, it never came close to matching the ‘Boys Own’ reality of the antics of the team in real life. The Johnny Come Lately second division club from a village with a population of 3000 only went and made it to the Scottish Cup Final at
! Hampden Park
Crazy. Outrageous. Bloody marvellous.
And Brooks loved every madcap second of it. Once the book was finished he read it and liked it. The original plan had been to print 4000 copies to hand out to school kids across the region. But that plan didn’t come close to matching Brook’s enthusiasm. Bugger that. Let’s do 10,000 copies so we can give out copies to parents as well. In fact bugger that as well. Let’s do 20,000 copies so we can hand out free books to fans when they come to the match…
And so it was that ‘Stoppage Time’ was born and First Base lived to fight another day. Would we have survived without Brooks? I doubt it. The writing was on the wall in six foot high letters. That was 2006. In the six years that have followed we have given food parcels to well over 10,000 people with no money to eat. We have done our best to help many families and individuals with the gnawing problems eating away at their lives. And many, many young people have read ‘Stoppage Time’. How many were able to draw on the fictional trip journey Danny McCann takes from high spirited cannabis to the lower depths of heroin and thereby step back from taking the same dismal journey themselves? Who knows? Every now and then I am stopped by young men and women in their mid twenties in the aisles of the supermarket. They tell me that when they were 16 they were on the brink of making the same mistakes as my fictional Danny. They tell me that ‘Stoppage Time’ was their wake up call. They tell me that things are going well now – a job, a home, an infant child, a life….
So there you go Brooks, your legacy lives on.
I have met very few men and women in my half century on the planet who I can say that I have felt truly honoured to have known. Brooks Mileson is one of the few. He gave until there was nothing left to give. He had a heart as big as a lion and he made a difference in many, many lives.
‘Stoppage Time’ is available as a free download from the Kindle Store for three days from Friday, February 15th. You can find it via the link below. I hope you get a copy and enjoy it.
So I guess I’ll wrap up, light up a cigarette and give a nod to the man who made it all happen.
To you Brooks.
One of the good guys.
GET YOUR FREE DOWNLOAD OF 'STOPPAGE TIME'
15 - 17 FEBRUARY