The Football Club That Refused to Die: The Tragedy and Beauty of Third Lanark

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 31st 2018

Glasgow’s history has long been the stuff of legend – the stories of Red Clydeside, rent strikes, the power of shipbuilding, the scale of slum clearance – and of course, football.

In Scotland we seem to get too much football and too much bad football coverage. We get a narrow bandwidth of football which results in numerous stories, triumphs, tragedies, and moments becoming forgotten, as we surfeit on a diet of the stale Old Firm (cue a chorus from some that the Old Firm no longer exists).

One of the most poignant tales of our game is that of Third Lanark – a club once at the apex of Scottish football – that tragically went out of business in the summer of 1967. The bare bones of this story are widely known, but the detail of the story isn’t. And it is therefore welcome that purpleTV have made a one-hour long film, simply titled ‘Third Lanark’, aired last weekend on BBC Alba.

Third Lanark – whose nickname was ‘the Hi Hi’ – took their name from the Third Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers. Founded in 1872, they were inaugural members of both the SFA and the Scottish Football League, won the league in 1903-4, as well as two Scottish Cups in 1889 and 1905, and finished third in 1961. They scored exactly one hundred league goals – although over 34 games they also let in 80! Yet despite this record, they closed five years short of their 100th anniversary.

The film tells the story of the good years of Thirds. The winning of the league, the numerous cup runs and finals, and the prestigious international tours. These produced many memorable adventures – such as the time returning from Argentina in the 1920s when they picked up a shipwrecked Raith Rovers in the Canaries; or when an illicit footballing tour of Spain by some Thirds players in the 1960s was discovered by the SFA who fined all participating players £50 each.

Then there were the characters that passed through Thirds some becoming famous in other clubs. There was Ally MacLeod, future Scotland manager, who played for Thirds from 1949-55; and Ronnie Simpson, Thirds goalkeeper for 1950-51, who made his name as Celtic’s goalkeeper when they won the European Cup – the same year the Thirds disappeared.

There are so many interesting stories about Thirds such as that of Bob Shankly, brother of Bill, and George Young, ex-Rangers and Scotland captain, who both served as latter day managers. Not all can get a look in one film. For example, Gil Scott – the ‘Black Arrow’, who played for Celtic – played for Thirds the following year, 1951-52 (and whose son was the legendary musician Gil Scott-Heron).

Thirds legends can be found all over the country still. Two years ago watching a Port Glasgow FC junior game I started chatting to an elderly man who introduced himself as Billy MacFarlane and that he was the ripe age of 84. He told me how he had played in goal for Thirds in 1951-52, for the weekly rate, he claimed, of £10 per week. His parents had given him the sound advice not to sign for Celtic or Rangers – as ‘they paid baubles’.

How did a club which rose so high fall so precipitously? The answer is that in 1962 Bill Hiddleston (also spelt Hiddelston) took control of Thirds. He subsequently starved the club of funds with the hope of selling off the ground and land for development. In this, he was way ahead of his time – such moves becoming part and parcel of the modern game. But Hiddelston was ill-advised, as Glasgow Council (then ‘the Corporation’) had the ground designated as recreational use and refused to reclassify it for housing.

There are many moving testimonies in the film from surviving Thirds players: John Kinnaird, Mike Jackson, David and Ian Hilley, Alan Mackay and Tony Connell. Alan Mackay talked of his ‘tremendous pride for having been a Third Lanark player’; Evan Williams on how the players enjoyed ‘the social life’ of Glasgow in simpler terms such as ‘bacon and eggs in the Horseshoe [Bar] and thinking we were very sophisticated.’

The last few years of the club saw Hiddleston spend no money on the club, file no accounts, not pay prizes from the club pools, not put floodlights on for evening training, and not even buy new footballs. Kinnaird reflected on the club not buying new balls to save money – with old balls being whitewashed, commenting ‘I headed it and when it came to half-time – there was a big white mark on my head.’ Williams remembered the tawdry nature of the last years of the club: ‘We were paid a few Saturdays with the gate money – half crowns, thrupenny bits, shillings – all being counted into a wee packet as we stood’.

When the moment come when Third Lanark went out of existence players and supporters were both still shocked. Mackay remembers it well with ‘a whole raft of emotions – devastation, disbelief, angry – because someone was saying Third Lanark no longer existed.’ It was ‘brutal. It hurts to this day’ and it hurt more because the players learned individually, rather than being told as a group, Mackay recalling, ‘the tragedy was we weren’t together.’

Andy Mitchell, football historian, says that when Thirds went out of business ‘everybody was positive about Scottish football except for Third Lanark – they fell below the radar’. Thirds last league game was on 28 April 1967, when they lost 5-1 away to Dumbarton; two weeks previously, Scotland famously beat the World Cup champions England at Wembley, and just days before Celtic secured their place in the European Cup Final, going on to win it – the first ever British team to do so.

The good times were taken for granted. Archie Macpherson writing in ‘Flower of Scotland’, a history of the game, agrees with Mitchell: ‘Hardly anybody cared in 1967’ about Thirds. ‘The feeling, in a way’, he writes, ‘was that they had it coming. That attitude helped bring about the most scandalous death in British football’. All this was over debts of £40,000, which wasn’t even much in 1967 in football. Compare that now with the millions which brought Rangers down, or the obscene amounts of football transfers, such as Neymar’s move to Paris St.-Germain for £200 million.

Some things never change in that the football authorities were too slow to move. The SFA did nothing as Hiddleston ran the club down, and while the Board of Trade was notified in 1965 of wrongdoing, and began an investigation in 1966, it didn’t report until after the club’s demise. Four directors were subsequently found to have contravened the Companies Act, but Hiddleston evaded justice, dying in November 1967. And the fate of Thirds had wider ramifications for football in the city of Glasgow, Bob Crampsey observing that it began ‘the process of weakening all but the two big clubs in Glasgow.’

Throughout this film the backdrop of Cathkin Park (or New Cathkin Park to give its proper name) looms large, sitting just north of Hampden Park and south of Myrtle Park on Glasgow’s Southside. It is a ground Crampsey once called ‘an oasis in an industrial desert’. We see archive film of a packed ground when some of the big teams come to play. This is a stadium which held at its peak 45,000 in the 1950s and reputedly as late as 1962 when Rangers came to visit.

Of course the striking images are of what remains of Cathkin Park today because for those who don’t know, over fifty years after its demise, most of the stadium still stands unchanged from those last desperate chants of ‘the Hi Hi’. All of the main concrete terraces remain, their barriers intact, with trees and shrubbery growing out of them. The pitch is still there, kept tidy by the council, and when the goalposts are put up, with their flaying paint, you can imagine that these are the very same ones that Thirds played with, and who knows maybe they were.

What is missing from Cathkin Park apart from the thousands who flocked there, is the wooden grandstand, which was dismantled in the 1970s, where a large gap remains in the terracing. It is however a magical place, filled with history and an atmosphere which seems to capture the memories of players, supporters and people who visited the club. It isn’t surprising, considering the richness of Scottish football history and interest people have for the game, that a small but regular procession of people visit Cathkin Park on a kind of understated pilgrimage.

The story of Third Lanark has yearning to be properly told for years and it is a credit to purpleTV that they have done so while some of the survivors of the club are still about. At the premiere at the Glasgow Film Theatre a couple of weeks ago, the players appearing in the film took part in a Q&A after the screening. It was a touching moment, as their pride and joy at being associated with Thirds and someone finally making a film, was self-evident. But what was even more clear was the love and camaraderie these former Thirds had for each other.

The official Thirds went down in 1967, but this is a club that refused to die in so many ways. The name, Third Lanark, was resurrected in 1996, and now an amateur team play carrying on the name and dream of further glory. But there is something more profound about the tenacity of Thirds and its refusal to just roll over and die. Third Lanark are a story from a different era of the game, and a warning of what can go wrong when unscrupulous businessmen use football clubs as mere pawns. That fate is what happened to Third Lanark in 1967, but it is a tale even more prescient in the money saturated football world of today. Thirds were both a tragedy and a warning, but also a love story to the game.

‘Third Lanark’ is available on the BBC iplayer.