The fall of Third Lanark

David Robertson

Photo: Dasha Miller

Through boardroom corruption, financial mismanagement and the non-payment of debts, a successful Glasgow football club is forced to close its gates for the last time. Top players have long been sold, with the blame directed at a pantomime villain director more interested in personal profit than the collective gain of the club. With a hole in the footballing community of the Southside of Glasgow, distraught fans are forced to change their allegiances to Queen’s Park and Clyde. The stadium lies empty and deserted. It soon falls victim to vandalism and the main stand is demolished, an all too easy metaphor for the systematic neglect of a football club that has won every major domestic trophy in Scottish football.

The above isn’t about the plight faced by Rangers in the last few months, but the fate endured by Third Lanark. A team that played their home games at Cathkin Park in Crosshill, they were one of the most successful clubs in the early days of Scottish football, winning the league championship in 1904 and the Scottish Cup in 1889 and 1905. The glory days didn’t last forever,  as relegation, poor crowds and internal conflict contributed to middling, frustrating seasons that culminated with their liquidation in 1967 at the hands of corrupt club chairman Bill Hiddleston. While a series of arguments still rage over Hiddleston’s true intentions in running the club into the ground – Cathkin Park was later sold to Glasgow City Council and he may have been interested in relocating the club to one of Scotland’s ‘new towns’ – Third Lanark nevertheless became the first football club after the Second World War to be liquidated.

During the crisis that gripped Rangers, Scottish football and the entire country, Third Lanark’s extinction served as an appropriate precedent to a Glasgow football club fighting for survival. As well as Third Lanark and Rangers experiencing some form of liquidation stemming from Machiavellian owners, both clubs were founded in 1872 and later faced heartbreak in the same year: only two weeks after Rangers endured European despair in losing the final of the European Cup Winner’s Cup to Bayern Munich, Third Lanark were made defunct. During the Rangers saga, it became commonplace for fans of the club to make comments along the lines of: ‘Rangers are too big to disappear.’  ‘They’ll always be around.’ ‘How can a club with such a rich history just vanish like that?.’ The lesson learned from Third Lanark’s demise is that it is remarkably easy to see just how swiftly, cruelly and casually a successful football club can die.

What’s even more amazing is that Third Lanark’s plight isn’t entirely original. In fact, there’s been a long history in Scottish football of clubs fending off, struggling and eventually succumbing to the dreaded ‘l’ word. Two other early winners of the Scottish cup – Renton F.C. and Vale of Leven – had disappeared from the game years previously. Following years of relocation, Meadowbank Thistle were eventually rebranded as Livingston, winning the league cup in 2004 before succumbing to administration and being demoted to division three. Airdrieonians went out of business in 2002 and Gretna, who  enjoyed a meteoric success that culminated in a Scottish cup final defeat to Hearts, before the death of owner Brooks Mileson and the withdrawal of finances, which resulted in their withdrawal from the Scottish Football League.

Recently I met up with Third Lanark fan Bob Laird, who works as a curator at the Scottish Football Museum. As well as publishing two books on the history of Third Lanark, he organises fundraising nights and exhibitions in memory of the club. I asked him what comparisons could be made between Third Lanark’s death and Rangers’ destruction:

‘Third Lanark’s crowds went from 20,000 in the early ‘60s to 200-300 by 1967. There was no support to be saved, no white knight to put the money in. One of the rules of the time was that the league couldn’t intervene to help save struggling clubs. It was a shame, but rules are rules.

‘With Rangers, there are people going out to save them. There was no backbone to save Third Lanark. The club’s debt was £40,000. Even when Partick Thistle were going bankrupt the ‘Save the Jags’ campaign kept the club going. For some reason Third Lanark were never quite as popular as them.’

Despite Third Lanark’s disappearance taking place 45 years ago, Bob has never supported another team and firmly remains a ‘Hi-Hi’.

‘I’ve never supported anyone else. When Thirds went under I was under pressure to support Celtic or Rangers but I couldn’t turn my back on the club. It was my whole life. The whole experience was very difficult.’

Unlike clubs that were revived or resurrected under different guises, Third Lanark never found a phoenix club to take over the name. Liquidation happened so quickly there wasn’t the chance for takeover bids or a resurrected club to maintain the history.  The closest they have is the amateur club playing in the Greater Glasgow Amateur Football League, a team who won promotion last year after defeating the University of Glasgow on penalties. This year they won the league. Sean Connery and Billy Connolly have talked about reviving the club’s fortunes, and the club nearly applied for league membership to fill the space taken after Gretna’s departure, but Bob concedes that this ‘tribute team’ are not the real thing. ‘I always hate the start of the season. Everyone’s talking about their football team and I’ve got nothing to say!’

Rangers fans have got something to say. The club has survived, afforded a level of time, space and opportunity to find a takeover bid that Third Lanark were denied. Eventually it wasn’t just a white knight that stepped in, but a whole consortium of them. Years of malpractice and echoes of the spirit of Hiddleston channelling through Sir David Murray and Craig Whyte has not been enough for another footballing giant to be added to the long, miserable list of dead football clubs. Though questions remain about the legitimacy of the ‘newco’ maintaining the history, tradition and financial status of the old company, there is still a Rangers club at Ibrox.

Cathkin Park, however, remains in its dilapidated state. Legally, no one can build on Cathkin as it remains an open space. So the ground remains. Trees grow out from the terraces, walls crumble and crush barriers rust. It stands hidden and silent, a collapsing relic of a proud football team and an eerie reminder that malign football mismanagement has a far greater presence in the history of Scottish football than we’d all like to think.