Third Lanark were founding members of the Scottish League but they were dismantled by a land-grabbing chairman – though the club may soon rise again
20 July ~ The remains of Third Lanark’s home ground sit undisturbed in the south side of Glasgow, a physical reminder of what can happen when owners are allowed to act as they please. Most grounds of clubs who have changed address since the Thirds went bankrupt in 1967 will have been built over. Cathkin Park, however, still has a pitch marked out but no senior club to play on it.
The stand was dismantled soon after the club went under, obviously a less sentimental age, as there are no murals, preserved turnstiles or streets named after Third Lanark to suggest that one of the founding members of the Scottish League played here for more than half a century.
In fact the only clue that the Thirds played here are the crush barriers, painted scarlet by a devoted fan. The pitch is surrounded by shallow stepped terraces and a forest of trees on three sides, creating an eerie atmosphere in a place where 50,000 would attend fortnightly but is now only frequented by teenage drinkers and dog-walkers.
The club were one of Scotland’s earliest League champions and were still playing at the top level and attracting large crowds until a few years prior to their rapid demise. Six years before the club went bankrupt they finished third in the old Scottish First Division, behind Rangers and Kilmarnock, and even had a new stand built in 1964. From that year onwards, however, the club were allowed to deteriorate under the deliberate neglect of chairman Bill Hiddleston, a local glass merchant.
Their best players were sold cheaply or given free transfers and those who remained could not rely on being paid on time. Apparently club manager Bobby Shearer would have to collect the coins which had slipped through the turnstiles to make up the players’ weekly pay packets and there was no guarantee of hot water at the end of the match.
Former player Mike Jackson recalls nurses being instructed not to cut the jersey from a player with a broken arm as there were no spare shirts. Away teams brought their own soap and light bulbs for the changing room, such was the poverty of facilities in Cathkin Park.
Hiddleston’s policy was to make playing for the team so unattractive that no one would chose to turn out in the club’s scarlet jerseys, which would lead to a collapse in attendances causing the club to disintegrate. This would allow the land on which the ground was built to be sold for housing in an attractive part of Glasgow. All went to plan until the last element, Third Lanark bankrupted by the debt for the new stand.
After a series of complaints, the club were investigated and a Board of Trade inquiry found large-scale corruption, including defrauding the club lottery, which rarely paid out the £200 weekly prize. Four directors were fined for their part but Hiddleston escaped prosecution as he died of a heart attack the same year. The ground was sold to local builders but planning permission was denied and so it was turned into a public park by the council, as it remains today.
The Thirds could probably have limped on in the modern era due to our more democratic age. Fans would surely not have accepted Hiddleston’s fait accompli and would organise fundraising events to pay the £40,000 debt which even then was a small amount. Marches and social media campaigns might not oust unpopular boards but at least keep the club breathing while sympathetic ownership is sought.
Three other senior Scottish clubs have disappeared since the 1960s: Gretna, Clydebank and Meadowbank Thistle. All were younger than Third Lanark and lacked the Glasgow club’s social capital developed by being in existence for a mostly successful 95 years. It is the same social capital that has allowed Rangers, Hearts and Dunfermline to continue despite financial catastrophes.
Even after 50 years of non-existence, there is enough interest to have a youth and amateur team set-up called Third Lanark, wearing the original colours. The club have an overseas benefactor and the long-term plan is for them to move forwards through Scottish football’s junior pyramid and then to regain League status.
While it would obviously be impossible to reconnect with the majority of the original fanbase, former youth players might be encouraged to attend Third’s matches at a time when the Old Firm rivalry endures one of its more bitter phases. Gordon Cairns