How Scottish football lost Third Lanark, a cherished club destroyed by one man’s greed

How Scottish football lost Third Lanark, a cherished club destroyed by one man’s greed

Tall trees rustle in the Glasgow breeze as the early spring sun’s rays permeate their branches and glisten against the grass. In between the trees sit blocks of terracing made up of short steps, where onlookers lean against red and green barriers dotted across them. Raised voices can be heard from the pitch below as a goalkeeper knocks the mud off his boots against a goalpost. The players look no more than teenagers and make you wonder how aware they are of their surroundings.

A small black plaque sits atop a post at the park’s entrance; Cathkin Park, home of Third Lanark Athletic Club. Known as the Hi-Hi, they went from finishing third in 1961 to extinction six years later, though Cathkin Park remains a symbol of a club betrayed by its owner and of fans who refuse to let its memory die.

Shortly after the first ever international match between Scotland and England on a Glasgow mud bath late in 1872, several interested spectators decided to set up their own football team. The men in question were part of the Third Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteer Regiment with some already having turned out for nearby Queen’s Park. The dawn of 1873 saw the birth of the Scottish Football Association, with the recently formed Third Lanark becoming one of its founder members.

The volunteer corps were set up in response to Napoleon Bonaparte’s frequent desire to invade Britain when much of the armed forces were away on exercise. A worried public bombarded newspapers with letters of concern demanding that a home guard be formed to protect Britain from any French advances, and so reserve volunteer forces came into being.

Napoleon’s army never did invade but the groups stuck around and soon developed interests in team sports that were appearing across the land. Rugby was popular, yet it was football that drew interest from the rifle regiment who became Third Lanark. At the time, it was not quite as rough and tumble as the oval ball game but still brutal in its own right.

Football’s popularity grew exponentially. In Glasgow, there was a significant hotbed of talent with four of the country’s top teams based there in Queen’s Park, Rangers, Third Lanark and eventually Celtic. The Mount Florida area was brimming with talent. Two of its favourite sons were Ally MacLeod, who had spells with Third Lanark and Blackburn before his ill-fated time as Scotland manager. Bobby Mitchell also started his career with Thirds before signing for Newcastle in 1949, winning three FA Cups during his 12 years in the north-east. George Young, Willie Steele and Bobby Evans all gained Scotland caps whilst at Cathkin Park before they took their place in the dugout after their careers ended.

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The Hi-Hi reached their first Scottish Cup final in 1876, where they took Queens Park to a replay, eventually losing 2-1. They had to wait another 13 years to avenge this defeat and it again took two games. On this occasion it was the weather that intervened. With Thirds 3-0 ahead, snow descended and saw the game abandoned, the score declared null and void. There was no slip-up in the replay, a narrow 2-1 victory gifting Third Lanark their first Scottish Cup win.

They had gained a reputation as a team to be feared, and dropped their red and white stripes for a full scarlet shirt with white shorts. The club’s popularity was also soaring as they vacated their home to move 300 yards south to a new purpose-built stadium in Cathkin Park.

The new venue proved the difference: opponents found it a tough place to visit and within 12 months of the gates opening, the Hi-Hi lifted their maiden league championship. They won 24 of their 30 games, drawing and losing three apiece before capturing their second Scottish Cup the following season with a 3-0 win over Glasgow rivals Rangers.

Like most other teams, the First World War took many players away, six of which wouldn’t make it back to Cathkin Park. Whilst the core of the Hearts side made up McCrae’s Battalion, 20 other teams were represented in it, Thirds included. The disruption of the war came shortly after Third Lanark returned from a tour of Spain and Portugal, where they played several games against local opposition. These tours would become more frequent. In 1921, the club’s inaugural scorer Colonel John Wilson was now chairman and arranged for his side to sail across the Atlantic and play games throughout the USA and Canada under the guise of a Scottish Select XI.

Two years later, it was the turn of Argentina as Third Lanark played eight games in Buenos Aires. The gruelling journey home saw the Scottish side drop anchor in the Canary Islands for some rest only to find the Raith Rovers squad there hitching a lift home after seeing their ship crash and run aground in Las Palmas.

It is unclear whether the time at sea took its toll on them but, by the end of the 1924/25 season, Third Lanark finished bottom and were relegated. This began a period of yo-yo-ing for the club as they were immediately promoted only to drop out of the division again in 1929 before winning the second tier title twice in the first half of the 1930s.

They built on their return to the top flight in 1935 by making another appearance in the Scottish Cup final the next season against Rangers. Almost 90,000 crammed into Hampden Park with fans of the Hi-Hi hoping their team could stop the Gers from securing a third consecutive Scottish Cup. A Bob McPhail goal gave Rangers a narrow 1-0 win, yet spirits were high amongst fans and players alike that a new era was dawning at Cathkin Park. Sadly, this would prove to be the last time they would play in the showpiece final.

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The club’s reputation was enhanced when two players – Jimmy Carabine and Jack Jones – were named in the national team for a trip to the USA in 1939. Any momentum was lost, though, when the Second World War broke out, focus taken away from football until 1945.

On conclusion of the hostilities, Third Lanark looked to a new generation of players to drive the club on, and despite several relegations, they had become a well-established part of Scottish football. Their trips abroad had been positive and not forgotten as the Argentine FA sent them a set of new kit and balls as a thank you for their previous jaunt to South America. Fans also set up a supporters’ association where those involved took on various tasks for the club, including producing the matchday programme and organising fundraising events to help raise money for ground repairs.

As the 1950s dawned, local businessman and wholesale glass merchant Bill Hiddleston would take his place in the stands at Cathkin Park with his father. Before long, Hiddleston used his business acumen to secure himself a place on the club’s board. Not only was he now a director of the club, but he was also team manager, yet his dealings raised more than a few eyebrows. Unbeknownst to the rest of the directors, Hiddleston sanctioned a signing without their approval. Alongside other financial irregularities, he was booted off the board and forced to pay the £500 transfer fee himself. 

On the pitch, Bob Shankly was the manager, yet the brother of future Liverpool legend Bill was seen as nothing more than a coach by the players. He soon left for Dens Park and Dundee, who he led to their only league championship to date, as former Rangers captain George Young replaced him, proving an instant hit with the players.

He arrived with a huge reputation and, unlike Shankly, had the players’ respect. A decent run in the League Cup saw Thirds despatch Falkirk and Arbroath before meeting Hearts in the final. Despite the part-timers going 1-0 up, the heroics of diminutive goalkeeper Jocky Robertson only lasted for so long as the Jambos fought back to secure a 2-1 win.

Young pushed for the club to go professional but knew a sustained period in the top-flight would go a long way to helping the board go for it. The 1960/61 season saw the Hi-Hi put on a show of wild attacking football, the prowess of Dave Hilley, Jimmy Goodfellow and Joe McInnes running defences ragged. Yet their own defence was equally profligate.

Games with upwards of seven goals were not uncommon that season and by the last game of the season, Thirds needed six goals to take their total tally scored to an unprecedented 100. The opponents were Hibernian and, with third place all but secure, the Hi-Hi came storming out of the traps, putting the Hibees to the sword. With five goals on the board and one more required for the century, Hilley was brought down by goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson. He dusted himself off to sink the penalty and put the top hat on a 6-1 win. Thirds finished behind Rangers and Kilmarnock in the league, the 80 goals conceded nullifying the 100 scored.

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The board arranged another end of season tour as the Hi-Hi started out as a professional football club. For some of the players, the trip to the US and Canada was the first time they had left Scotland, let alone been on a plane. The third-place finish and cavalier style had brought fans flocking to Cathkin Park, the club eager to build on the buoyant mood that was surrounding them. One game against Rangers saw thousands locked outside Catkin Park until a wooden gate eventually gave way and scores of fans rushed into the ground and lined up around the pitch.

With things looking up, a familiar face reappeared and sent shockwaves throughout the club. Former director Bill Hiddleston announced that he was the major shareholder of Third Lanark. Manager George Young quit instantly, chairman William McLean stood down and director Robert Martin departed, uttering “Good luck to Thirds and God help them”.

While the club had previously secured improvements to the squad and ground by selling their best players, the new owner had other ideas. Matt Gray and Alex Harvey departed for Manchester City and prolific striker Dave Hilley signed for Newcastle, yet there was clearly a different strategy in place now.

With Young gone, Thirds became rudderless and his successors went through what had become a revolving door in the manager’s office. Initially, the players were none the wiser to the goings on but when the electricity was cut off at Cathkin Park and wage packets were crammed with coins clearly taken from the turnstiles, alarm bells started ringing.

Hiddleston’s cost-cutting had hit unbelievable levels; balls were ordered to be whitewashed to give the impression they were new. Word spread and away teams arrived at Cathkin Park with their own lightbulbs and soap to replace the missing ones from their changing rooms. Youngster John Kinnaird suffered a sickening compound fracture in his arm and, whilst waiting for an ambulance, Hiddleston told him to make sure the doctor didn’t cut the shirt off him at the hospital as they didn’t have any more. Club suits were billed to the player while supporters bought tickets for raffles only to never see prizes given out.

Rumours grew that Hiddleston wanted to take advantage of Glasgow’s regeneration by moving the club to East Kilbride and selling Cathkin Park to property developers. When Glasgow City Council blocked the move, Hiddleston saw his chance at making a quick fortune disappear. His deliberate mismanagement interfered with the playing side too; anyone who defied him found themselves frozen out, captain Alan McKay dropped without any explanation. Some fans stopped going, refusing to give Hiddleston their money as the supporters’ association continued raising funds only to see it fall into the black hole the chairman had created.

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Third Lanark were relegated in 1965. Money wasn’t being banked and accounts were no longer kept up to date. For the players, enough was enough, Mike Jackson and Evan Williams bought themselves out of their contracts while others negotiated transfers alone to ensure they received the signing-on fee instead of Hiddleston.

Likewise, fans had seen enough, contacting the Board of Trade asking for them to investigate the goings on at Cathkin Park. The investigation began and soon it became clear that Hiddleston had acquired the club to satisfy his own needs, using club funds to pay for gravel to cover the driveway outside his house amongst many other things.

A 3-3 draw against Queen of the South proved to be the final game at Cathkin Park as John Kinnaird scored two to secure a draw in front of a declining home crowd. Three days later, a lacklustre 5-1 defeat to Dumbarton at Boghead Park would bring the curtain down on the club. Upon returning to Glasgow, the players were asked to go to the manager’s office, where manager Bobby Shearer handed them envelopes filled with coins and told them it was over. Hiddleston made the manager do his dirty work.

A contractor had taken Thirds to court over an unpaid bill for work done on one of the Cathkin Park stands. With the club’s accounts empty, they found themselves wound up. The gates to Cathkin Park were closed, players were left devastated and the fans had begun to drift away, yet they still retained hardcore support. The fans who urged the Board of Trade to investigate were shocked to find thousands of pounds had simply vanished and, in the summer of 1967, Third Lanark’s 95-year spell in the Scottish football leagues ended when they were officially declared bankrupt.

Four board members were convicted for their roles, yet the Board of Trade stated the club was an “inefficient and unscrupulous one-man business”. Hiddleston himself evaded questioning and before he could be brought to task was found dead in a Blackpool hotel from an apparent heart attack. The villain of the piece took to the grave the answers for his actions. Many felt his sole intention of owning the club was to sell Cathkin Park. When that was taken away, he merely ran it into the ground.

Glasgow City Council still refused to grant planning permission for any prospective developments to Cathkin Park and, 50 years after Thirds played their final game, fans are raising funds to restore the ground to its former glory. The stadium stands as a reminder of a club who for a time challenged and beat the best Scotland had to offer only to find it snatched away by one man’s greed. 

By Matthew Evans @Matt_The_Met

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