A CHILLING TALE: THIRD LANARK
A chilling tale of a club destroyed by mismanagement, financial chicanery, property development, a lack of proper accounts, a nefarious major shareholder, and an equally nefarious Labour councillor.
The thirds way
By Archie MacPherson
On April 28, 1967, Third Lanark played their last match. This is the story of a proud club destroyed by mismanagement and financial chicanery. A story that, even today, has resonance and holds lessons for the modern game.
THIRD LANARK Football Club were laid to rest on the banks of the Clyde on April 28, 1967. The obsequies arising from the death were confined to the mundane and understandable grumblings of 11 men, who, having been thrashed 5-1 on the pitch at Dumbarton, were to crush themselves into a mini-bus and head back, ostensibly to the south side of Glasgow, little realising that the club were being re-routed to oblivion.
For the last Third Lanark team to wear the scarlet jerseys, while accustomed to a sequence of events stretching back well over a decade which saw the club survive as miraculously as a drunk man at the controls of a 747, had no inkling that this would be the final fall. Thus, in early June, the affairs of the club were officially wound up. Since the end of the Second World War though, the Scottish public had intermittently been intrigued by the fate of a venerable institution whose affairs sometimes resembled sketches from Monty Python or skulduggery of a kind you might associate with the Borgias. Few paid attention to their demise amid the euphoria which Scottish football was then enjoying. For only three days before that barely reported game at Dumbarton, Celtic had qualified for the European Cup final. Rangers, the week before, had advanced towards the final of the Cup-Winners' Cup and Kilmarnock were about to take on Leeds United in the Fair Cities Cup semi-final.
In arguably a golden age for Scottish club football, there was little chance of many mourners turning up to surround a pauper's grave.
advertisementShouldering arms though, rather than shouldering financial debt, was the first preoccupation of the founders of the club on December 12, 1872 who, having seen some military men represent Scotland in the match against England at Hamilton Crescent, felt it would be logical to form a regimental team to be called the Third Lanark Rifle Volunteers. They became founder members of the Scottish League.
As Third Lanark, they were to win the Scottish Cup twice, in 1889 against Celtic and in 1905 against Rangers. From then to the beginning of the war in 1939 Thirds won every honour available to them including the league title in 1903/04, a couple of Second Division titles, the Glasgow Cup and Charity Cup and 34 of their players had been capped for Scotland. But even then they were struggling with debt.
While Rangers and Celtic were posting profits of £7,082 and £4,415 respectively in 1938/39, Thirds were staring at a loss of £2,399 - a huge sum then. But in the post-war period few people paid much attention to balance sheets. Football was demob happy and "bliss was it that dawn to be alive" as crowds flocked back through the turnstiles around the country, including Cathkin.
A crowd of 35,000 watched Thirds beat Rangers 2-1 in a league game on January 15, 1949 where the cry "Come away the Hi Hi" was a colourful counterpoint to the harsh sectarian chants more prevalent in the city.
That was the constant problem, the proximity of the Old Firm. In their attempts to counter the great pull of the other two, income and expenditure simply did not add up without prudent housekeeping. They were to get instead voodoo accountancy.
Ironically, Thirds' style of attractive, attacking football was the very antithesis of a club burdened by financial doubt. In 1960/61 they scored six in their last league game against Hibernian to reach their 100th goal of the season. That was 12 more than Rangers, and a staggering 36 more than Celtic.
I have witnessed rooms converted to shrines to the club, plastered with posters, banners and photographs of their "greats". Jimmy Brownlie, Jimmy Carabine, Bobby Mitchell, Neilly Dewar, internationals all. And men who distilled effort, panache and idiosyncrasy in equal portions like Ally McLeod, Matt Balunas, Jocky Robertson, the pint-sized keeper, wee Joe McInnes, who always came to games with his car stacked with greyhounds, and the prolific goalscoring trio of the 1960s, Dave Hilley, Matt Gray and Alex Harley.
And then there was debatably the greatest of them all, Jimmy Mason.
My childhood memories of this diminutive inside-forward easily lends me the prejudice that the current age of Scottish football is an artistic wilderness by comparison.
But all this was to be shamefully squandered. In December 1954, there entered, stage left, one of the most villainous characters ever to tread the boards of Scottish football.
When Bill Hiddleston joined the board in that month, he was laughingly described as a "Glasgow business man with a great affection for Thirds". That was like describing the Boston Strangler as an aromatherapist.
This smooth-tongued, wholesale glass merchant did not carry transparency with him into his role as manager when he was appointed that as well in 1956.
In his first game in charge Morton crushed Thirds 6-1. In the aftermath Hiddleston cunningly represented himself as an honourable Thirds devotee thwarted by an obstructionist board. But he made a couple of statements which sent shivers up the spines of those most in love with the club. "Football is no longer a game, it is finance now," he told an interviewer. And, surveying spare ground behind the stadium, declared: "A well-known builder wants to erect houses there and maybe we'll let him", thus arousing the kind of suspicions which surround Tynecastle today.
He lasted two years in that role, resigned and then came back in 1962, when he took command of the shareholding of the club, causing manager George Young, the former Rangers and Scotland captain, to walk out of the AGM with resigning director Robert Martin uttering the words: "Good luck to Thirds and God help them."
Another nefarious character who joined Hiddleston was Baillie James Reilly, a Glasgow lawyer and Labour councillor who rode shotgun for Hiddleston.
Between them they oversaw the final years of the club which, in its chronicling, is hard to believe was not scripted by John Cleese.
As crises engulfed them, with Hiddleston fending off occasional shareholder rebellions, denying ulterior motives and building a firewall around the unseen accounts, the state of penury at Third Lanark was universally ridiculed and the stories surrounding it now have entered the folklore as they went through five managers under his tutelage.
When the late Bobby Shearer was manager in April 1967 he had to pay players' wages from the sixpences and threepenny bits collected at the turnstiles.
Former First Minister Henry McLeish remembers playing at Cathkin for East Fife, scoring a goal and an own goal in that game. He recalls that the visitors took light-bulbs from Methil with them, having heard tales of the unlit dungeon called the Cathkin dressing-room. To keep costs down Hiddleston would also turn off the floodlights during training, leaving the players to bumble about like a team of Clouseaus.
The League insisted on a new ball per game and Hiddleston tried to get round that by having some painted. One rainy day, the said ball was headed by a Thirds player, leaving a white trade name stamped on his forehead and leading to the players insisting on having turps added to their bathwater.
Another ploy was the instruction given to centre-half Doug Baillie to kick the painted ball over the stand as soon after kick-off as possible, just in case of the referee suspected, and replace it with an older one which the referee had to accept.
One Friday night, when Hiddleston realised they were badly struck by injuries and didn't want the game played, he told the players to slosh buckets of water over the pitch as he had heard there was to be a hard frost overnight. When referee "Tiny" Wharton turned up the following morning, he discovered the pitch was only fit for Torvill and Dean and the match was cancelled.
A witness to the increasingly bizarre events was Mike Jackson, the former Celtic player who went there in 1964. He took part, inadvertently, in hiding a scam. Hiddleston announced to them one day: "The Customs and Excise men are coming in today to examine us. Now there are some things they don't need to see. I want you lads to lift the fruit machines out of the pavilion lounge."
In order to avoid a sighting of probably undeclared income, they were coerced into hauling the one-armed bandits behind the enclosure on the other side of the ground.
This cost-saving fanaticism shocked Jackson to the core after he witnessed a young player sustaining a horrendous arm-break on a hard surface at Clydebank.
"When you saw the arm you were frightened to touch it for fear of hurting him. Yet I can recall Hiddleston's very words to me. When you get to the hospital make sure to tell the doctors to lift the effing jersey over his head and not to cut the sleeves, for we'll need it next week'."
When Hiddleston threatened to have Jackson "sorted out" and that he would have him "done in" for asking for a transfer, Jackson burst out laughing at this hapless figure trying to be a south-side Al Capone.
But the fact that from April 1965 no proper accounts had been kept was no joke. With rumours increasing that with the valuation of the ground having risen from £6,000 an acre in 1962 to £25,000 in 1966 and that Hiddleston all along wanted to run the club into the ground and sell out, and in refusing to release his own shares to those loyalists who might have come to the rescue, all options for salvation ceased.
Disgracefully, the rest of Scottish football had lost its taste for Thirds. The Samaritan ethic was brutally absent, nor was there a legal process like administration in existence then to provide an alternative route.
Thirds went out of business only £40,000 in debt. On July 1, 1968 four former directors, including Baillie Reilly, were found guilty of contravening the Companies Act 1948 and fined £100 each. An investigation by the Board of Trade later that year accused Hiddleston of blatant corruption and that "the circumstances merit police inquiry".
He had not lived to hear that. He died of a heart attack in Blackpool in November 1967.
Cathkin Park was sold to a property developer and then to Glasgow Corporation where, after being comprehensively vandalised, it has now been gentrified into a public park, still bearing the configuration of the seductive bowl it used to be. Mothers push their prams around the perimeter where once passions surged to and fro. Fathers play with toddlers on the area where great goals were scored. Few would know the wonderful story of Thirds to tell to their bairns. Perhaps to the good, since the ending is truly too scary.
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