The demise of Third Lanark was and remains, more than 50 years later, a source of enormous regret. But the sorry saga continues to feel a lot closer to home to some more than others.
Let’s take the players. Many were part-time and so heard the news of the club’s liquidation while at their places of work. They felt robbed, not least because they were unable to console one another.
“I was in Glasgow working for an insurance company, my fellow players were all over the place,” recalls Alan McKay. “Someone in the office heard it on the wireless and told me. That was it. It was as brutal and as cold as that. I never saw some of my team-mates again.”
There was welcome cause recently for a belated reunion. A documentary about the rise and drastic fall of the club, to be aired tomorrow on BBC Alba, was premiered last week in Glasgow. Some of these old team-mates are less mobile now of course, but no less determined to be heard.
“I think more people should come along to this place and see that up there instead of a sex film or something,” was how defender Tony Connell summed things up after the screening to raucous laughs when six former players gathered on stage at the Glasgow Film Theatre for a question and answer session.
It’s not to say this other type of film referenced cannot always be educational. But Purple TV’s new documentary, simply titled Third Lanark, seeks to provide a public service by peering through the clouds of romanticism that tends to obscure what actually happened to an iconic football club.
As Neil Doncaster and Stewart Regan will have noted, this was ransacking on a scale every bit as outrageous as Rangers’ financial meltdown. The chief executives of the Scottish Professional Football League and Scottish Football Association were both in the audience last Monday. They stood with everyone else to applaud after Hi Hi veterans discussed the travesty that befell them.
For one of those on stage it was all especially close to home. McKay, 75, was Third Lanark’s last official skipper. But he was told to stay away from Cathkin Park as the financial crisis escalated and agitation increased among the players. This proved somewhat awkward since his family lived next door to Bill Hiddelston, the unscrupulous chairman portrayed in the documentary as the villain of the piece. Well-educated and outspoken, McKay was clearly perceived as a threat. Hiddelston, meanwhile, is depicted as a slightly portly, good-for-nothing villain in trilby hat and raincoat. According to McKay, now based in Troon, it was close to the truth. He should know having lived yards from him in Glasgow’s southside.
“I was banned from the last two games and I don’t know why,” he says. “I don’t know what the purpose was. My father was furious he had done this to me and wanted to head round there and tell him so…”
Even then McKay was unaware the end was nigh. From the perspective of more than half a century later, the club’s decline was devastatingly swift. Thirds scored 100 goals and finished third in the Scottish top flight in 1960-61 behind Rangers and Kilmarnock but were playing in front of mere hundreds only seven years later. The gates closed on 30 June 1967, five years short of the club’s centenary.
Oddly, since so many other iconic Scottish stadiums have made way for supermarkets and housing, Cathkin Park, which hasn’t been used for its original purpose since the 1960s, remains identifiable as a football ground to this day, crush barriers still wedged into grassy embankments. This has helped sustain the intrigue while also maintaining hopes that something can still be salvaged.
But that’s no thanks to Hiddelston. “I didn’t know what made the man tick in terms of what was his agenda,” says McKay, who scored twice for Thirds in more than 70 games before being excluded from the last two the club ever played. “There was all sorts of speculation. There was so little contact between the players and board. He (Hiddelston) was mysterious. Being kind I suppose he was private. People speculated about selling the land for house building.”
Clearly a clubbable chap, McKay was devastated. He adored the football culture of the time, which, from how he describes it, was not far removed from rugby’s reputation for playing hard and then going for a drink with the opposition afterwards.
McKay recalls footballers from different clubs such as Queen’s Park, Partick Thistle and even Celtic and Rangers gathering in the Horseshoe pub in Glasgow’s Drury Street for a few drinks on a Saturday night. Celtic were on course to lift the European Cup, Rangers reached the European Cup Winners’ Cup final and Partick Thistle were in the top flight, while Queen’s Park were comfortably placed in the Second Division, where Thirds were latterly too.
“You’d meet your footballer chums at night,” recalls McKay. “It was a source of great pride to be a footballer in Glasgow at the time.”
McKay and his team-mates feared being robbed of this status. After Third Lanark folded, their contracts switched to the Scottish Football League. “They contacted me when I was on a business trip to London and said Motherwell were after me,” he recalled. “I said that’s OK, tell them I will sign when I get back.”
Hiddelston died the same year in Blackpool after a massive heart attack. The Board of Trade enquiry following the club’s collapse ruled that it had been an “inefficient and unscrupulous one-man business”.
It’s a haunting story that really does have everything. The only surprise is it has taken so long for the programme makers to get round to it after a string of well-received documentaries covering such subjects as Jim Baxter, Hibs’ Famous Five and Dundee United’s run to the Uefa Cup final in 1987.
This latest production contains an extra charge. The name Third Lanark – the club was originally an offshoot of the 3rd Lanarkshire Rifle Volunteers – still carries such resonance. But the club has now been gone for more than half as long as they were ever alive.
l Third Lanark will air on BBC ALBA at 9pm tomorrow night, 50 years to the day from the sale of the land at Cathkin Park.