Thirds and Queen’s: side by side but a world apart

Summer 2017 sees two football clubs situated less than a mile apart mark very different anniversaries. At Hampden, Queen’s Park’s 150th anniversary will be celebrated with the honour due to a club acknowledged to have invented the ‘passing game’ that ushered in modern football. On a darker note, 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the death of Third Lanark, among Scotland’s leading clubs during the late 19th century, which collapsed amidst fraud allegations and bitter acrimony in 1967. We talked to some of the modern-day heroes at Hampden, and the man leading the campaign to restore Third Lanark to senior football.

By Maurice Smith

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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The club’s decline from the top of the game had been steady but unspectacular over the decades, but by the mid-1960s it seemed in free-fall.

Pat McGeady is a man with a mission. He wants to take one of Scotland’s erstwhile big names, Third Lanark, back into the realm of senior football. He is under no illusions about the scale of the task. The once famous ‘Hi-Hi’ went spectacularly bust 50 years ago and became an infamous byword for mismanagement and sharp practice.

This was not just the sad demise of one of Scotland’s first and most celebrated senior clubs. This collapse was immersed in genuine scandal. The liquidation of Third Lanark, founded in 1872, was subject to an official government inquiry whose investigation ended prematurely because the man at the centre of fraud allegations, chairman Bill Hiddleston, died of a sudden heart attack in November 1967, six months after the club’s last-ever game.

Hiddleston’s tenure as chairman was shameful, and there is no doubt he ran a proud if declining club into the ground. Its loss has become part of the legend of Scottish football. It is ironic that, as Scotland were beating world champions England at Wembley and Celtic were scaling the heights of the European game at Lisbon, Third Lanark should have collapsed and died in a miserable little heap off the Cathcart Road.

Fifty years on, you do not have to try too hard to find Govanhill-born McGeady in a crowd. He is either wearing Third Lanark’s distinctive red and white gear, or he is bubbling enthusiastically about some aspect of the club’s illustrious – and sometimes not so memorable – history. Can you name three Third Lanark players who went on to play in European club finals?1 Who was the club’s last serving professional manager?2 Which erstwhile Glasgow baillie went along with an alleged scheme to close down Cathkin Park and sell it off for housing, when he must have known it was earmarked as green belt? If you don’t know, Pat will soon tell you.

An energetic builder, Pat might seem an unlikely champion of a defunct club founded in 1872 – the same year as Rangers – by members of the Third Lanarkshire Rifle volunteers. In fact Pat, seven years old at the time of their demise in 1967, never saw the old team play at Cathkin. His early memories are based on local folklore, and the curiosity that saw him and elder brother John go exploring inside the stadium after the club had gone bust.

The stadium was to fall rapidly into disrepair. Within five years, its stand had been vandalised and severely damaged by fire. Juvenile teams used it, mainly because its grass pitch remained in a reasonable state and was a welcome alternative to the red ash of the Queen’s Park recreational pitches nearby. But eventually it succumbed to nature. Today just a few of the terracing barriers remain, some of them still painted red by a mystery tradesman whose name just might be McGeady.

Today, Pat is among a small but growing band of enthusiasts behind Third Lanark Amateur Football Club (AFC), playing in Division 3 of the Greater Glasgow Amateur League (and, at the time of writing, top of the table). His spare time is an endless round of fund-raising, hustling, lobbying local support for the cause. His motivation is certainly sincere but his ultimate ambition can seem a little vague, rooted in a sense of community, reviving a spirit of local identity for the hard-pressed Govanhill, Gorbals and surrounding south side. “Third Lanark was the working class club. Queen’s Park was always a wee bit posher,” he remarks, although he points out just how much moral support he has received from the latter club during recent years of frantic fund-raising.

“At first we went round a few local pubs, trying to sell tickets for dinners and so on. Round bars like Heraghty’s and the Queen’s Park Café. A lot of folk said ‘don’t be daft’, but over the years it has grown.” Last year his dinner attracted 150 people, and at the time of writing he was aiming for 250 in 2017. Last year’s speaker was ex-Rangers winger Willie Henderson, and this year’s star turn was Celtic’s Bertie Auld. Speakers are important attractions – “Jim White was great, Alan McInally well, maybe not so much” – and many clubs, pubs, former players and officials are familiar with Pat’s exuberant calls for help. He sells tickets, memorabilia, signed jerseys, and even ‘official’ Third Lanark shirts. The current business plan estimates income for 2017-18 of £82,000, certainly enough to keep the amateur club and its youth academy in business during its continued negotiations with Glasgow City Council and the football authorities.

Third Lanark’s current ambition is to graduate through the Greater Glasgow ranks and into the Lowland League. The club also wants Glasgow Life – the council’s arms-length arts and leisure body – to get behind a £5m plan to revitalise Cathkin Park, build a new stand, and operate the facility as a football ground in a scheme that also supports cricket, the sport favoured by many of those residents of Govanhill who hail from the Indian sub-continent, or whose parents and grandparents did.

Third Lanark’s ambition might develop some traction. Govanhill has always been a centre for immigrants. East European Jews, Irish, then Pakistanis came to the area in waves, often moving further across Glasgow’s south side as communities became more affluent and integrated into the broader city. Today, 15,000 people live in the largely-tenemented district. More than 50 languages are spoken in one 13-block section of Govanhill. This is home to asylum seekers, EU migrants, Africans, Indians, and of course many Scots. Third Lanark’s catchment area covers a broader area that includes Crosshill, Pollokshields and the Gorbals. It overlaps with that of Queen’s Park, which draws from these communities and others nearby including Toryglen, Mount Florida and Shawlands.

McGeady knows every nook and cranny. He can tell you where this or that former Third Lanark pro lives. Just like Celtic’s Lisbon Lions, or Queen’s Park’s gentleman strollers, the Hi-Hi attracted a remarkable number of local players. McGeady still draws from their ranks to augment the Third Lanark ‘Hall of Fame’.

Govanhill today may have become a by-word for inequality, overcrowding, slum landlords and negative headlines about immigration. Its community does feel more than a little embattled. But it is also one that has banded together, for example to protect the local swimming baths, saved from closure and now attracting new investment. Inspired by that, McGeady has reached out enthusiastically to all and sundry for support. He and his colleagues are edging towards sustainability and success, step by step.

The Third Lanark story will touch many a football fan. More than a few may think “there but for the grace of God”, for it is true that nearly every club has diced with death at least once in its history. The tragedy with Thirds was that their demise was at the hands of one man: their own chairman.

The club’s decline from the top of the game had been steady but unspectacular over the decades, but by the mid-1960s it seemed in free-fall. Chairman Hiddlestone had been fired from a relatively lowly role with the club, but steadily bought himself back into the business. The assumption is that his motive was to sell Cathkin for housing, but whatever his intention there is no doubt that his running of its day-to-day business was miserly, confrontational. Players did not trust him. There are tales of players being told they were being sold for one price that turned out to be higher (the reason being that some were on percentages of the actual sale). The goalkeeper Evan Williams allegedly told Wolves to pay him his signing fee before passing the rest of his transfer payment to Third Lanark, such was his distrust of his erstwhile chairman.

The then Albion Rovers player, Tony Green, tells of walking through Glasgow Green with a Third Lanark player whose pockets were jangling full of old shillings and sixpences. The reason was the team had refused to play until their wages were paid, and so the cash came straight from that day’s gate money.

Former First Minister Henry McLeish played at Cathkin for East Fife in 1967. It was a game he remembers well, not least because he scored at both ends – a goal and an own-goal – as well as being booked. “We took our own soap and light bulbs with us to Cathkin. That’s what it was like,” he recalls with a laugh.

In their final season of season football, Thirds came 11th out of 20 clubs in the old Division Two. Their last goal was scored by Drew Busby – later a star for Airdrie, Hearts and Scotland – in a 5-1 defeat at Dumbarton. The Board of Trade inquiry that followed liquidation fined several directors, accused the chairman of blatant corruption, and commented that “the circumstances (merited) police inquiry”.

It was the tragic end to the Thirds’ 95th year. Half a century on, Pat McGeady and his small band of enthusiasts remain optimistic about happier times ahead. That the Third Lanark name still resonates after all this time may be a sign that fate will look upon them kindly.

 

QUEEN’S PARK

There are 481 of us in the south stand at Scotland’s national stadium on a cold Saturday afternoon in March. Hosts Queen’s Park are engaged in a grinding League One battle for the upper hand with Brechin City. The place might not be roaring, but as one spectator tells me, the advantage of a small crowd in such a large stadium is that the referee can probably hear every insult that cascades towards him.

And cascade it does. Since my very first visit to Hampden as a seven year old decades ago, Queen’s Park supporters have been noted for their barracking of the men in black. I could swear that some of the quasi-refined world-weary critiques heading the way of today’s whistler Ryan Milne are from the very same mouths as all those years ago. They certainly sound the same.

This is the thing about Queen’s Park. As the first-ever senior Scottish football club – celebrating its 150th anniversary this year – it holds a unique place in the museum deep inside Hampden’s main stand. The supporters’ traditions are passed from grandfather to father to son. The only amateur club operating continuously in Scottish football, Queen’s holds a unique and special place in the game. And everybody at Hampden knows it.

In the lounge after the game, fans, sponsors, club officials mingle with the plethora of ex-players who populate Hampden. Queen’s Park is one of those institutions that gets into the blood of the people associated with it. One of them is Peter Buchanan, who played for the club as a striker throughout the 1960s, and even represented Great Britain in the 1964 Olympics qualifiers (“Beat Greece 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, then lost the return 4-1 in Athens, what a shambles!”).

Queen’s are in Peter’s blood, he says. His grandfather had been involved in the club way back when. After playing he became a coach, and was club president in 1979. “The highlight was probably when I signed for the club in 1960,” says Buchanan. He was a teammate of goalkeeper Bobby Clark, who went on to a successful career with Aberdeen and Scotland. Buchanan played against top players of the time such as Harry Haddock of Clyde.

Alongside Peter in the Hampden lounge today is Ross Caven, who played 20 years for Queen’s, combining his football career with one in the oil industry and later as a business consultant. Caven played 594 times for Queen’s Park, and says finishing up at the age of 36 was his low point. “Because of my work I could be out working in Ukraine, then back on Friday, playing on Saturday and flying out again afterwards. It was hectic but I absolutely loved it.”

Jim Nicholson, another ex-player and one-time club president, worked in financial services while turning out in the Spiders’ black and white from 1975 to 1980. “What you can have at Queen’s Park is a career alongside football. We encourage players to remain part of the club. It is a special team and a special place,” he remarks. “People don’t realise until they are away from the game that there is a great camaraderie in football, and especially at Hampden.”

Caven, Buchanan and Nicholson are among a long list of Queen’s Park legends who served much of their careers at Hampden. Another is Malky Mackay – father of  the SFA’s current performance director, Malky junior. Malky senior scored 163 goals in 432 appearances during the 1960s and 1970s.

Few clubs can claim such a long history, entwined with the pantheon of Scottish football. For the first international match against England, the Scottish team was effectively Queen’s Park in a different shirt. Legend has it that the club invented passing football for that match, developed as a tactic when the national squad realised that their English counterparts were bigger, stronger and more aggressive. Scotland needed a new idea, and the idea was to flummox the English by passing the ball around. They called it ‘combination football’ and it was revolutionary.

Then there are the managers. In recent decades Queen’s have been led by great characters including the redoubtable Eddie Hunter, a playing and managing legend whose team won the Second Division trophy in 1981. Hunter was followed by the likes of John ‘Cowboy’ McCormack and Billy Stark, who also won promotion and even knocked mighty Aberdeen out of the League Cup in 2006-7 [see Nutmeg Issue 3]. The club has had good seasons – last year’s promotion to League One being the most recent example – as well as bad. The financial difficulties it faced prior to the re-building of Hampden during the 1990s still prompt a collective shudder from the faithful.

Gus McPherson, former Rangers and Kilmarnock player and previously manager of St Mirren and Queen of the South, has been in charge of the Queen’s squad for more than three seasons. He believes the experience has made him a better manager. “You do have to treat players a little different,” observes McPherson. “Players here have different backgrounds. Some want to make it as professionals, but for many it is about a balance with whatever else they do. That doesn’t mean players are not ambitious though – they want to succeed. They come here to show what they can do. It’s a fantastic environment for us. The facilities at Hampden, and Lesser Hampden, are first class.”

McPherson says he has had offers to return to managing professional clubs, but admits that he is enjoying himself too much to consider that, yet. “We are always on the look-out for players. Some come up from junior level, others come down after careers elsewhere. But we have players coming through, developing through the ranks.”

The final whistle has blown, the tea and sandwiches are out. Twenty-two year old Ryan McGeever arrives in the lounge, the hero of the hour after his 90th-minute equaliser cancelled out a jammy Brechin goal that was probably miles offside and followed a succession of fouls only a biased ref could have ignored (as might have been alleged by the world-weary critics of the south-west stand). The mood is light and relaxed. Queen’s have survived their first season back in the third tier of senior football. The team are a solid unit developed during twice-weekly training sessions under McPherson’s watchful eye. Somehow, the next 150 years seem assured. l

1 The three Third Lanark players to reach European finals were: Ronnie Simpson (Celtic 1967), Evan Williams (Celtic 1970) and Hugh Curran (Wolves 1972).

2 The club’s last serving pro manager was Bobby Shearer, the ex Rangers right back.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

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