Tom Wright, Curator of the Hibernian Historical Trust, details the story of Third Lanark and the role they played in deciding the outcome of the 1949/50 campaign.
The recent television documentary regarding the demise of Third Lanark highlighted the fact that the Glasgow side’s troubles could well have been avoided, and that their downfall should perhaps have been an early warning of the financial difficulties encountered by several Scottish sides in more recent times.
Formed in 1872, Third Lanark were founding members of the Scottish League in 1890, twice winners of the Scottish Cup and League Champions in 1904. Although they would spend the majority the next fifty two years in the top division, like the most other Glasgow sides they would live in the shadow of the ‘Old Firm’ rarely threatening for major honours, but would eventually be forced out of business only by the greed of an unscrupulous glass merchant.
In the 1949/50 season however, Third Lanark would have an indirect part to play in the formation of Hibernian’s Famous Five, but a far bigger say in the destination of the Championship.
League Champions just over a year before, Hibs were considered strong contenders for that season’s League Cup. In a section that also comprised of Falkirk and Queen of the South, a 2-0 victory over Third Lanark at Cathkin would be followed by a 4-2 home win against the same side, Lawrie Reilly scoring a hat-trick. The victory allowed Hibs to win the section and progress into the later stages of the competition where they would eventually face Second Division Dunfermline in the semi-final at Tynecastle. It is now common knowledge that a disappointing 2-1 extra time defeat by the Fife side would lead to a major reshuffle of the Hibernian midfield for their next game against Queen of the South and the introduction of Bobby Johnstone for the first ever outing of the Famous Five as a complete unit, and the rest as they say is history.
Even this early in the season, Hibs were among the favourites to regain the title, and at the end of November they would again face Third Lanark, this time in a league game at Cathkin. With the Famous Five in full flow, goals from Johnstone and Reilly would give the Edinburgh side a deserved victory in a game said to have been more noted for its toughness than its football.
As the spectators were making their way from the ground at the end of the game, hundreds took advantage of the extra entertainment on offer as they watched the Glasgow Fire Brigade battle manly fully to extinguish a fire in the press box that was situated adjacent to the main stand. The fire had been started accidentally when an open topped brazier to heat the compartment had been knocked over resulting in the complete destruction of the press box and severe damage to the main stand.
There would be even more excitement at Cathkin just a few weeks later before a match against Celtic, but this time the weather would be to blame. With around 18,000 fans already inside the ground, just before the start the game it was called off due to the heavily falling snow obscuring the lines. To placate the angry fans who immediately demanded their money back, both clubs offered to play a friendly which was strictly against the rules. This however did little to appease the furious supporters of both sides, some going as far as to threaten to burn the stand down, this time deliberately, and only the intervention of the police prevented a serious incident from getting completely out of hand.
This however was not the first case of its kind. As far back as February 1912, a Scottish Cup replay between Hibs and city rivals Hearts at Easter Road was played during a heavy snowstorm that had threatened to obscure the lines from the start. Hibs had been leading 1-0 at half-time but because of the atrocious conditions, and the fans completely unaware of the decision, it had been agreed by both sides to finish the match with result only standing as a friendly. The game would end 1-1 but both clubs would later be fined £25 by the authorities and the referee £1 for what was considered to have been a serious breach of the regulations.
Back to the 1949/50 season. Despite a 1-0 defeat by Partick Thistle at Easter Road in the first round of the Scottish Cup, Hibs were well in contention to win their second championship inside three years. However, at the beginning of March a 1-0 home defeat by Third Lanark would severely dent the Easter Road side’s championship aspirations while allowing Rangers to overtake them at the top of the table. Facing Hibs that afternoon was former player Johnny Cuthbertson who had joined Third Lanark only at the beginning of the season and goalkeeper Lewis Goram, father of the future Hibs and Scotland goalkeeper Andy Goram. At that time Goram was still a registered Hibs player but after a spell on loan at Leith Athletic he had been farmed out to the Cathkin side. It would turn out to be Goram’s only first team appearance at Easter Road before his transfer to Bury at the end of the season.
A convincing 4-2 home win against Dundee a few weeks later now left the championship a two horse race between Hibs and Rangers, and it would possibly now all depend on the game between the pair at Ibrox. The previous week Rangers had won the Scottish Cup and would be confident of victory, but if Hibs could take both points it would guarantee the Easter Road side the title.
Unfortunately it was not to be. With the gates closed well before the start in front of over 106,000 supporters including a large number that had made their way from Edinburgh, an unimpressive 0-0 draw left one newspaper headline the following day to proclaim, ‘No goals, no thrills and for Hibs no flag.’ Both sides were now level on points. Rangers however still had a game in hand. In the final match of the season against Third Lanark at Cathkin the Ibrox side now needed just a draw to win the championship. With Goram keeping his place in the Third’s side, just 15 minutes were remaining when the former Hibs player Cuthbertson missed the penalty that would have given his former side the title, the 2-2 draw allowing Rangers to become the first ever team to win the treble.
In 1962 Third Lanark would be taken over by the former director William Hiddleston who had previously been sacked from the board, but had now become the major shareholder. However, just six years after finishing third in the championship, scoring over a hundred goals in the process, Third’s would go to the wall. It is now obvious that the unscrupulous businessman Hiddleston’s intention from the start had been to deliberately force the club out of business so that he could gain financially by selling the ground for housing.
After struggling financially for several years including demotion to the second division, with rumours of the players being paid their wages in cash taken at the turnstiles, in the summer of 1967 the club went into liquidation and the ground sold to a housing developer.
However, to their great credit Glasgow City Council refused planning permission and the pitch surrounded on three sides by the original terracing remains to this very day, the ground now used by amateur sides. In 1968 a board of enquiry found that Third Lanark had been run as an inefficient and unscrupulous one-man business, including a failure to keep proper accounts, and would later lead to several of the directors being fined.
Hiddleston, who had been described as a loudmouth, cigar-smoking chancer, and much worse, was accused in his absence of blatant corruption and dishonesty, only escaping justice by dying of a massive heart attack in November 1967.
Written by Tom Wright