Book Review – The Ghosts of Cathkin Park: The Inside Story of Third Lanark’s Demise by Michael McEwan
1967 was some year.
This was the year in which Scottish football found beauty in a left foot on the Wembley turf as Baxter played and World Champions stared. It was the season when we arrived in Europe where the Lions roared in Lisbon and Rangers lost out in another European final, Dundee United defeated Barcelona and Dunfermline showed up in the Fairs Cup.
And so, the highs are our backdrop but, in the foreground, 1967 had its own tragedy.
It was the year in which a once proud team of military bearing found itself smeared in scandal, Third Lanark Football Club, The Hi-Hi’s. The scandal involved corruption that was out of sight, with asset stripping in plain sight. By the end of the 1966/67 season, we witnessed the city of Glasgow reduced by one team: permanently reduced. Glasgow ought to have been a city filled with sporting pride but in the shadow our national stadium, unfolded that tragedy where a community lost its club, that haunts to this day.
And now, Michael McEwan has brought those ghouls to life through The Ghosts of Cathkin Park, published by Birlinn, which tells the story of the demise of Third Lanark in the southside of Glasgow.
McEwan is a marvellous narrator, who tells a compulsive tale. It is one filled with skulduggery when one man, Bill Hiddelston, evolved into the pantomime villain of the piece, even managing a dramatic exit in a puff of smoke and mirrors, ruled a roost and ruined a legacy.
Prompted into the tale, from observing the demise of another Glasgow footballing institution – Glasgow Rangers – McEwan saw parallels which included the unscrupulous investors, greedy men looking for their pounds and the flesh of a beast laid bare and vulnerable which had the heart of a fan and the soul of a supporter whose loyalty was abused, and their investment ill used in the process.
McEwan’s journalistic background gives us plenty of context whether it is the games played in and around the Thirds or the march towards European glory by either of the other two Glasgow clubs. It is a heady mixture of reportage and context that lies in the shadow of their tumble. At times it may feel like the year is being investigated more than the demise of a once proud club, but it does serve a purpose. Occasionally though, the episodic nature does disrupt the principal narrative, and it feels like the journalist is outmuscling the storyteller. Your desire to discover the next chapter keeps you reading on.
The reason is that Hiddleston ruined more than Third Lanark. You might expect this of a man who died before the law caught up with him. As chairman of Third Lanark his is the one name more closely associated with this story than any other. His name was the one referred to by the Board of Trade who found that Hiddelston’s practices merited police investigation. His was the name associated with the penny pinching and refusal to spend anything close to what was needed to allow the club to reach 1968. And his was the name blamed when things were not properly recorded or accounted for.
The fact that there is little new to report on the story and little by further revelations to be uncovered does coral your narrative but where McEwan’s journalistic leanings have truly paid off are the new voices being heard. Hiddelston does not emerge from the pages with much to redeem himself, we do, however, get other perspectives. McEwan excels in bringing to the page, the voices of people who were there. People from the terraces can become caught in the myth and mystery but the people who spent their tentative careers, fledging lives and autumnal passages in and around the club have a very purposeful tale to tell. McEwan gives them a platform and it adds to the human disaster. There are interviews with past players, aplenty, but the real coup is the interview with Hiddelston’s son, Crawford. The voice of the former chairman may not be able to be heard as he died in the aftermath of the club folding, thus avoiding the charges being laid against him by the Board of Trade for multiple offences, but reading the effect it had upon his family, especially his wife was instructive. Whilst those fans and players are key to the memories and to the legacy, it is the inside stories which draw you in and make this such an important book.
And to the story itself. I had heard of repainting footballs white to fool referees, but I’d not believed it; it was true. I had no idea about the bath with no plug; it is true. I was sceptical over the failure to pay out to visiting clubs; it is all fact. There are multiple minor details which hinted at a bigger malaise – McEwan has documented them within their context that was obvious to those who wished to see it.
If there is one message, however, that is loud and clear from the book it comes from the commentary on the guidance and the governance of Scottish Football. To hear former players, claim that Hiddleston could not have died of a heart attack because he never had one is one thing or that he was just a disgrace, is another, but the role played by the Scottish footballing authorities is the emerging debate: failure to regulate, monitor and ensure fair and correct protocol is hardly new then.
But there were other villains; not least a corrupt set of directors who had colluded, were prosecuted, convicted and fined; but also, Glasgow Corporation who brought the concept of Rotten Boroughs right up to date. In the end you put down the book with a sullied hope that things should not be as bad as that now until you read over what has happened since – Airdrieonians, Clydebank, Livingston, Vladimir Romanov, Dundee, Rangers…
If Michael McEwan’s The Ghosts of Cathkin Park has taught us one thing it is not to draw a line under the past and move on but to remember that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. Please not again…
Donald C Stewart
(Publisher: Birlinn Books. September 2021. Hardcover: 288 pages)
Buy your copy here: The Ghosts of Cathkin Park