Fitba Week: The Ghosts of Cathkin Park

by | Sep 2, 2019

First of all, welcome to Fitba Week, here on 200%. We’re giving this week over to the game north of the border, and we’re kicking off today with a tour of one of the game’s most unique landmarks. Cathkin Park, the former home of the extremely former Third Lanark Athletic Club.

It’s a unique place for a football supporter of any persuasion to visit, is Cathkin Park. When Glasgow club Third Lanark AC went bust in the summer of 1967 after several years of maltreatment the club’s home fell into disrepair, but in 1977 Glasgow City Council did something unique. With the stands having already been demolished as unsafe, the council decided that rather than getting rid of the rest of the former ground, they would preserve the terracing as part of a public park, a fitting tribute to a club that had been a founder member of the Scottish Football Association in 1872 and of the Scottish Football League in 1890.

To get there in the first place from the city centre by foot requires a bit of tenacity, across the River Clyde and down through Govanhill, one of the most densely-populated parts of Scotland and an area with formidable social challenges to have to deal with. On a bright summer’s early evening, though, it’s easy to forget this and wonder what all the scrutiny of the area is really about. Cathkin Park was originally known as Hampden Park (and was the second stadium in the city to hold that name), and was the home of the famous amateur club Queens Park from 1884 until 1903. When Queens left for a third iteration of Hampden Park, Third Lanark, who’d been playing at another site called Cathkin Park, were able to move in, changing its name to New Cathkin Park in the process. The stadium, which held 50,000 people, was a vast upgrade on their previous home, which held just 16,000 people, despite the fact that it had held two Scottish Cup finals and a handful of Home International matches during the 1880s.

The ground is on the main Cathcart Road, a short distance from Crosshill station, a small clump of trees which stand out against the flats surrounding it. Climbing a set of steps is the first clue that this isn’t just some ordinary park, and when you emerge at the back of a terrace, it feels immediately like taking a step back in time.

Some parts of the terrace have been allowed to become overgrown with trees but, despite the fact that the stands are no longer there, the shape of the pitch is still clearly visible. (It is used as a football pitch during the season, but at the time of visiting the posts hadn’t been put up for the start of this season.)

Though the terraces were right there in front of me, I felt almost compelled to use the steps to the side of them. Strange, how conditioned to this sort of thing, isn’t it?

Cathkin Park is a place to ponder the game of football, a place to consider how things can go wrong, and the stories that can disappear when a club just vanishes from the record books. It’s been said that Third Lanark weren’t revived after the club folded because it had been in a bad way for a few years prior to its dissolution. There may be something in this, but it seems more likely that a combination of a 90% drop in attendances between 1960 and 1967, a different media environment, its location on the periphery of one of Glasgow’s most impoverished areas, and the closed shop nature of the Scottish Football League made reviving the club seem impossible at the time.

Sitting in the quiet of a warm summer’s evening, though, the ghosts of the past can’t fail to occupy your mind as you gaze out over this relic of the past. The nature of Scottish football – and in particular its concentration around Glasgow and its surrounding towns and cities – is such that it feels impossible to believe that this pitch hasn’t played host to practically all of the greatest names in the history of Scottish football prior to Third Lanark’s dissolution – definitely its clubs, and almost certainly its players, as well.

But what a treat Cathkin Park is. The people of the city of Glasgow should be grateful for this act of preservation on the part of the local council. They have found the perfect balance between retaining it as a historical piece which represents part of the story of this city throughout the twentieth century while leaving it open as something from which the entire community can benefit, both as a place to play the game itself, and also as somewhere to just sit and lose yourself in your thoughts. It was a joyous experience, and a privilege to visit.