A Tale of Two Thistles

There was little acknowledgement in the media for the recent celebration of John Bain’s 90th birthday. Livingston, the club of whom he is the Honorary Life President, marked the occasion with a special presentation before their 2-3 home defeat to Dumbarton in February; the occasion was paid scant attention elsewhere. Bain’s self-effacing nature meant he was probably satisfied with the low-key tribute but considering the levels of negativity surrounding the national game, it seemed a pity that his contribution to Scottish football remained relatively unknown, at least outside the sphere of Livingston Football Club.

Some football teams will have at least one person with a similar story. There are men who have spent decades with the same club, a loyal servant who goes from player to the boardroom via almost every conceivable post in-between. Where Bain’s tale is unique, however, is that without his hard work, drive and passion, Livingston would almost certainly not exist today.

Football wasn’t on his mind when he travelled to Edinburgh in 1952. Indeed, the town of Livingston was only constructed in the sixties as one of five new settlements created to ease the overcrowding in Glasgow after World War II. It was the war itself which indirectly brought Bain to the area to take up a job in the Ferranti factory, located at the Crewe Toll in north-west Edinburgh. The plant had been opened as a munitions supplier in 1943. After the war, it began to make inroads into the blossoming electronics industry and would go on to develop specialist equipment for the aeronautics and defense industries.

Bain was in the Royal Navy but had also played football as a left-back for Portsmouth and Reading. He had almost signed for Heart of Midlothian as a youngster but was dissuaded by his mother who wanted him to get a “proper job”. As a consequence, his return to Edinburgh saw him take up a role as a planning engineer and production foreman at the Ferranti plant. When he arrived, the works’ football team, Ferranti Thistle, caught his attention.

Ferranti were playing in the local works’ league and were considered to be one of the division’s stronger sides. Bain immediately established himself as one of their better players and the former naval man was installed as player-manager shortly after arriving.

Their success in the welfare leagues led to some members of the Thistle committee pushing for a move into senior football. In order for the club to appear as credible candidates, it was decided that a smarter, more professional look was required and two team members were dispatched to Thornton’s sports shop on Princes Street to buy a full set of new strips. However, only one set was available, and it had been designed for a rugby team. Faced with no other option, the strips were duly purchased.

The pair trooped back to Crewe Toll to deliver the set of gold and black rugby tops to the Ferranti players, completely oblivious to the fact they had accidentally created the playing appearance which would, with a slight twist, still be in use six decades later.

Driven by Bain and a forward-thinking committee, the club were granted permission to join the amateur East of Scotland League for the beginning of the 1953-54 season. The move was a significant step up in the quality of opposition, with the former works’ team now competing against sides such as Gala Fairydean, Rosyth Civil Service and Spartans.

Their first campaign in the senior leagues was decidedly mixed, and the club won just six games over the course of the season. Ferranti struggled throughout their early years in the East of Scotland League and for the remainder of the fifties and early sixties, they were mostly concerned with consolidation and survival.

The first threat to their senior position came in 1962 when several board members forced a vote on leaving the league and joining the junior ranks. Ferranti may have carried the name of the electronics firm but they received virtually no backing from the company, and the financial pressures of the senior set up was felt to have placed a great strain on the club. A meeting, chaired by Bain (who thought that such a move would be a step backwards) was held and the vote was declared: the motion to leave the East of Scotland League was defeated by a slender margin, and the club remained as part of the senior set up.

The next problem arrived in 1969 when the Edinburgh Corporation purchased Ferranti’s ground, the Crewe Toll, to build sporting facilities for a new college (the present site of Telford College). With a new season looming, the club required a new ground.

Their preferred location was City Park, just three-quarters of a mile from the Ferranti plant. Unfortunately, the ground had become a ramshackle eyesore and needed major renovation to bring it up to the requisite standard. In an unusually generous move from a company which had, until that point, been indifferent towards the club’s travails, Ferranti agreed to pay for the repairs and the team moved to the 5,000 capacity City Park stadium in time for the new season.

Although delighted with the club’s progress over the previous two decades, it rankled with John Bain that, unlike most of the other sides in the league, Ferranti didn’t have full SFA membership. As a result, they were denied from competing in the Scottish Cup, something which prevented a potentially lucrative source of income.

One obstacle was City Park’s lack of a fully enclosed pitch, an SFA requirement. At the time, however, the location was also used by Hibernian’s third team, Hibernian Colts. In a magnanimous show of generosity, the Hibs chairman Tom Hart agreed to carry out the works, estimated at around £1,000, free of charge.

Nevertheless, the SFA has never been the most straightforward of organisations. Ferranti’s membership application in 1972 was dismissed on the grounds that they rented their stadium. Disappointed at the ruling, the club once again had reason to thank Hibs for their intervention when Easter Road board member Tommy Younger objected to the decision, pointing out that Clyde rented their Shawfield stadium from the Greyhound Racing Association.

The initial decision was reversed and Ferranti were granted SFA membership. They took full advantage of their new status, navigating through the South Qualifying competition at the first attempt before defeating non-league Borders outfit Duns by three goals to one in the rirst round proper of the Scottish Cup in front of 1,000 fans at City Park. The attendance would be doubled in the next round as they took on Elgin City, but the Highland outfit eventually triumphed 2-1 after a 2-2 draw in Edinburgh

While things were progressing on the park for Ferranti, the machinations of the SFA were about to open another door for them off-field. By the early seventies, Scottish football was in something of a slump. Not only were the attendances in decline, it was felt that the quality on show was also diminishing.

The 37 league clubs – an odd number following the demise of Third Lanark in 1967 – came together to discuss a new way forward for the game. It was agreed there should be a move away from the current 18-19 set up, into a new three-tier league system, but there was some debate about its structure. Clubs were given three proposals: 10-10-18, 10-14-14, or 10-14-13. It was eventually decided the second option would be the preferred choice, although the new structure created a number of problems. No Second Division club suddenly wanted to be “relegated” into a Third Division, so it was decided the top-tier would be called the “Premier League”. More importantly, the new system would require 38 teams; the empty vacancy was thrown open to applications.

As the 1973-74 season began, Ferranti Thistle were on no-one’s lips when questions were asked about Scotland’s 38th side. Neither the club committee nor John Bain had even considered it. Instead, the team were concentrating on another crack at the Scottish Cup (which they would enjoy again reached after winning the Qualifying Cup).

They were given a bye in the first round before defeating fellow East of Scotland side Civil Service Strollers in the second. This set up a hugely anticipated match against one of the country’s major clubs, with the bigger teams all entered the tournament at the third stage. The draw saw them paired with First Division club Partick Thistle at Firhill, and the Ferranti board ensured they would be backed by a huge travelling support by promising to pay the entrance fee of any fan who contributed 50p towards the cost of specially provided supporters buses.

On 27 January 1974, Ferranti took six coachloads of fans to Maryhill and helped swell the crowd to 6,000, by far the largest crowd John Bain and his charges had played in front of. The match may have finished 6-1 to the hosts but the build up to the game was romanticised in the nation’s press, with reporters lovingly rendering the works’ team’s clash a side from Scotland’s top-tier. The media attention Ferranti received would hold it in good stead for the next chapter of its existence.

By the end of March 1974, the Scottish League’s plans for reconstruction were well underway. The new divisional structure had been voted through (the 10-14-14 system would implemented for the start of 1975-76) and clubs had already begun to campaign for the 38th place. From the Highlands, Elgin City, Ross County and Inverness Thistle had applied while Hawick Royal Albert, Ferranti’s rivals from the East of Scotland League, also expressed their interest. Two sides from England – South Shields and Gateshead United – even declared their intentions. But at this late stage, there was still no desire from Ferranti to join the SFL.

This changed at the beginning of April when Stuart Brown, the sports editor of the Edinburgh Evening News, wrote an article rubbishing the six applicants. Brown debated that the far north of Scotland was too isolated and the travelling costs too prohibitive for the Second Division teams (the same case was made against the two English applicants). As for Hawick? Well, they were a side from rugby-mad town which probably didn’t have the fan base to support a football team. He finished the article by extolling the merits of Ferranti Thistle.

Brown’s argument may have been dismissive, elitist and certainly flawed (for example, he claimed the club’s support from Ferranti was comparable to the Philips company’s backing of PSV Eindhoven), but his editorial on the 2 April seemed to inspire Bain. The manager had been interviewed for the article and while he revealed the club had not discussed applying, they had not ruled it out.

Bain then approached the firm to request support in lodging an application with the League. He, along with club secretary Bill Mill, convinced the company to help win votes for the League’s AGM taking place on the 24 May. At the time, and unbeknownst to most outwith the Ferranti board, the company was struggling financially. Sensing that the club’s ascension to the SFL had the potential to give the company some extra exposure, the firm agreed to Bain’s request.

The vote finished in deadlock, with the Edinburgh side and Inverness Thistle finishing with 13 votes apiece. The three Highland League applicants had seen their votes spread too thinly, something which may have prevented a club from the north of Scotland winning the place. A second ballot was declared and Ferranti won by 21 votes to 16.

The result dismayed Inverness, who immediately cried foul and cited a Central Belt bias. They might have had a point: the three Highland League teams had significantly richer heritages than a club who had held an SFA membership for only two years. Inverness’s annoyance over Ferranti’s victory was exacerbated by the League’s announcement in June, which cast fresh doubt over whether or not the club should even have been admitted in the first place.

Much to Ferranti’s surprise, the League authorities imposed two conditions on the new club. Firstly, they had to move from City Park (the ground failed to meet the required League standard) and secondly, the club could not be called Ferranti Thistle, as sponsorship was forbidden at the time. This was an unexpected blow for John Bain and the club. Just weeks before the new season, they had nowhere to play but more importantly, they didn’t even have a name.

As the sports section of the Edinburgh Evening News – so often the team’s champion in the past – led with articles about potential new names for Ferranti, the club found a new home in Meadowbank’s Commonwealth Stadium, a ground recently been constructed for the 1970 games. The City of Edinburgh Council were more than happy to let the stadium for regular (and reasonably high profile) use, fearing criticism that they had built an expensive white elephant.

With the stadium issue settled, attention turned to the name. Several ideas were suggested and then quickly discarded. Edinburgh Dynamo, Edinburgh Thistle, Ferry Thistle, and most bizarrely of all, Itnarref Thistle were all considered at one stage. It then transpired that a stipulation to using the Commonwealth Stadium was that the word “Meadowbank” had to be incorporated into the name. The board now had two terms they wanted to use – “Edinburgh” and “Thistle” – and one they were obliged to use. “Edinburgh” was dropped, making Meadowbank Thistle the league’s 38th club.

Shaughan McGuigan

Shaughan McGuigan

Shaughan is a Raith Rovers fan, still recovering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder induced by Claude Anelka's spell at the club. He is a contributor to the club website, compiling match reports, previews and interviews.

7 Comments

  • Reply July 29, 2013

    Niall Kennedy

    Good stuff Shaughan. Your article in no way reflects the tedium of watching Meadowbank under Terry Christie in the mid 80s. I had no idea anyone from Ferranti was still involved at Livingston.

    Guys – I hope you’ll reconsider splitting articles over multiple pages. It does nothing for the article except make it more difficult to read.

  • Reply July 30, 2013

    Andy Penn

    Excellent article Shaughan. As a QoS fan I have many nostalgic pangs for departed haunts such as boghead, bayview, kilbowie and broomfield but not so much for Meadowbank, the Stadium was such a terrible place to watch football. We will never forget being barred from the stand due to a cat show taking place (or was it a beer festival, that was another occasion I think) and being forced to endure a dreadful 0-0 draw in a torrential downpour from the concrete terracing opposite.

  • Reply July 31, 2013

    George Wilson

    Great article. Two random memories, luckily unconnected to having actually had to watch Meadowbank. First is of AWOL, probably per-capita the best-written, driest and funniest of all the fanzines. The second is from the near-promotion-to-the-Premier Division season when, unable to ignore the side any longer, Radio Scotland showed up to cover a home game. Maybe the humour of those fans wasn’t unconnected with the on-field dirge; whatever- the memory is of a moment when over the airwaves came: “We hate Derek Rae, he’s a poof, he’s a poof”.

  • Reply November 26, 2013

    Dave

    Interesting article but completely fails whatsoever to do justice to the shocking nature of the move to Livingston that essentially introduced the franchise to Scottish football. The duplicitous nature of the Thistle board at the time (in which Bain was complicit) is not acknowledged whatsoever – the half-truths and lies spread to cover up the fact that Thistle were solvent and to slander the fans were disgraceful. Hunters claims Thistle fans abused him (or his daughter) were a complete lie and fans assertions for being banned for disagreeing with Hunter absolutely true. That “threats were made on both sides” is completely untrue – no threats were made by supporters to Hunter whatsoever while there are plenty of examples (including recordings on tape or before witnesses, e.g. the crazy sight of Hunter dragging a 15 year old fan into the director box at the end of game) of intimidatory behaviour by the then Chairman. This article completely sits on the fence on these and any other matters around the move to Livingston.

    In addition, Thistle fans argument was never really about whether “Thistle” was incorporated in the name. This was only ever pointed out as one minor part of a whole range of arguments, the main being that the club was solvent, there was a clear future and Hunter reneged on a promise to sell the club (fans raising the £100k within a week).

    The article is, however, right about the good work that John Bain did in his early years for the Thistle and that he needs to be remembered. It’s just a shame that the one thing he should be remembered for is completely killing the club.

  • Reply October 24, 2014

    David Miller

    I was lucky enough to be a ten year old supporter during the club`s golden era – the season in which we won the league and then nearly achieved promotion to the premier league. We were a much better side than Hamilton that season – hammering them 5-1 at Douglas park, beating them at Meadowbank and knocking them out of the cup but in the last 5 games MT bottled it. John McGachie, Dave Roseburgh and later Stevie Logan were my favourites with big fireman Jim McQueen in goals. Thanks for the article and the bitter sweet memories!

  • Reply April 23, 2016

    steven woodside

    I was at the Scottish Cup game in 1974 at Firhill V Partick Thistle. It was unusual because for some reason it was played on a Sunday and this was virtually unheard of in the 70’s

  • Reply January 19, 2017

    Tony Mattinson

    I played for Hawick Royal Albert the year before they went into league we beat them 10 – 1. I played for them 1974 -75

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