Given the attention afforded towards the stadium and the naming issues, Bain had been unable to recruit new players – even if he had, would any of them been willing to sign a contract for a homeless team with no name? As a result, Meadowbank Thistle began the 1974-75 season with virtually the same squad that had competed so well in the East of Scotland League. In truth, Bain believed this was only fair; after all, the club had been given their opportunity because of his players’ performances. The manager felt it only right they were given the chance to test themselves at the higher level.
Their first match as a league club was played on the 9 August 1974 against Albion Rovers in a League Cup tie. Interestingly, the match was played on a Friday night to avoid clashing with a Hibs match the next day. With an entry fee of just 30p, Meadowbank’s senior debut attracted a crowd of 4,000. Although the game ended in a 0-1 defeat, their level of performance was encouraging. However, the match report in the Edinburgh Evening News pointed out that the biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Wanda, a blonde go-go dancer wheeled out to entertain the crowd at half-time.
Despite the players’ (and Wanda’s) best efforts, Meadowbank’s debut season in the 20-team Second Division was, as expected, an uphill struggle. They lost their opening 14 games, with their first ever victory coming at Brechin City at Glebe Park in October. The use of Meadowbank Stadium, meanwhile, was also becoming something of a millstone around the club’s neck.
A home game against Brechin was cancelled shortly before kick off when the referee realised the pitch was still covered in blue and red markings from a recent Highland games held on the park, despite 500 supporters having already made their way into the ground. Although Brechin decided not to ask to be awarded the points, they did insist their travelling expenses were reimbursed. Thistle club also had to switch a home tie with Stranraer to Stair Park after the council had double booked a religious festival inside the stadium for the same day.
The club did eventually acclimatise to their new surroundings and would eventually finish 18th. The crowds had dwindled from their first night match against Albion Rovers, but had averaged out at a healthy 600. With the next season’s league reconstruction creating a smaller bottom tier, it was believed that Meadowbank could become a more competitive entity.
Such notions were dealt a severe blow when Bain announced he was leaving the club on the eve of the new season.
After 20 years as the club’s manager, John Bain had decided to take his leave. Incredibly, he had never been paid since he’d taken up the position as his job in the Ferranti factory had forbidden it. The company had been generous and afforded him the necessary time off he required, but with the new league club demanding more of his attention, the balance between work and what was technically his past-time was becoming increasingly uneven. The stress of joining the League had also taken its toll, as did his relationship with the committee, who felt he had been overly loyal to the players.
And so Bain departed, refusing an invitation to join the board. Although he would regularly attend matches as a spectator (and eventually join the committee), the summer of 1975 saw the end of an era.
The rest of the seventies were difficult for Meadowbank, and over the next few years the average attendance dropped from 677 to 454, something which suggested the team were already in decline. Once again, the council were proving to be a hindrance. After passing a local by-law, no child under the age of 16 was allowed to be in employment within the city – this meant the club had to stop using ball boys. In the vast emptiness of Meadowbank Stadium, this saw long delays every time the ball went out of play. It was hardly conducive to a flowing spectacle of football.
The extent to which the club were struggling for cash was particularly highlighted on New Year’s Day 1980. After travelling to face Montrose at Links Park, the team arrived to discover the match was postponed due to a frozen pitch. Manager Willie MacFarlane was insistent that the game go ahead as scheduled because Meadowbank couldn’t afford to hire a coach for the re-arranged game. Referee Jim Renton reluctantly agreed, on the provision that neither side made any tackles. One of Scottish football’s most bizarre games finished 3-3; neither team committed a single foul.
With the club showing limited improvement on the park, MacFarlane was eventually dismissed. His assistant Terry Christie, a 37-year-old deputy rector, was appointed manager in early 1980. It was a decision that would kick start the beginning of Meadowbank’s brightest period.
The start of his reign was fairly inauspicious but in 1983 he led the team to second place in the league and promotion to the First Division, an outstanding achievement for a club who had never previously finished outside the bottom four places of Scottish football. The club were relegated in 1984-85, but not before embarking on a fantastic run in the Skol League Cup, seeing off Greenock Morton and Premier League sides Hibs and St Johnstone before losing 1-5 on aggregate to Rangers in the two-legged semi-final.
Their return to the basement didn’t last long and after the sales of promising strikers Darren Jackson and Alan Lawrence to Newcastle United and Dundee respectively raised over £90,000, Christie embarked on building a side which would win the club’s first ever silverware, the 1986-87 Second Division championship. Meadowbank finished second in the following season’s First Division and only missed out on promotion to the Premier League after further reconstruction restricted the second tier to a single promotion place.
The next few seasons saw Meadowbank take a slight step backwards. They were still overachieving as a part-time team hovering around the middle of the First Division table, but the future direction of the club would change dramatically in 1991 when businessman Bill Hunter was invited to join the board of directors.
Although Hunter was the new man on the board, he had been well-known around the club as a match sponsor since 1974. He immediately set out his plan to take the side forward – his first step was to sack Christie, whom he felt had taken the club as far as he could.
The unseemly boardroom battle over Christie’s removal was played out in the full glare of the media, with the accusations and recriminations an embarrassing episode for a team who had always taken pride in its perception as a family club. The furore lasted until April 1992 when Christie eventually stepped down. He would later join Stenhousemuir and lead the club through the brightest period in their history.
The fears surrounding the club’s new direction were assuaged to some degree by the return of John Bain who joined the new-look board, but the team failed to improve under new manager Donald Park and were relegated in 1993.
By this juncture, Hunter had identified what he thought was at the heart of Meadowbank Thistle’s problems. He believed that Edinburgh wasn’t big enough to sustain three senior league clubs, with Thistle’s poor attendances lending weight to his argument – even when the team finished second in Division One, their average attendance was only 850. As a result, Hunter began to look for untapped areas which could sustain a successful football team; if Meadowbank Thistle were to grow and improve, they could only do so in a new location.
Hunter’s initial plan was to move to Musselburgh, but he was unable to come up with an agreement with the local authority to facilitate a move. The next possibility arose when Hunter had a chance meeting with with a member of the Livingston Development Corporation, a group set up to regenerate the town. The Corporation felt the area lacked a football club – something which could unite the citizens and give them a common purpose to rally around.
Livingston’s denizens seemed pleased by the news, as did Hunter, but the supporters of Meadowbank were aghast as they sensed their club was being ripped from their community. For the second time during Hunter’s time at the club, events were taking on a very nasty, very public turn. Threats were made from both sides, with Hunter claiming that he and his family were the targets of abuse, while fan groups said they were banned from the ground for no reason other than disagreeing with Hunter’s views. Despite a petition with 4,238 signatures imploring Hunter to keep the team in Edinburgh, Meadowbank Thistle were moved more than 16 miles away to a custom-built stadium at Almondvale, Livingston.
While their move to West Lothian was deeply divisive, equally controversial was the club’s new name. Part of the deal that involved them moving to their new stadium would see the club rebranded as Livingston. Meadowbank fans felt “Thistle” should be incorporated in some way, keeping their 50-year link with Ferranti, but Hunter refused to cede to their wishes and settled on the name Livingston. It was a cruel and unfortunate severance of their past.
Livingston made their league debut in the 1995-96 season, although due to a delay in its construction, they didn’t play their first match at Almondvale until November 1995, when a crowd of 4,000 – coincidentally the same figure that watched Meadowbank’s debut in the league – watched the new team’s 1-1 draw with East Stirlingshire.
How does one measure whether or not Bill Hunter made the right decision to move the club? Purely based on on-field performances? In that respect, the move has been a success. Livingston have won the Second and Third Division championships twice, as well as the First Division in 2000-01. They finished in third place (behind the Old Firm) in their debut season in the SPL and participated in the UEFA Cup in 2002-2003. In 2004, they won the League Cup, arguably the highlight of their short history.
It is impossible to entertain the notion that Meadowbank Thistle could have achieved these feats. But equally, with their financially prudent outlook, it is highly unlikely the would have attempted to achieve success at any cost. Livingston have been plunged into administration by previous boards, not once but twice. The first occasion saw the club saddled with debts of £7.2 million. Another example of the extraordinary way in which the club have been run since their inception is their number of managers – 19 in just 18 years, something that seems even more incredible when Ferranti Thistle had only had one man at the helm for over 20 years.
Whatever the future holds, Livingston are a club that should never forget their past. And everyone connected with them should be thankful to John Bain, their Honorary Life President.
The sources used in the research for this article were:
- From Thistle to Lion: A History of Livingston Football Club by Carol Bain
- The Lions’ Roar: The Livingston FC story by Craig McGill
- David Stoker’s serial on the rise of the club on the Livingston Mad website