Division One at last
Good runs in the Glasgow Cup and Qualifying Cup
- Opening of Meadowside
Despite ending the previous season as champions of the Second Division Thistle were not automatically promoted to the First Division. In these early days of the League it was customary for elections to take place to decide the members of the Leagues. Thistle as champions, along with Leith Athletic, Kilmarnock and Airdrieonians, sought promotion, while Third Lanark, Clyde and Abercorn, as the bottom three, were required to seek re-election to the First Division.
A noticeable west/east divide existed in the First Division, and it appeared that Thistle would face strong opposition in their bid to become Glasgow’s fifth representative in the division. The Scottish Sport newspaper agreed, describing the bid as bold, despite a good string of results in both the league championship and friendlies against First Division teams at the end of the previous season and a new state-of-the-art ground. It would be a bitter blow for the club if promotion was denied after all the efforts of the last ten months.
However, when the votes were announced Thistle were almost unanimously elected, along with Third Lanark and Clyde, who retained the top division status.
“Partick Thistle may consider themselves highly honoured in securing such a decided distinction, and the best way they can exhibit their gratitude is by resolving, and taking adequate measures to support their resolve, that they shall not be in the last three a twelvemonth hence. The coming season will be a most momentous one in the history of the club, perhaps the most momentous they have ever faced, for in addition to their elevation to first-class rank as a club they will enter upon the possession of their new and better equipped grounds at Meadowside.” [Scottish Sport, 4 June 1897]
There was delight and relief in Partick that the dream had been achieved and further evidence of the elevation came with the publication of the fixture list. In August 1896 the first league game had been against Dumbarton, now no longer members of the League. This season the first opponents would be Scottish champions Heart of Midlothian at new ground Meadowside.
President Mitchell and his committee were keen that Thistle should not be the poor relations in the league despite being the new boys, and set out to strengthen the team, although not without the warning that the club might struggle financially because of the increased salaries required to tempt players to the top division.
In other areas signs of the progress of Partick Thistle as a ‘big’ club were starting to show. Twelve brake clubs (one with a banner with a likeness of Willie Paul) had registered at Meadowside as willing to transport supporters to away games, where previously there had been none. Membership of the club was on the up as well.
The development of the new grounds at Meadowside continued, under the management of Third Lanark’s William Reid. On the north side of the pitch an uncovered stand and enclosure had been built. A players’ pavilion had been erected on the opposite side and once funds permitted a covered grandstand would take its place including dressing rooms, committee rooms and press facilities. The pitch was to be surrounded by a cycle track, similar to the one at Ibrox. The pitch, meanwhile, was descried as “a fine, almost level, stretch of young turf”.
Things were looking up in Partick. The club had a great opportunity to rise to the top of the First Division. Success would bring more success, and financial reward, particularly in an area of high population and relatively little competition for its football supporters. All was dependent upon performances on the field.
Scottish Sport reported the list of players who were expected to fulfil expectations of heavy work and would have to do all in their power to achieve that respectable position in the league.
Goal – John Spence and Tom Wilson (signed from Vale of Leven);
Backs – Jamie Auchencloss, James Hirst, Herbert Morrison, Andrew Wilson (Sunderland/Strathclyde Juniors);
Half-backs – James Lamont, Robert Currie, William “Toodles” McDonald, Bob Duncan (Renton);
Forwards – William Lawson, John Ferguson, Willie Paul, Robert Gray, James Lamb, Lafferty (Newcastle United), David Pearson (Linthouse), Harvey (Abercorn), A.McGregor (Morton), James Clelland (St Bernard), Alex McDonald (Linfield)
They weren’t expected to walk off with League flag – Scottish Sport jokingly suggested that they could afford to wait a year or two for that. The players were, with a few recent signings the exceptions, a bunch of local lads representing their local club.
The opening game at Meadowside was against the Scottish Cup holders Rangers, in a friendly, on the 1st September, and the day before the game the Scottish Sport summed up the air of expectation in Partick.
“It is to be hoped that [the opening of Meadowside] may prove to be an epoch-making occasion, and that the opportune contemporaneousness of the event with the club’s League exaltation will be followed by a spell of prosperity such as the oldest member has never known. It is readily admitted that there is in the large and unoccupied burgh of Partick ample room for the prosperous maintenance of a first-class team, and provided the Inchview executive can sufficiently supply the requisite, their suc cess may be confidently predicted.”
It was a party atmosphere as Thistle celebrated a new start for the club. The Knightswood Brass Band played for the 6,000 crowd and councillor Green began the game after the Second Division flag had been raised above the new stand.
Unfortunately the Thistle players’ inexperience of playing against the top players in the country showed, and Rangers triumphed 5-1. Robert Gray had the honour of scoring the first Thistle goal at Meadowside, but it was his defence that looked most out of touch and would need to improve. The £120 gate was welcome – Thistle had a new ground to pay for.
Following the disappointment of an opening day defeat the nay-sayers were out in force, suggesting that Thistle’s promotion had been a mistake and that the gulf between the First Division and the Second was too great. However, within the club there was great determination to prove them wrong and start the league season with a win.
Thistle were able to field their strongest eleven but it was still an enormous task. The opponents – Hearts – had won the League title the previous season, but Thistle had also won their division, so champion faced champion. Thistle, up against a strong wind, played an early form of route one football with backs and halfs sending the ball quickly to their forwards. Robert Gray scored the first Thistle goal, followed by a goal from wee John Ferguson a minute after half time. However, it was the third goal, just one minute later again, that drew a huge ovation from the crowd of 7,000. Captain Willie Paul, the oldest man and the only amateur on the pitch, took a shot from long range that beat the keeper. Thistle held on after a late rally from Hearts to take both points. It was an amazing win brought about more by hard work than by skill and ability, but amazing all the same.
The reaction in Patrick to the victory was unbelievable. Residents who had hung out of tenement windows watching the large crowd throng the streets before the game now watched them leave Meadowside singing and dancing. The newspapers were full of the story of a well-known Thistle follower who announced he was going to start at the nearest close and insisted he was going to visit every tenant in entire burgh to shake their hands. There were rumours that the Thistle committee had commissioned a statue of Willie Paul to commemorate his goal.
After the elation of the first win Thistle were brought down to earth with a bit of a bump, first with a 0-1 defeat to St Mirren, and then to another big defeat at the hands of Rangers – 0-6 in the Glasgow Cup.
The inadequacies of the team were shown up first at Love Street when the forwards were ineffective despite an excellent performance from the defence. Jamie Auchencloss in particular impressed and was carried off the field shoulder-high by his supporters after a man of the match performance.
A week later even dogged defending in the Glasgow Cup couldn’t keep out Rangers again. More worrying was an injury to James Lamont, who cut his knee after falling on a piece of glass on the pitch. Lamont had been influential at right-half in the Second Division championship team and would be missed. The score was 0-0 when Lamont went off and the 10 men couldn’t cope with the Rangers’ onslaught.
One windfall of the heavy Rangers’ defeat was another bumper crowd – 15,000. In the first three home games 28,000 had paid into Meadowside compared to an average of 2,929 a game the previous season. On the strength of the attendances the Thistle committee decided to press on with their plans for building the grandstand on the south side of the ground.
The team continued to evolve as winger Abrahams was signed from Glasgow Perthshire to strengthen the right side of the attack, and Fred McDiarmid from Dundee Parkhouse for the left. The forward line had been pointed out as being the area most in need of strengthening. Herbert Morrison was released and joined Linthouse, A.McGregor was released after just a few weeks as a Thistle player after training irregularities rumoured to involve the Ayr races and signed for Motherwell, and A.Martin was transferred to Cameronians.
Thistle were delighting and frustrating their fans and the newspapers in equal measure. “Partick Thistle are fast qualifying for the title of the most eccentric club in the league. One week they go down with a bang, and the next, when least expected, they come up smiling serenely,” said the Scottish Sport.
After a win over Dundee that lifted Thistle to a ‘fairy-story-like’ fourth in the league they followed with a defeat to Hibernian (which saw Willie Paul up against future Thistle Legend Alex Raisbeck), another heavy defeat to Rangers and a revenge win over St Mirren. Inexperience on the part of the young players in the team was a major problem. However, the defence of goalkeeper John Spence and backs Jamie Auchencloss and Andrew Wilson were regularly praised with Wilson in particular tipped for great things. He was to play over 200 times for the club over seven years.
The committee, though, was still positive, and they offered an open offer to “ bet all Meadowside to a blade of grass that they won’t finish in the last three this season”. There were still twelve league games to play – time would tell whether they would avoid the ill-fated bottom three and the re-election process.
James Lamont, Robert Gray and Willie Paul all represented Glasgow in a 0-0 draw with Sheffield at Cathkin. It was ten years since Willie Paul, regarded now as a veteran, had been awarded his first city cap. Willie scored but it was disallowed. Lamont, who had missed five Thistle games through injury until his comeback the week before, suffered a recurrence of the injury, and Thistle lost his services for another seven games.
A revenge defeat at the hands of Dundee and wins over St Bernards and Clyde kept Thistle in a respectable league position and the committee’s bet safe – some papers felt they had done enough to guarantee their place in the top league for the following season already. However, late December saw a drop in the form of the stalwart defenders and a dispute over money from a number of the club’s players, resulting in a run of heavy defeats and the loss of 29 goals in six games. David Pearson (joined Linthouse), William Lawson (Motherwell), James Lamb (Falkirk) and William McDonald were released from their contracts. Thistle were sliding towards the bottom of the table.
Martin of Hibernian injured his knee in a game at Meadowside after falling on some hard ground. This was the third such accident at Meadowside – James Lamont and Provan of St Bernards had also suffered bad injuries on the poor state of the new Thistle pitch.
The promised of a big bonus relieved the tension between players and club against Third Lanark on Ne’erday, and resulted in a fine 5-2 Thistle win which almost guaranteed that Thistle wouldn’t be dragged into the re-election zone. It was the ideal time for a comparison of the league positions of the Scottish and English leagues. Thistle were ranked 17th out of 26 clubs – above Blackburn Rovers, Preston, Stoke and Notts County.
William Johnstone guested for the club for a couple of games. Johnstone had played three games for Scotland while playing for Third Lanark between 1887 and 1890. George Allan joined from Leven Thistle.
Although the Thistle players continued to battle hard, and determination couldn’t be faulted, they began to find it difficult to cope against the better players week in, week out. Thankfully, Dundee, St Bernards and Clyde were also recording poor results that kept Thistle precariously just above the bottom three.
Thistle were knocked out of the Scottish Cup by Dundee in the first round, and, without a game two weeks later, organised a home friendly against Dumbarton. Dumbarton’s professional players demanded a wage increase before the game. The club refused and selected a team of untried amateurs at Meadowside. After the game the Dumbarton committee revealed that had they lost they would have folded because of financial problems – in reality Dumbarton won 3-1.
Willie Paul had missed the Scottish Cup game with Dundee, and Hearts tried, and failed, to persuade the Thistle veteran to play for them in their Scottish Cup second round game, against Dundee.
The last day of the season saw Thistle two points above Dundee, who were in the dreaded third-bottom place. Thistle were to play Third Lanark, who they had beaten 5-2 in January. Dundee faced Rangers (who still had a chance of snatching the league title from Celtic) but Thistle needed just a draw. Thistle lost to Thirds while Dundee unexpectedly beat Rangers, and both clubs ended the season level on thirteen points.
With no goal average, goal difference, or record against each other to separate Thistle and Dundee the Scottish League executive had an unprecedented problem – should they include four teams in the re-election process? Eventually they decided that a decider should be played to select a third club to join St Bernards and Clyde. Rather than play the decider immediately the play-off would be played almost a month and a half after the last scheduled league game.
This gave the Thistle players a problem in staying fit and motivated. The Thistle committee resurrected their aspiration to see the team play in the Glasgow League alongside Celtic, Clyde, Queen’s Park, Rangers and Third Lanark. Successful application would ensure a series of competitive games in the run-up to the play-off. However, an application to join the league the previous summer had been rejected. This time the Thistle application was better received – the argument that they had finished the Scottish League season well ahead of Clyde and having competed well against Thirds as compelling – and the Glasgow clubs’ reps agreed, if space could be found in the fixture lists, that Thistle should be accepted.
The players were delighted that they would have some meaningful games to prepare for the play-off, and the first game was scheduled, and advertised as a Glasgow League match, against Clyde. However, the 4-5 defeat was to be Thistle’s only Glasgow League game of the season. A week later, on the eve of the scheduled Thistle v Queen’s Park game, Queen’s and Rangers’ fixture secretaries exercised a veto, explaining that they now couldn’t find space for the extra games in the lists, and Thistle were out of the tournament as quickly as they had been included. The planned game was played as a friendly, Queens winning 5-0.
An inconsistent standard of opponents was not the ideal preparation for the play-off, but the Daily Record tried to cheer up the concerned players – neither Dundee nor Thistle as loser of the play-off would be likely to be voted out of the top division. However, there would still be a stigma over ending the season in the bottom three, particularly after the Thistle committee’s confidence back in October.
Dundee agreed to play the decider at Meadowside – a bigger crowd was felt to be likely there as Thistle had already played twice at Carolina Port, despite the fact that the game was to be played on the same day as the Scottish Cup Final. In return for giving up ground advantage Dundee were guaranteed half the gate and £20.
Thistle were missing William Massie and Robert Currie and never reached their earlier league form – Dundee triumphed 2-0 to send Thistle into the bottom three for the first time that season. The club’s gamble of offering a guarantee to Dundee to play the game in Glasgow was always going to mean a financial loss, but it would have been worth it if the team had won. A crowd of 3000 meant financially-strapped Dundee went up the road with the win and a decent day’s payment. It was a disappointing end to Thistle’s first season in the First Division and threatened immediate relegation. However, when the League met in May the vote was for the status quo and Thistle retained their First Division place.
Off the field the club AGM announced that they had generated an income of £2763 in the year, almost double the previous year. £320 was still owing to pay off the debt on the ground development. A vote agreed that the club colours for the following season should be ‘dark blue jerseys and white trousers‘. Elections were held and the following committee members were elected for the 1898-99 season.
- President Mr W.R. Mitchell
- Vice President A.McLellan
- Treasurer George Easton
- General Secretary Robert Syme
- Match Secretary J.Robertson
- Committee A.M.Smith, Willie Paul, J.Dougall, G.Morrison, W.Smith, T.Robertson, G.Clerihew, A.Beattie, J.McColl, W.Williamson.
Ex Thistle players were in the news in England. At Leicester Fosse Archie Freebairn and David Proudfoot were suspended by their club, while John Wilkie and John Campbell were rumoured to be ready to return to Thistle from Blackburn. Both Campbell and Wilkie had played in an Anglo-Scot team in the international trial match in March, but they eventually signed for Rangers in May 1898 for a combined fee of £200. It was a bitter blow for the Thistle fans who hoped to see the return of two favourite sons. Blackburn also sold John Proudfoot, to Everton, moving players on after finishing second bottom of the English First Division.
Two of Thistle’s better players – James Lamont and William McDonald – signed for Bedminster, who also added Proudfoot from Leicester to their team for 1898-99. Future Thistle Legend Alex Raisbeck signed for Liverpool from Hibernian for £200.
It had been an eventful season for Partick Thistle. The optimism of the start of the season was all but lost by the end of the campaign, despite survival after the league elections. Off the field the club had shown that there was a ready audience in Partick for a team that was even only relatively successful. New additions to the team had been offset by the departure of some old favourites. The main question of the summer – could the progress of 1897-98 be continued?
Season by season