Wednesday 12 January 2022

The Third Division Is No More! The Demise of Scottish League Football's Original Third Tier Which Folded After Less Than Three Full Seasons

“It’s time the third division of the league was dead. It does not deserve to be alive,” proclaimed the Sunday Post and within a month they would have their wish. 

Whilst third division football thrived after it was introduced south of the border in 1920, up in Scotland this was not the case. The Scottish League’s original third tier introduced three years after its English equivalent lasted only lasted three seasons before folding amid financial troubles amongst a large number of its clubs.

Discussed at the league’s AGM on 17 May 1923, the decision to introduce a third division to the Scottish Football League (SFL) was ratified at the end of the following month on 28 June. 15 new members were elected to the league and joined East Stirlingshire, last season’s bottom club in Division Two, to form the new Scottish League Division Three in the biggest expansion the league had ever seen.

Arthurlie, Beith, Brechin City, Clackmannan, Dumbarton Harp, Dykehead, Galston, Helensburgh, Mid-Annandale, Montrose, Nithsdale Wanderers, Peebles Rovers, Queen of the South, Royal Albert, and Solway Star. Some of them familiar names to the modern-day football fan, some of them anything but - these were the 15 new members of the SFL. The new clubs were given associate members status which gave them no voting rights but, nonetheless, they had all officially joined the Scottish Football League.

Arthurlie and East Stirlingshire gained promotion in the first season of the league meaning top scorers Queen of the South finished third and missed out. Vale of Leven and Lochelly United were relegated from Division Two. Leith Athletic would also join the SFL to take the league up to an uneven 17 teams for the 1924-25 season and the first in which the cracks started to appear. 

Whilst the 24-25 season started with 17 teams it ended with 16 as in February 1925 Dumbarton Harp resigned from the league, had their record expunged, and promptly disbanded. With a population of around 22,000 in the 1920s, not too dissimilar to the town’s population today, It is hard to believe that a town as small as Dumbarton could ever have hosted two league clubs but for the brief period that Harp spent in the league the town did just that. But whilst at the time Second Division Dumbarton FC were attracting crowds of up to 2,000+ Harp were more likely to attract just a couple of hundred to their home games. The problem for Harp, and what would become a common theme for many clubs in the division, was that their gate receipts did not cover increased running and travel costs with one home game netting them just £7 in revenue. This was a little over £450 in today’s money and less than the £15 match guarantee that league rules stipulated should be awarded to the away side. In short, they did not have enough supporters.

All parties concerned were keen for Harp to finish the season but financially it just wasn’t viable and the idea of the SFL subsiding their remaining fixtures, having been contemplated, was considered far too dangerous a precedent to set. 

It wasn’t just Harp who had been in financial trouble either with other clubs in similar situations having also considered resigning from the league but these clubs would survive for now at least. In the case of Montrose, a money-spinning cup tie at home to Glasgow Rangers helped keep them afloat.

Despite the troubles many clubs were facing, the 1925-26 season kicked off as usual. Nithsdale Wanderers and Queen of the South had been promoted at the end of the previous season with relegated Johnstone and Forfar Athletic replacing them. The financial woes of many did not get any better, however, and by the time winter set in they were getting worse. In January 1926 Galston became the second Third Division team to fold in less than two full seasons. Having, like many, coped perfectly well playing regional football the increased travel of a national division was too much for them. With the town of Galston having a population of just 5,000 in their case they could not draw large enough crowds to cover these extra financial costs of Third Division football - Like Dumbarton Harp, they did not have enough supporters and it was a similar story across much of the league.

Many clubs were still not getting anywhere near enough in gate receipts and Dykehead, for example, could only muster takings of £4 for one match against Montrose. In this instance when Dykehead could not pay their visitors the stipulated £15 share they were reported to the SFL who forced them to pay up. It was not only visiting clubs who had trouble getting paid, however, as the players were struggling too and a revolt over unpaid wages at Vale of Leven was amongst the many other financial issues affecting clubs. These issues of course included clubs not having enough money to cover travel costs which made several clubs, notably including Clackmannan and Beith, unable to fulfil certain fixtures in the latter part of that third season. Very quickly things would come to a head.

On 12 April The Scotsman reported that “The affairs of the Third Division of the League appear to be in a serious condition” and with the financial woes of many only getting worse, the chairman of Helensburgh called for an emergency meeting to discuss how the monetary situation could be resolved. When the meeting took place many suggestions were put forward but the most prominent as reported in the press was to merge the second and third divisions into one second tier split into two regional divisions in the same way that in England they had a Third Division North and a Third Division South.

Despite some positive suggestions, however, things still looked grim. “Third Division S.O.S” was a headline in the Sunday Post on 18 April whilst the following week they ran with the headline “Last Days of the Third Division” and in its pages seriously questioned if the division had a viable future. 

When several club representatives met representatives of the league in Glasgow later that month that future was still in doubt with the clubs reminded that the regional proposals mentioned earlier would need the support of the Second Division sides to go through. Assurances of promotion at the end of the season were also sought but could not be met. 

That latter issue above would soon be for many unsatisfactory resolved at the league’s AGM when it was agreed that there would be no relegation and promotion to and from the Third Division that season. With many fixtures still unfulfilled and full completion of the Third Division season increasingly unlikely it was, however, difficult to see how they could find a champion and runner up to promote anyway.

“In their great effort to gain promotion to the Second Division of the Scottish League, Leith Athletic are doomed to disappointment” duly reported the Brechin Advertiser at the beginning of May. With the above coming under the headline “Third Division to Go”, however, it was clear that not only could the current Third Division season not be finished, but the division also would not be able to restart next season either.

As it turned out, discussions at the AGM had gone beyond promotion and relegation and the whole future of the Third Division, or lack of, had actually been discussed and resolved too. This saw the Third Division completely disbanded with the clubs agreeing to join an expanded Scottish Alliance league complete with regionalised divisions to basically take the clubs back into non-league football.

There was one more issue to resolve, however. With no promotion or relegation, it was decided that the bottom two Second Division sides Bathgate and Broxburn United would have to apply for re-election to the league and four ex Third Division sides applied to take their places. In the most up to date league table, Helensburgh were sat atop the Third Division ahead of Leith Athletic in second but if the season had have been completed then third-placed Forfar Athletic would have been likely champions due to a large number of games in hand. This made Forfar more appealing in the re-election process. And so it was, with Bathgate successful in their re-election bid, Forfar, taking the place of Broxburn who would fold six years later, became the only Third Division team to keep their place in SFL for the following season, one which they still hold today.

That with little more than a whimper brought to an end Scottish League Division Three. A third tier would be revived for a short while after the war but this consisted mostly of the reserve sides of First Division clubs and a proper Third Division would not see the light of day again until 1975. That came about mainly due to the shrinking in size of the top two tiers of the SFL, however, rather than adding a load of new clubs. 

As for all the clubs that the old Third Division left behind, Brechin City, Leith Athletic, and Montrose would all be re-elected to the league within a few seasons but the rest would never return. Mid-Annandale, Peebles Rovers, Royal Albert, and Vale of Leven still exist outside the modern SPFL today but the rest are long gone. Leith only lasted as a league club until 1953 and folded two years later reforming in 1996. Brechin on the other hand hung about until just last year when they became the third team after East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers to be relegated via the new League Two promotion/relegation play-off system involving the winners of the Highland and Lowland Leagues that was introduced in 2015. Montrose are still in the SPFL having never left.

Finally, of the original 15 clubs who in 1923 joined the SFL and the new third tier that just leaves the fate of the three sides who along with existing members East Stirlingshire gained promotion from the division in its two fully completed seasons. Nithsdale Wanderers failed in a 1927 re-election attempt but lasted outside the league until eventually folding in 1964. 37 years later, however, the club actually reformed. Arthurlie resigned from the SFL in 1929 but continue to this day outside of it, whilst Queen of the South remain a league club to this day and currently play in the second tier Scottish Championship. 

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