The Great Story Begins
The earliest record of organised football in Bathgate is April 1849 when the Courier reported , “A match took place on the ground of the Bathgate Club between Clarkson and the home team when victory fell to the strangers by four goals to none”. Although this is not the same Bathgate club that was eventually to gain admittance to the Scottish League, it was a forerunner.
The next decade saw the formation of several clubs within the town, including The Volunteers, Durhamtown Rangers, Bathgate Athletic, West Lothian Thistle and Bathgate Rovers. The last-named was the most successful, defeating Falkirk in the 1891/92 Scottish Cup. The problem of too many clubs chasing too few resources forced most of them to the wall within a few years. In July 1893 in an attempt to pull resources within the town, a public meeting was called and a new club called Bathgate Football Club formed. Maroon was chosen as its colours and the club took over Old Boghead Park from the recently defunct cricket club. This club lasted for almost 40 years and played in the Scottish League.
The first few seasons of the new Bathgate club were fairly uneventful with the team playing in the Eastern League alongside such names as Broxburn Shamrock, Uphall and Bo’ness. Gradually, as professionalism made greater inroads into the game and Bathgate’s officials recognised the need to look outside the town for talented players, the club behan to make progress. A lease was obtained in 1903 for land at Russell’s Row near the town centre and the committee set about developing Mill Park as the club’s home for the next 30 years. A limited liability company was formed in 1904, issuing 500 shares at £1 each. This heralded a period of success for the club, climaxing in the winning of the 1908 Scottish Union League.
The club was then invited to join the newly formed Central League – the most senior outside the Scottish League itself. It included Alloa Athletic, Dunfermline Athletic, St Johnstone and Stenhousemuir – all clubs frustrated in their attempts to gain acceptance to the closed shop Scottish League. After the end of World War 1, Central League clubs were invited more or less en bloc to form a new Scottish League Second Division. Thus in August 1921, Bathgate found itself alongside neighbours Armadale, Broxburn and Bo’ness kicking off a new season at the heights of the Scottish League. Bathgate’s first Scottish league match resulted in a 2-1 win at East Fife with Henratta becoming the club’s first league goal-scorer. Later in the year the club experienced its finest hour up to that part in its history, eliminating First Division Falkirk in the Scottish Cup with ‘Jiner’ Robertson scoring the only goal of the game – this match set the Mill Park attendance record of 10,000.
Again in the Scottish Cup, Bathgate drew 1-1 with Queen’s Park in January 1923 in front of a crowd of over 60,000 at Hampden Park. Amongst the spectators was the then Duke of York, the future King George VI, to whom both teams were presented to before the match. Unfortunately for Bathgate, Queen’s Park won the replay the following week. The following season Bathgate missed out on promotion y one place but the writing was already on the wall. Attendances dropped from an average 4,000 in the first season to less than 1,500 four years later and the 1926/27 financial report made dire reading. For the third season running, a loss was made on the year, this time a hefty £574, with the club haemorrhaging an average of £50 per home match. It was the state of affairs that prompted the directors in January 1928 to switch a highly prestigious home Scottish Cup tie with Celtic to Parkhead. Despite much local anger, it was the only business decision the directors could take and it is likely that the revenue from the match, that was lost 3-1 allowed Bathgate FC to carry on as long as it did. However, it was simply delaying the inevitable and in March 1929 the club withdrew from the Scottish League.
The club won the Scottish Qualifying Cup in both 1930 & 1931 but despite these successes, interest in the club was negligible and Bathgate FC played its final match in April 1932 in front of an attendance reported as “meagre.” With the club in abeyance, the town council hectored the club directors into selling the ground and it was levelled to make way for housing, with the stand being sold to Stenhousemuir FC. All that now remains of Mill Park are two sections of perimeter wall. One section that ran behind the west goal runs off at right angles from Waverley Street past an electricity sub-station and forms the garden boundary of houses on Mill Road. The second can be seen at the north end of Marmion Road.
In the mid 1930’s the torch was handed from the seniors to the juniors and in 1936 Bathgate Thistle Junior Football Club was formed, taking its place in the Midlothian League for season 1938/39. The team took up residence at Creamery Park next to the Co-operative Creamery in Hardhill Road on the Western outskirts of the town. The new club’s opening fixture took place at Tranent, ending in a 3-1 defeat but seven days later Creamery Park was officially open with a 2-1 victory over Dalkeith Thistle. The following season coincided with the start of World War II but Bathgate Thistle managed to remain active throughout the hostilities. The club won several trophies during this period, which was hardly surprising given that a number of local competitions had only four or five entrants.
Season 1947/48 saw the club come as close as they ever have to claiming the Scottish Junior Cup when it contested the semi-final. To reach it, Bathgate had eliminated Glasgow giants Baillieston in front of a reported 10,000 spectators at Creamery Park before filleting Jeanfield Swifts 8-1 also at home. The semi-final ties, including two replays were all played at Ibrox and attracted a total of almost 93,000 spectators. In the end Irvine Meadow edged past Bathgate in the third match, having survived a strong penalty claim by Bathgate in the first tie.
No account of the immediate post-war years would be complete without mentioning two names – David Mackie and Alex Anderson. Mackie was picked to represent Junior Scotland in 1948, the only player in the history of the club to gain full international honours, whilst in season 1948/49 Anderson set a club record of 69 goals in one season.
The 1950s saw the club put together a side even better than that one of 1948, arguably the finest-ever seen at Creamery Park. Of the squad that reached the last eight of the Scottish Junior Cup in 1954, nine went on to sign for senior clubs including Jimmy Mann (Sunderland), Joe Dignam (Wrexham), Jock Neil (Rangers) and David Ferguson (Coventry City). Pick of that bunch was goalkeeper Billy Ritchie who joined Glasgow Rangers in 1955. By 1966 he had forced himself in Rangers’ first team where he remained for the next five years – the last line of defence in what many regard as the greatest Rangers side ever.
Once these talented players moved on, the club found it impossible to replace them so went into decline. A couple of David-versus-Goliath acts in the 1960’s brought a brace of local cup wins but the dawn of the 1970’s saw the club living a hand-to-mouth existence. There was much talk at this time of the club folding and Creamery Park being taken over by the highly successful Bathgate United under 21 side. This team had twice reached the final of the Scottish Under 21 Cup under the guidance of former Bathgate Thistle player Jimmy Man. A rescue package launched by a couple of local councillors in 1973 saw the club enjoy a brief upswing, losing two local cup finals. The club achieved a mention on Sunday Scotsport following a 13-0 demolition of perennial Junior Cup cannon fodder RAF Lossiemouth.
Another bleak period followed before construction company Hydraload, owned by player and later manager William Hill, began to invest into the club in 1987. A new pavilion was built and floodlights were installed. The club achieved promotion to the East Region First Division where it spent five of the next six seasons. The club also reached the 1993 Fife and Lothians Cup Final and more importantly made a significant impact on the Scottish Junior Cup, reaching the last 16 in successive season. On both occasions affluent Central League sides Lesmahagow and Pollok were entertained in front of four-figure crowds at Creamery Park – both being relieved to return with 1-0 wins.
Turn of the century successes came when the team won the St Andrews United mini tournament in 2000 and in 2001 when they won the Cooperative Cup Final, beating local rivals Whitburn.
Many local players went on to player for Senior Clubs and for many of them Partick Thistle seemed to be the door in the big game. Billy Ritchie, Willie Smith, George Smith, Tommy Gibb and Joe Hogan all entered senior football by that means.
To be continued……….