Things aren’t going so well for Partick Thistle. Not only are they languishing dangerously close…
Earlier this week Scottish football was hit by the news of John Lambie’s death. The 77-year-old enjoyed a decent playing career, most notably impressing at Falkirk, but it was for his efforts in the dugout that Lambie will be remembered. The Glaswegian was a chip off the old block; a chain-smoking, constantly swearing man-manager who was unafraid to tell his players what he really thought of them. And he kept pigeons.
Lambie was a glorious throwback to an era before primadonna superstars and millionaire footballers. His no-nonsense approach won him fear and respect in equal measure from his dressing rooms, which he was able to convert into loyal, hardworking performances from his players.
The former defender is something of a cult hero in Scottish football. During his managerial career, Lambie held seven management positions, but at just three clubs: Hamilton Accies (twice), Partick Thistle (four times) and Falkirk. It’s Firhill where Lambie is most greatly revered, but it would be foolish to overlook his achievements at Hamilton.
Lambie had two spells as Hamilton boss, from 1984-88 and also the 1989/90 season. During this time Lambie led Accies to the First Division title, gaining promotion to the SPL in the process. During his first spell, Accies recorded one of the most famous wins in their history when they knocked Graham Souness’ Rangers out of the Scottish Cup with a 1-0 win at Ibrox, despite a 33 point gap between the sides in the league.
Lambie’s success at Hamilton didn’t go unnoticed in Glasgow and during the 1988/89 season he received the first of many panicked phone calls from the Partick Thistle board, desperate to bring him in to save the Jags from relegation from the First Division. A poor start to the season saw Thistle part company with Billy Lamont, and the board identified Lambie as the man to save the club from relegation.
And he did. Thistle finished the season in eighth place, one place above the relegation zone. At one point the Jags went on a ten-match unbeaten run from the turn of the year, which ultimately proved enough to keep them in the division. Lambie’s work was done and he left to return to Hamilton, but Thistle fans remembered and respected his efforts.
This would become a familiar narrative at Firhill. Lambie returned to the club for the 1990/91 season and once again whipped the Thistle players into shape. This would be the longest time spent at a club for Lambie and he enjoyed success.The previous campaign saw Thistle finish in 8th place in the First Division – under Lambie’s stewardship, Thistle were in the SPL within two years. For the three seasons Lambie was in charge at Partick Thistle in the top flight, he kept them up every time. The season after he left, they were relegated.
Lambie then left Partick for his old club Falkirk for the 1995/96 season, but he was unable to repeat his heroics. Falkirk were relegated from the top flight, alongside Partick Thistle, and Lambie left the club. He would be out of the game for three years before eventually returning to Firhill for the most improbable of successes.
When Lambie was re-appointed at the start of the 1999/2000 season, Thistle were in dire straights. The previous campaign saw the Jags avoid relegation to the Third Division by a single point and the club nearly went out of business the year before, relying on donations from fans to keep afloat. Thistle simply could not afford another relegation and as they teetered on the edge of financial oblivion, they called Lambie to take the reins for a third time.
The turnaround was remarkable. A decent first season saw the Jags finish mid-table, then Lambie set his sights on far loftier goals. Thistle romped to the Second Division title, finishing 17 points clear of second-placed Arbroath. The next year they won another title, this time by ten points, and won promotion to the SPL. In the space of three seasons, Lambie had taken Thistle from being a point away from relegation to the Third Division to Scotland’s top flight.
Lambie stayed for Thistle’s first season back in the big time and led them to a ninth-place finish and comfortable survival, before announcing his retirement in May 2003. Again, Lambie’s impact on the squad was clear for all to see the following season – Thistle ended up being relegated, finishing eight points behind Aberdeen in eleventh place.
Lambie returned to the Firhill dugout for a brief stint as caretaker manager during the 2004/05 season but chose not to take the job on a permanent basis. Age had caught up with Lambie, as had the times – around this time it became unlawful to smoke at football grounds. For most managers this was a fairly innocuous event, but not Lambie. By his own admission, he struggled to make it through a game without a cigar.
All of this just adds to the larger-than-life personality of the Thistle legend. His old-fashioned idiosyncrasies are totally out of keeping with the modern game, yet the thought of a sixty-something chain smoker giving his players an absolute bollocking can’t help but bring a smile to your face. There’s something gloriously old-school about it all.
However, attached to Lambie’s tough exterior was an excellent football mind and an impressive wit. Partick Thistle’s Colin McGlasghan was taken off during a match under Lambie’s tenure after bashing his head and was suspected to be concussed. When his assistant Gerry Collins told Lambie that McGlashan was in fact concussed and didn’t know who he was, Lambie famously responded: “Tell him he’s Pele and get him back on”.
Thistle find themselves once again embroiled in a desperate relegation scrap this season and will need every point they can get if they’re to beat the drop. Rather serendipitously, Thistle will host Accies for their first game since the news of Lambie’s passing, where tributes for the Firhill legend are sure to flood in. This time, Lambie won’t be around to save the Jags. If Alan Archibald’s side are to stay in the Premiership, the Thistle boss will need to look to Lambie’s accomplishments for inspiration. John Lambie would have believed safety was possible – there’s no greater example for Archibald to follow.