John Lambie: Partick Thistle's Ultimate Character Still Stands Tall
John Lambie: Partick Thistle's Ultimate Character Still Stands Tall

by Kenny Pieper

To say that John Lambie is a significant figure in the history of Partick Thistle Football Club would be a bit like saying Bill Shankly visited Liverpool now and again. His very presence permeates the place. Four spells in charge as manager – each a success in differing ways – cemented his position as a Thistle legend.

The news of John Lambie’s passing in April 2018 was not unexpected – he was 77 and had been very ill for a long time – but reactions to the news were heart-warming. He affected a lot of people during his lifetime in football and the affection on display was genuine.

However, on a personal note, I was surprised by how much his death impacted me. I never met the man, other than a very brief ‘hello’ at Firhill hospitality once, and he had not been manager at Thistle for some 14 years. But something about him just got to me, hurtling me back to my youth.

John Lambie’s four spells as manager of Partick Thistle brought about the most memorable times of my life as a supporter. You could argue that our recent top-six finish was better than anything he ever achieved; you could argue that we’ve seen better, more attractive football over the past five years than we ever did under Mr Lambie. But you couldn’t replace the era, the transformative experience that following his teams gave me personally. First in my very early twenties, then in my very early thirties, travelling home and away.

Mr Lambie – and I call him that as a matter of complete respect – managed Thistle for what we thought would be the last time in the last game of the 2002/03 season. And while we lost the game 1-0, our SPL status had long since been secured. A fitting legacy to the man solely responsible for getting us there. However, while fighting back a wee tear as he gave us a song in the centre circle, it will be as much the memory of the Dundee United fans staying behind to offer their respects in applause which will stay with me just as long.

It is impossible to doubt the sincerity of the sadness felt by all football fans at the death of a manager who, perhaps, had provided us beleaguered Thistle fans with the most exciting football and greatest period of success that any of us had witnessed for a generation. And, looking back to the period just before his arrival, you can understand those feelings.

Welcome to the John Lambie era

In 1988/89 we were second bottom of the First Division and sinking fast, with results including a hideous 4-1 home defeat to Morton and a particularly horrific 5-1 humping at Airdrie. We had some not bad players: Bobby Law, John Flood and Gerry McCoy were all in the side, but there seemed to be a real sense of doom and gloom over Firhill. That was about to change.

John Lambie arrived at Firhill for the first time in November 1988, a month when Malcolm Rifkind was digging his heels in over the Poll Tax, Michael Forsyth was determined to kill off any optimism that Devolution would ever happen in our lifetime and a certain David Murray was taking control of a future of managerial fiasco at Ibrox. Enya was at No 1 with Orinoco Flow and a home defeat to Forfar was followed up quickly by an impressive 3-1 win at Somerset Park, Ayr. The rest is legendary.

For many of us, John Lambie first came to our vaguely confused attention discussing his sex life on Saint and Greavesie during his time as manager of Hamilton Accies – don’t ask – but even before that he had a – kind of – Thistle connection. His first toe on the management ladder came as assistant to Bertie Auld at Douglas Park. Perhaps his progression to Firhill icon was inevitable. Nevertheless, his appearances on TV, sharing some bizarrely comic banter with Jimmy Greaves, brought us a new and more than welcome football character.

His outspoken, slightly surreal ramblings became part of the attraction. The one hundred and one anecdotes, the stories of his post-match and post-modern comments are exaggerated and underplayed equally in the telling. In his autobiography, Chic Charnley recalls a time where, in order to intimidate an out-of-form defender, at training Lambie pulled a pigeon from his coat pocket and broke its neck in front of the players. Needless to say it was already dead but it made its mark – he imposed such a strong sense of himself that the humour, the passion, the warmth lived long in the memory, well after he hung up his managerial bunnet.

This undoubted strength of character became equally worshipped and derided throughout his managerial career and, while never claiming to attack or defend his loyalty to Partick Thistle – he did, remember, leave us twice when courted by other suitors; success has its price – there are now retired footballers who owe their entire careers to the great man. I’m thinking of Chic Charnley especially. But I could easily be referring to Albert Craig, to Danny Lennon, to Stephen Craigan perhaps. Or even Alex Burns. All players whose careers had either come to a complete stop or were puttering to an almighty go-slow.

As Mr Lambie came out of retirement to take over again for a brief period at the end of 2004, it is worth returning to that night at Firhill when, for his only home game, runaway leaders Falkirk were soundly brushed aside by a rampant Thistle team desperate to impress. Like little boys eager to show off to a favourite uncle. The excitement and energy stirred up by the mere presence of the man meant that surely even John Hughes in the Falkirk dugout would have been convinced of the inevitable outcome, probably as he munched on his Corn Flakes that morning. His worst feelings were not to be dispelled. The fervour felt by everyone Thistle-minded that night will remain in the memory in a wee place where we’ll all be able to uncover it, take it out, admire it and say ‘I was there!’

Ach, the man was versatile too. Mr Lambie’s testimonial in January 2007 was too long in the planning and too late in its arrival. Those who experienced not simply the periods when he was manager, but the almost magical upturn in fortunes of the team each time, deserved their opportunity to pay their respects, for a final fond farewell at Firhill. We’d forgive him the first full season back down in the Second Division as the next three years would be wonderful. It was disgraceful that those in the know and could make the decisions didn’t name the new(ish) stand after him while he was alive. To do so now is something at least but he deserved to know what we thought of him. Long after he has gone, this place needs a constant reminder of where we might have ended up without him.

I started off this piece by saying that his presence permeates the place. Putting his name on it was the least we could do. So why do we become so personally shaken when we hear of the death of people we have never met? Is it because a little part of a world we occasionally enter is affected? Is it more of a communal mourning which allows us to feel better about the loss? Perhaps. But I think it is more about the real world entering our fantasy one. When famous people die – and those we feel are one of us, part of our lives – then we are reminded of our own mortality. We listen to these guys and share their emotion and we think that they are immortal. They are merely characters we invent though, people who we will almost certainly never meet, and definitely never know. And because they are our own creation, we mourn for them when they pass.

I was stunned when I heard of Mr Lambie’s death and moved by many of the tributes paid to him. However, I almost immediately felt guilty when I heard of the starvation of thousands in Syria and did not react in the same way. Football does funny things to us. That escapism from the real world is what makes us what we are. Dreamers: unrealistic dreamers.

Partick Thistle were relegated last season and are struggling to cope with the Championship. I understand why young fans are upset: it’s a horrible feeling to finish last, to be relegated. Especially when, as a fan for five or six years, you’ve only ever known success. It hurts.

We were never relegated under John Lambie, even though we were a game away from dropping to the Third Division back in the late Nineties. The experience is a painful one for all of us, even those who have experienced it before. What might be harder to swallow for newer fans though is that the reality for clubs like Thistle is that historically our visits to the top league are to be savoured as they don’t last. Our memories of John Lambie’s time as manager should remind us of that.

We missed him when he was gone

When he left for Falkirk we were relegated in a year; when he retired finally we were relegated within a year. The longer we were in the top flight the more we began to believe it was our right – perhaps it is – but it belies the huge achievement of Alan Archibald and Scott Paterson, who kept us up for so long.

That our first game after John Lambie’s death was against Hamilton was apt and a huge celebration of the man. I said for years that we should name a stand after him. It was a scandal that it took his death to realise how important he was.

Thistle and Accies fans came together to mourn, but also celebrate the life of one our greatest heroes. However, perhaps we should also remember all that Alan Archibald did for us. Remember that Mr Lambie helped develop Archie as another of our greatest.

And perhaps the message to learn is that we must treasure those moments of relative success because they don’t come around a lot. Thistle may not be in a great place right now, but John Lambie taught us to believe we can reach higher than we ever believed. Our duty now is to keep believing.

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Publishing date Originally published in Jun-2019 (NMG).
Thistle Archive publishing date Republished here on The Thistle Archive, 26-Mar-2024.
Latest edit date Latest edit version Jun-2019.

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