John Lambie, the man Scottish football will forever hold dear

The Herald, by Neil Cameron


It was the spoonerism to end all spoonerisms.

During one of John Lambie’s many stints as manager of Partick Thistle, he had taken possession of three lads from “Africa or wan of thae countries” and decided to put this trio of unknowns straight into a game. It did not go well.

These poor lads weren’t up to it and Thistle lost. This did not please the gaffer who made sure his players didn’t leave the dressing room without knowing their efforts had not been good enough.

Every single one got it. Nobody had done the simple things. Commitment had been lacking. And, most of all, there was a suspicion that some of them might not have been as heterosexual as they might have declared; more of which later.

And then Lambie, incandescent with rage, turns on the three foreign lads who had come to realise they were not in Kansas or ‘wan of thae countries’ any more.

“And as for you three, ya pair of *****.” The place was in an uproar.

There was also that time when a young Jim White visited Douglas Park to interview Lambie after what had been a bad result at the weekend.

Jim asked the Accies boss what he had said to the players. The answer would not be shown these days.

“I cried them a shower of p**fs.” Well, quite.

“Honesty is the best policy, son,” Lambie told me 18 months ago as I sat in his living room for one of the most enjoyable hours of my life.

“Look at all the ex-players who still contact me. That gives me a lot of pride. Chic Charnley is on the phone every week. Callum Milne, Steve Pittman, Martin Hardie were all head bangers, Steve would kick his granny, and I hear from them a lot.”

Charnley, who he signed four times, had just been off the phone when I turned up. It was Monday and Chic always phoned ‘the boss’ on a Monday.

“I went through a lot of this myself, you see. I was a head-banger. I was a compulsive gambler at 16.”

As the old saying going, it takes a bam to know a bam.

But John Lambie was so, so much more than this. He was a man who did more than any other to save Partick Thistle when they were skint and heading God knows where. He reluctantly went back to Firhill and took a club on their knees to fifth in the Premier League.

He twice won promotion with Hamilton, who were mostly part-time, and yours truly hardly missed a game in both those seasons when they won the First Division.

He famously beat Graeme Souness’s Rangers in the Scottish Cup at Ibrox.

There was John Brogan, a prolific striker. Tommy O’Neill was superb. So, too, John ‘Wurzel’ McNaught (RIP). Wee Stevie Clarke was great. And to this day I have Alex Taylor’s signed picture. What a team.

The Accies took the lead against Celtic in the Scottish Cup at Douglas Park, Alex Forsyth our hero, prompting a celebration from me and a look of utter disdain and disbelief from my grandfather.

I was a ball boy, got in the dressing room to pour out the tea and, best of all, was allowed as a 13-year-old to sit in Lambie’s chair in what was a tiny office. Yes, he swore but could not have been kinder to this kid.

Same when I grew up. I once interviewed him in his office and he insisted I joined him in a pie and beans. We then went for a pint.

And what a football man. John Lambie knew people. A big Rangers man, his hero was Jock Stein who told him that his trick to management was getting to know how his players ticked.

Lambie got the best from everyone. He saved a few marriages, take that from me. People such as Gerry Britton would keep returning to working with a man apparently too gruff for a ‘big’ job such as manager of Hibernian which he should have been given.

Too gruff! What utter tosh, as the man would never have said.

He knew people, tactics, football, which players to sign and got blind loyalty because he gave it out. And under that rather scary exterior, this was a nice man, really funny, interesting, good company and, I’m happy to say, a hero who didn’t let you down.

And now, sadly, he has gone. John had not been in the best of health but the news of his passing yesterday at 77 still came as a shock. It said a lot that no matter who folk support, the tributes were warm and sincere.

People can’t be fooled. They knew that John Lambie was one of them.

As he told me: “I had a great life in football and don’t really have any complaints. I just wish football was more exciting now.”

Now this great man has left us, football and Scottish life is a hell of a lot duller. Thanks for everything John. I just wish we’d beaten Hearts that night in the 1986 Scottish Cup.

Although as the manager said of a terrible miss right that the end of the game: “To be fair, I never had Willie Jamieson down as the Gerd Muller type.”