Almanac Soccer: John Lambie, Scottish Football Hero

 

Thick plumes of smoke were engulfing John Lambie’s office at Firhill in Glasgow.

 

He was grappling with a giant cigar and, temporarily at least, struggling. Eventually, he turned to us and let off a string of invective, which finished with the words: “Not even bloody Churchill could have managed this one!”

 

There was never any danger of John Lambie being confused with a Trappist monk. As one of Scottish football’s most mercurial and charismatic characters from the 1970s to the 1990s, his press conferences were stand-up comedy routines, while his dressing-room tirades against anybody he thought wasn’t pulling their weight became the stuff of legend – especially after a BBC recording of one expletive-littered Lambie speech contained more bleeps than words.

 

As somebody who grew up in Whitburn in West Lothian in the 1950s, Lambie, who died this week at the age of 77, subsequently admitted he was a bit of a tearaway, but he knuckled down after he was taken to Polkemmet Colliery by his father and witnessed miners eating sandwiches with rats nibbling around their feet.

 

It was a pivotal moment, because the young Lambie flung himself into his football endeavours and enjoyed significant success, both on and off the pitch. After breaking through at Whitburn Juniors, he advanced into the senior ranks as a defender at Falkirk, for whom he made over 200 appearances, as the prelude to moving on to St Johnstone, where he cemented his reputation as an uncompromising performer and helped the club enjoy success in the Scottish Cup and Fairs Cup. Indeed, he was among the Saints who tackled the legends of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu in 1971.

 

On his travels, he worked with some formidable managers, including Willie Ormond and Eddie Turnbull, two of Hibernian’s exalted “Famous Five”, and supped from their well of knowledge once he graduated to the coaching staff at Easter Road, while the likes of George Best were among the employees at the Leith club. Indeed, Lambie once went looking for Best after the former Manchester United star was AWOL from training and found him sharing a bottle of champagne with a beauty queen. “What could I do?” he recalled. “They looked very happy together. And it’s not as if we had anything to teach George about football!”

 

This redoubtable character never forgot his roots, nor deviated from his earthy background. His hobbies were keeping pigeons, following the greyhounds who raced at various circuits across central Scotland and forming friendships with hard-boiled individuals such as Turnbull, whom he revered, the Lisbon Lion Bertie Auld, and his long-term confrere Gerry Collins.

 

He eventually took over from Auld at Hamilton Academical in 1984 and the Lambie legend moved into top gear when he led them to the First Division Championship and orchestrated one of the greatest shocks in Scottish Cup history when Accies knocked Graeme Souness’ star-studded Rangers line-up out of the competition with a goal from Adrian Sprott in 1987.

 

He brought the best out of such idiosyncratic performers as Partick’s Chic Charnley, who was once attacked on the training ground by an assailant who was wielding a Samurai sword.

 

And his innate sense of humour and unconventional approach made him an iconic figure in his realm. The most famous incident happened when Thistle player, Colin McGlashan, was knocked out during a game and the Partick physio told Lambie: “Gaffer, he’s got concussion. He doesn’t know who he is.” In a flash, the manager responded: “Well, slap that wet sponge on his face and tell him he’s f***ing Pele.”

 

On another occasion, Lambie grew incandescent with Thistle player, Declan Roche, “who wouldn’t shut up” and struck him with a pigeon which had just breathed its last. He later expressed remorse, but added: “I think, in my life, I’ve understood pigeons better than footballers: you know where you are with them.”

 

He and Collins were regarded as one of the sport’s great double acts. Lambie was the more garrulous and gregarious of the duo, but Collins was no shrinking violet either, and they infused all their dressing rooms with Anglo-Saxon banter. Like Still Game’s Jack and Victor, they were roguish ragamuffins: Lambie once said: “I don’t like people moaning about football. They should be glad they’re doing this for a job. They could be down a pit or in a factory.”

 

Yet, while he was one of the old school, there was no doubting Lambie’s influence on life at Firhill. He managed them during four different periods, guided them to promotion to Scotland’s top flight in 1992, worked tirelessly to keep them afloat when they struggled with serious financial problems later in the decade, and was one of the catalysts as they rallied from the brink of extinction.

 

He never made any secret of his belief in hard work and collectivism during his career. It didn’t always succeed – he made a short-lived and inauspicious return to Falkirk with bad consequences for both – but Lambie stuck to his values. He summed these up in pithy fashion. “Football isn’t any different from any other business. You have good guys and bad guys, but if you pull together, you’ll be alright.”

 

He was married for over 40 years to Mamie, and the couple had three daughters, Isobel, Janet and Carole. By the time Lambie was inducted into the Partick Thistle Hall of Fame, he had revealed other facets of his eclectic personality, including a deeply-felt religious conviction and support for the Scottish National Party and independence. There was, however, no truth in the assertion on Wikipedia that he was an expert in erotic art at his Bathgate home.

 

In 2015, he was distraught when his younger brother, Duncan, a former Dundee winger, succumbed to dementia, and remarked in the aftermath he couldn’t have endured what his sibling had gone through.

 

But, in his own way – and he did everything in his own way – Lambie dealt with life’s twin impostors with a smile on his face, a cigar in his mouth, and a determination to stay true to his friends and comrades.

 

Unforgettable, as one of his musical idols, Nat King Cole, once sang!

 

Comments

  1. Luke Reynolds says:

    Nice tribute Neil. Love the George Best anecdote.

  2. Neil Drysdale says:

    Thanks Luke. A real character and a nice guy as well!

Leave a Comment

*