TWENTY years on from the demise of Meadowbank Thistle, the club’s most famous manager looks back on his days with them and much else besides
Many will have their own memories of – and opinions about – Meadowbank Thistle, who 20 years ago this summer controversially morphed into Livingston.
They won’t be kindly remembered by everyone. Not by those visiting supporters who sat shivering in their inevitably cold, brutalist home that was the Commonwealth Stadium. Not by those managers relieved of their duties after being brought down to size by the assortment of veterans and young tyros in amber and black who were such an awkward wrecking crew in the 1980s.
According to Terry Christie, this tended to happen a lot. “Every time we went to play a bigger club their manager would get sacked, because we were beating everyone!” he smiles. Now 72, it is timely that he has recently published an autobiography re-living these days, as well as much else besides. After all, Christie is was more than just a football manager, as the book’s title, the Head Teacher of Football, suggests.
This references his other existence as a headmaster – he was appointed assistant head teacher at Portobello High School at the tender age of just 30, later becoming depute rector at Trinity Academy, head teacher at Ainslie Park and then, latterly, at Musselburgh Grammar school.
This demanding and time-consuming occupation was carried out in addition to his responsibilities to several part-time football teams. Not that these occupations were necessarily mutually exclusive. By day he was in charge of unruly kids, by night and on Saturday afternoons… well, you get the drift.
Meadowbank are still my favourite club. I made them into a First Division team from a factory team. They had absolutely nothing
Sometimes these worlds collided, such as in the form of a footballer-stroke-manchild by the name of Victor Kasule. Or “Vodka Vic” as he was known on terraces around the country at the time. Feeling flush in 1986 after selling Darren Jackson to Newcastle United, Christie decided to splash out for Kasule, who cost the not inconsiderable sum of £30,000 from Albion Rovers.
“He was massively talented,” says Christie, brightening at the memory. “But he found it hard to conform to the strict team pattern I insisted on. You gave him instructions: ‘When we get a free kick you stand there’. He could not remember any of that.
“You had to find a role where they can just play football and not have to think too much, so we played him in centre midfield, where he could just run around and get stuck in. Then Shrewsbury came in and offered £30,000 again.
“I went to Vic: ‘you are going to Shrewsbury’. ‘Where’s Shrewsbury?’ I checked the train times. I desperately wanted my 30 grand back! I got him on the train at Waverley after training, I gave him his ticket. My mistake was not staying to watch the train go away. The next morning the phone goes at school. It’s Victor. ‘Oh, are you in Shewsbury, what’s it like?’ ‘No, no. I am in Edinburgh…’ ”
These were good, if sometimes stressful, times. The highs included a win over Hibernian, his boyhood heroes, en route to the 1984 League Cup semi-final and securing promotion to the First Division the previous season at Brechin – they were the first club Meadowbank defeated after kicking off life with 14 straight defeats at the start of their first season, 1974-75. Christie came in at the end of 1980, promoted from his role as assistant manager.
He stayed until 1992, when it all ended rather messily, amid backbiting and betrayals. Unpopular owner Bill Hunter, aka “Mr Blobby”, later pushed through the change of identity and relocation to West Lothian. But Christie has not let this impinge on his memories.
“Meadowbank are still my favourite club,” he says. “I made them into a First Division team from a factory team. They had absolutely nothing. When I left they were going to start their seventh successive season in the First Division. Because we had no money they called us dour, organised, defensive. People got fed up with that. Because I was younger, some of the players were close friends, like Graeme Armstrong, Tom Hendrie and Mickey [Lawson]. I had a lovely period when I had Darren and Alan Lawrence in the team, they were some good teams.”
Remarkably, only an ill-timed league reconstruction upheaval prevented them making the great leap forward to the Premier League, after they finished second in the First Division in 1987-88. “We’d have got slaughtered, but it would have been nice to have got them up,” he says.
“I became a manager at the end of 1980 and Meadowbank getting promoted [in ’83] was probably my greatest moment because I was so young. I was 37 when I started at Meadowbank. I had started managing at 31. I really started managing at 23, when I started with my school teams.”
There’s a reason Christie – actually, it should really be Christy, he later explains – wishes to meet in a non-descript café area of a supermarket in a soulless shopping centre. When you have been a headmaster at several schools in the Edinburgh area, you tend to be recognised. “I just say hello to everyone,” he says. “If they are below the age of 60, there’s a good chance I have taught them.”
There’s also a good chance those who do not know him from their school days will remember him as the long-time inhabitant of dug-outs in lower-tier Scottish football grounds. Latterly, he became more recognisable still when he began wearing his son Max’s duffle-coat at games. This sartorial statement attracted comment when Stenhousemuir secured a win of wins over Aberdeen 20 years ago in the Scottish Cup. “I had worn it for three or four weeks before we beat Aberdeen,” recalls Christie.
“I had a nice overcoat, a Crombie I think it was, and I thought as I was going out the door before a game, ‘oh I need a coat’. I will just take this because it has a hood. And when we beat Aberdeen it was all over the newspapers and I started feeling jumpy if I didn’t have it.
“So I always had it with me, even in the height of summer. I had two actually, I got another one. They are both now in the cupboard.”
By writing his recently completed autobiography he has got to know himself better. Such projects tend to be voyages of self-discovery, hence the “Christy” detail emerging after viewing his Irish father Peter’s birth certificate (his mother, Bridget, also hailed from southern Ireland). “I thought about changing it back again, but it was just too much bother,” he says. Whether with a “y” or an “ie”, it’s a name that somehow avoided being added to the list of those who have managed Hibs.
At the risk of earning a headmaster’s wrath by misquoting a great playwright from the land of Christie’s antecedents, to have missed out once is unfortunate, twice careless. But three times? It seems scarcely believable. Christie claims to have been offered the opportunity to manage the team he supported on three separate occasions. And on three separate occasions it didn’t happen for whatever reason.
“Hibs had come in on one occasion. Stewart Brown had the headline in the Evening News – ‘Terry Christie – manager of Hibs’. I was to be the successor to John Blackley in 1986. I had seen Kenny Waugh, who was very enthusiastic, at Gregor Cowan’s house, a Hibs director. Kenny did not actually say I had the job but he said: ‘this looks great Terry, we will be in touch in a couple of days’. So I thought I had the job, as you would.
“Hibs were playing on the Wednesday at Clydebank and me, Susan, my soon-to-be wife, my two boys Max and Kevan, and Mickey Lawson, who was to be my assistant, went to watch. They lost. The old adage no news is good news is turned on its head when you apply for a job. When I did not hear, I thought ‘aye, aye’. Then Stewart Brown phoned me.
“Stewart Brown phoned me using the type of voice normally used to tell someone that a member of the family has passed away,” adds Christie. He imparted the news that Alex Miller had, in fact, been given the job.
But a few years later, in 1991, the chance came around again – or so he thought. Hibs were struggling, and Miller was nearer to being relieved of his duties than even he might have realised. “I was sitting in bed after quite a hard night out,” Christie recalls. “I had been out with pals getting pissed, because my wife and daughter were away. The phone rang, ‘Is that Terry? It’s Tom Farmer’. So I met him. He assured me I had the job. I met him at the Caley hotel.
“I was half an hour late. But we got on well. He told me I had the job. He said Allan Munro, his friend, was going to phone me. And I did talk to Allan – it was just 13 years later in the car park at Duddingston golf club!”
By the time he was approached again, in 1996, Christie surely assumed someone was winding him up. “Dougie Cromb was chairman,” he recalls. “Alex Miller had got the sack. Tom O’Malley was Tom Farmer’s boy at the club. We were down at his house in North Berwick. ‘We’ve cleared it with Tom,’ he told me. ‘He is delighted’. But then he phoned me to say Dougie Cromb said he was going to resign if I was made manager. That was the end of it. Jim Duffy got the job instead.”
Christie suspects distrust of his schoolmasterly background might have been to blame for nixing at least one of these opportunities. “My headmastership was a huge disincentive,” he says. “Football clubs are run by reasonably successful small businessmen who have not had a great education – do they want a headmaster as manager? Everyone hates the schoolteacher. ‘You are nothing but a f*cking school teacher!’ I used to get that all the time from the terraces behind me.”
Just as disappointing at the time was the months when the phone didn’t ring after an epic fall-out with Meadowbank. “I thought it would be red hot with offers,” he says. He finally returned to the game at Stenhousemuir, fully six months later. It was there where he says he created his best-ever team but you wonder what might have happened at Hibs, for whom he had such passion – and for whom, he says, he would have given up being a headmaster to turn full-time.
“I grew up near the ‘Smoky Brae’, a ten-minute walk from Easter Road,” he says. “At half past two there was an exodus. Nearly every male in the household went to the game.
“My dad was working and could not get to the game – so it was my mum who would take me and my brother, Peter, and we’d be there early, from 2pm, sitting there waiting for the Hibs.”
Aside from Hibs, there are other regrets, including when he failed to phone ahead to inform then Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson he would be absent from the dug-out at a pre-season friendly the Pittodria had agreed to play because he was attending the wedding of a friend. “From all accounts, Sir Alex was less than impressed by my non-appearance,” he says. “Looking back I have no excuse for appearing rude and unappreciative and still cringe when I think of my behaviour.”
Nevertheless, describing himself as a “cock-eyed optimist”, he is not one for dwelling on difficulties, even if the book opens with a short “Shap” shock, in the style of the Clint Eastwood westerns he adores. While climbing said summit on the M6 motorway in a Ford Escort following a holiday, his first wife, Margaret, turns to him and asks for a divorce.
“I was obsessed with football,” says someone who shut himself away on a Friday night to composes his team talks and who is still involved in the game, if only every third weekend or so, as an SPFL match delegate.
“I am less obsessed now, but I was,” he acknowledges. Now happily married to Susan, it was finally time to hang up the duffle coat while at Alloa Athletic in 2003, just prior to his 61st birthday. But not before weaving his way into the very fabric of the Scottish game.
From works team to UEFA CUP
MEADOWBANK Thistle came into existence in 1974 after a works team from Ferranti, an electrical engineering and equipment firm in Edinburgh, unexpectedly won a vote to become the 38th Scottish senior club.
Ferranti Thistle took their place in Division Two at the start of the in 1974-75 season, but had to find a new name because sponsorship was forbidden in the Scottish game at the time.
One condition of playing at the Commonwealth Stadium, where they were forced to move from their City Park ground in the north of the city, was featuring “Meadowbank”, where their new home was situated, in the name.
Although Meadowbank Thistle lost their first 14 games, they finished third bottom, above Cowdenbeath and Forfar, in their maiden season.
In 1983 they finished second under manager Terry Christie, earning promotion to the First Division. They also reached the semi-final of the League Cup in 1984. After relegation, Meadowbank won the league again in 1987 and finished runners-up the following season but were prevented from taking their place in the Premier Division due to league reconstruction.
Consistently low crowds led to then owner Bill Hunter winning a controversial fight to relocate the club in the West Lothian new town, Livingston.
The club eventually moved to a custom-built stadium at Almondvale in November 1995. The club, now called Livingston, with “Thistle” controversially dropped from their name, finished third in the Scottish Premier League in 2001-02, played in the Uefa Cup and won the League Cup in 2004, while in administration.
They are currently embroiled in financial struggles but kept their second-tier status this season with a last day win over Queen of the South.