Obituary: John Lambie, football manager

John Lambie
John Lambie
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John Lambie, football manager. Born: 19 March 1941. Died: 10 April 2018, aged 77.

His fondness for racing pigeons, greyhounds and cigars, his talent for snappy quips, his use of industrial language and his occasional eyebrow-raising statements – such as foregoing marital relations till his team brought to an end its losing streak – all made headlines. But he was also a dedicated and successful manager, winning two titles at the helm of Hamilton Accies and another two, consecutively, with Partick Thistle, as well as a promotion during three periods in charge.

In many fans’ eyes, Thistle were the club with which he was particularly associated and Firhill gave rise to his best-known quip – how when one of his players briefly suffered concussion and reportedly did not know who he was, Lambie retorted, “Tell him he’s Pele and get him back on the pitch!” Within the sport he was widely recognised as someone who knew the game inside out and was adept at getting the best out of his players.

He also enjoyed a fulfilling career as a player, recording more than 400 games as a full back for Falkirk and St Johnstone, nearly all in the top tier. While with the Perth club, he played in a League Cup final at Hampden, finished 3rd in the old First Division, played in the Uefa Cup and faced Real Madrid in a friendly in Spain.

Born to Robert and Isabella in Whitburn, a place he would remain attached to all his life, Lambie was the middle child of five, the others being Bobby, Isabel, Nancy and Duncan. Duncan was also a footballer, playing for Dundee, Hibs and in Germany. Their father was a fireman at the local Polkemmet colliery and together their parents ran a general grocers’ shop in the town’s Main Street. In addition to the brothers, three others from their street went on to play professional football – Wilson Wood with Rangers, Jim Irvine with Hearts and Middlesbrough and Jimmy Ferguson with Dumbarton. Lambie, nicknamed “Beano” locally for his liking for the comic, attended Whitburn Academy and then worked as a milkman before starting his football career.

While playing as an 18-year-old winger for Whitburn Juniors he was signed by Falkirk. Their manager, Alex McCrae, also a Whitburn man, soon converted Lambie into an attacking full back, one of the earliest overlapping ones. He carved out a solid career at Brockville, playing over 250 games in ten seasons prior to signing for St Johnstone in 1969. The Muirton Park team were enjoying a successful spell under Willie Ormond, reaching the League Cup Final shortly after Lambie’s arrival. In front of a 73,000 crowd, Saints acquitted themselves well but lost narrowly 1-0 to Celtic. Two years later they excelled themselves in finishing 3rd in the League, ahead of Rangers, and played in the Uefa Cup the next season. In a memorable campaign, Lambie played in five of the six ties, which included wins over Hamburg and Vasas of Budapest before succumbing to Zeljeznicar of Sarajevo. The return flight from Yugoslavia was hair raising as the pilot had to return to land following a nearly disastrous take off, provoking Lambie to threaten to refuse to reboard. In May 1971 he and his teammates played Real Madrid in the Bernabeu as the Spaniards wanted to play a “British style” team before their Cup Winners Cup Final against Chelsea a week later. To their credit, Saints held their illustrious opponents until nine minutes from the end, when they pulled away to win 3-1.

After hanging up his boots he initially assisted with Saints’ coaching before joining Hibs under Eddie Turnbull, who had been instrumental in putting him through his badges at Largs. Straight-talking Turnbull was someone he always admired and with whom it was said he shared some characterisics.

His first managerial position was at Hamilton Accies, replacing Bertie Auld, in 1984. He won them two second-tier titles and promotion to (and relegation from) the Premier League between then and late 1988. Memorably, in January 1987 he took his team, then bottom of the Premier, to play star-studded Rangers at Ibrox in the Cup and won. A period of moving between Accies and Thistle ensued before he settled at Firhill in early 1990 for five years. During that time he not only won promotion to the Premier but kept the “Jags” there for three seasons until he was tempted away to manage Falkirk for a brief, unsuccessful spell. Three years out of football followed before he returned to Partick, whom he stabilised and led to consecutive title successes, a Cup semi final and the Premier League, before he retired in 2003.

In the early 1960s Lambie married Mamie Boyd from Harthill and they had three daughters, Janet, Isobel and Carole.

The family lived in Whitburn but he and his wife separated about ten years ago, although they remained friendly. Racing pigeons and greyhounds played a big part in his life, after he was introduced to them by his father. At one time he had 80 birds, which he raced successfully all over the country, sometimes remarking that they were like footballers and needed motivation. This led to his opening betting shops in Addiewell and Loganlea, which he ran successfully. Given his outspoken and colourful image it surprised many that Lambie was a religious man who attended Brucefield Church in Whitburn throughout his life. An occasionally gruff exterior masked a generosity of spirit and a willingness to help others that endeared him to many. Away from football, he was a strong and much-loved family man whose daughters referred to him as “their rock”.

Lambie is survived by his wife and daughters, and grandchildren Stephanie, Melissa and Connor.