Interview: Jackie McNamara, Partick Thistle manager

Part-time comedy writer and inventor, but Partick manager reveals a steely side

The room where I’m sent to wait for Jackie McNamara contains two dart boards, a sink and a bag of letters for printing players’ names on shirts which has spilled on the floor. It’s pretty uninspiring, although the window does offer fine views of one of the Partick Thistle goalmouths. Unfortunately, this is the end which has lost its terracing and weeds grow on the slope where once men and boys stood, enraptured by the exploits of the Maryhill Magyars.

Ach, there I go, romanticising the Jags, the Harry Wraggs, the team whose trendy West Endy camp followers were lampooned so piercingly by Chewin’ the Fat. I promised myself I wouldn’t do it, but the thing is, this is a special club, so a thunderous 1969 Scottish Cup tie against Celtic relayed via crackly radio is soon being remembered, David Francey blowing a gasket as Thistle came back from the dead to draw 3-3. Then the League Cup triumph three seasons later when every half-time scoreboard operator in the land was assumed to be drunk, because there was no way the Sizzle could be tanking Celts four to nil. I look out across the pitch, wonder if the club still employs a commissionaire, braided and brassed for matchdays … wonder if the team still runs out to the lovely prog-rock of Sylvia by Focus ... wonder if there are enough Qs lying around for “Denis McQuade” and “quixotic wing-man” – and peer in vain for “Firhill for thrills”, sacred text on an advertising hoarding way back when.

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Suddenly, the young, ambitious and very progressive manager of the First Division table-toppers appears in the doorway to remind me that it’s 2012 after all. “I know all about the sign,” says McNamara, still in his shorts from leading the training, “and hopefully we’ll have an excuse to revive it before too long. But what do you think of this? ... ” He leads me across the corridor to a notice on a wall far more relevant to his Thistle, still unbeaten, and this is what it says:

“Arriving late for game – £25; violation of social media policy – £20; phone ringing after 1.30pm on matchdays – £5; refusing as new player to perform a song with dancing – £20; urinating in showers – £3; belching, farting or not wearing flip-flops in physio’s room – £3; forgetting Morph suit on Fridays – £10 or must train in pants.”

McNamara is pleased that his players are taking money from each other in the name of team bonding – the fines go into the kitty for the Christmas party – and he is even more chuffed with the manner in which they have responded to the new culture which he and assistant Simon Donnelly introduced at Firhill after last season when potential winning situations would all too frequently dribble away like a £3 piddle down a plughole.

“We left a lot of points out there,” he says. “Not through lack of ability. We just switched off. It seemed to be a mental problem.” Although money was tight, the best mates from their days together at Celtic decided to spend the last of their funds set aside for recruitment on a “mind doctor” rather than one more new player. “This woman had worked with golfers and the first thing she reckoned needed improving was the diets. They were really poor. The young lads, who don’t have much money, were filling up on cheap rubbish.

“One boy – and you had to admire his honesty – admitted he ate little else but rolls stuffed with crisps. But the older players weren’t much better and we got them onto pasta and protein drinks.”

The management team had already addressed the squad’s belief. “We’d told them to go away for the summer and focus on how they could win the league.” The psychologist then went to work on maximising performance. “She was concerned about the worries and stresses players have away from football.” So far, the combined methods seem to be doing the trick. And McNamara – who once told his father and namesake, the Hibs great, that he had no interest in becoming a manager – is loving the job.

“Dad was like: ‘Would you do it, son?’ but at that time I thought there was no way. I’d seen too many managers, guys who’d done a lot in the game, shown a lack of respect by lads who were talking behind their backs – lads who’d achieved nothing. Later on, though, I got to thinking about some of the fantastic coaches who’d helped me and how clever they’d been. I must have been paying attention, a bit of a swot. So when the opportunity presented itself ... ”

Still, if most every-other-Saturday observers were to compile a list of the likeliest Sons of Martin O’Neill – the Celtic players expected to follow him into management – McNamara would have been well below the Lennons, Lamberts etc. A lot of this was down to his appearance and demeanour on the pitch. Rejected as a kid by Hibs for being too small, he wasn’t big and brawny like just about everyone else in that all-conquering Hoops side which went all the way to Seville – and he didn’t shout, not even when he was captain. There’s a comical reminder of this during our chat after a knock on his office door. “Hullo,” says the boss, but he isn’t heard. Another rap. “Come in.” This goes on for a few minutes. Appearances, though, can be deceptive and you’d be wrong to mistake “quiet” with “soft”. He asserts: “My team-mates knew me as the baby-faced assassin. I maybe looked like I wouldn’t hurt anyone, and I didn’t set out to, but I never shirked a tackle.”

McNamara is 38 and very much his own man, deciding early in his Celtic career to live a distance away from Glasgow. “I just didn’t want my family exposed to the Old Firm hatred.” He’s still based in Lasswade, Midlothian and, when he can, watches his eight-year-old son Sidney play for Edina Hibs. Meanwhile Jackie Sr watches Jackie Jr watching Thistle, which can be disconcerting for Dad, especially when the Firhill faithful are dishing out stick to his laddie – “Last season, before a ball had been kicked!” Everyone is much happier now though. “The average crowd used to be under 2000 and now we’re getting 2500 a game.”

Considered in his opinion, McNamara loves the game but doesn’t make a song and dance about it. One of his pet hates is the footballer who plays to the gallery with animated gestures for the punters’ benefit, sometimes to deflect attention from his own mistakes. “Thousands of mistakes are made in every match. I tell my players they’re not doing their job properly if they don’t occasionally get something wrong.” And, confirming that he’s never been one to draw attention to himself, he tells me he has turned down invitations to write his autobiography “about 20 times”.

This steers the conversation towards footballers and hinterlands: what they do when they are not playing football, if anything. McNamara has got one, just like his dear old dad. For Jackie Sr it was, and is, a fierce political conviction, passed down from his own father, one of the Clyde’s youngest shipyard shop stewards. Jackie Sr sold the Soviet Weekly round Easterhouse as a kid, and became a card-carrying commnist as soon as he could. At Celtic, Billy McNeill knew him as “the wee commie bastard” and Kenny Dalglish called him “Trotsky”. Jackie Jr’s thoughts beyond the game are different but just as surprising, just as intriguing.

“Doing a book has never appealed to me. I don’t think you can be honest without upsetting people and I’ve no interest in doing that. At the end of the day, whatever I said would just be my opinion; I don’t need to broadcast that. So after deciding that I sat down to write a book! Not me boring on about myself, this was going to be fiction, a comedy, set in the world of football, based on some mad characters I knew.

“A friend of mine, Fran Gilhooley, got to hear about it. He knew about sitcoms, having been in Still Game, and thought I should try my luck in that field. My Uncle Jim is a friend of Gary Lewis and he was perfect for the part of the shouty old-school manager. One of my old clubs, Falkirk, let us use their stadium to film the pilot.”

McNamara revs up his smartphone to show me a clip. Called The Therapy Room after the latest of footballer mod-cons, a Big Brother-type confession box, it shows the hero, a promising amateur stepping up, blow his big chance in the SPL. “The fans, my team-mates, the gaffer – everyone’s been brand new about it and tried to help me,” he says. Cut from the box to the tunnel, where he’s excoriated by the angry crowd. Cut from there to the dressing-room where Lewis turns up Sir Alex Ferguson’s hair-dryer to the setting marked “ ... with extreme prejudice” and out-effs Peter Reid in that fly-on-the-wall doc following Sunderland of a few years ago.

McNamara envisages a ten-part series and it is virtually ready to go. “Since becoming manager here I’ve had to put it on the back-burner but I’d love to see it on the telly one day. The last episode isn’t done, but I’ve always thought it should be the players’ Christmas party and when I have a minute I’ll get down to it because I know it’s going to be fun to write.” That’s fascinating, I say, impressed to learn about footballer-downtime that isn’t golf. And he says: “Well, have I told you about my idea for foot-golf?

“It’s a game I dreamed up, inspired by what we used to do at training at Celtic. Henrik Larsson was the greatest I ever played with but Lubo Moravcik was the best at chipping the ball at these flags, an absolute genius with both feet. Anyway, I took out a patent for my game, reckoned you’d need four acres for a wee course, and tried to sell it. Then I found out someone had managed to get it going in Holland.”

Inventor, gagsmith – McNamara seems like a good fit for such a quirky club as Thistle. You’ve got to watch the quiet ones; they’re often the most interesting. And, as his comedy-writing would suggest, he was paying attention all these years with Dunfermline, Celtic (ten years, 347 appearances, ten trophies), Scotland (33 caps), Wolves and the rest, storing stuff up. “The dressing-room is a pretty unique place: 20 guys laughing and joking and pouncing on the slightest affliction. Every player misses it when they can’t go there anymore.”

So, apart from the jokes, what has he learned from his managers that can be utilised at Firhill? “Loads, I’m sure, although maybe it’ll influence me subconsiously, and I won’t notice until later. At Dunfermline, Jim Leishman let me clean his car for him, an important duty for any 16-year-old! I appreciated everything that was done for me in my apprenticeship and Bert Paton and Dick Campbell were great to me, too. Tommy Burns brought me to Celtic and he had such high, high standards: each passing drill had to be the best-ever, until the next one. I was remembering Tommy with Simon the other day, as our drills started getting a bit sloppy! The abilities here are more modest but standards are still important.

“I’ve had shouty managers and maybe Jocky Scott was the shoutiest and then there was Wim Jansen, a very clever man who was always testing you, such as putting you in the possibles against the probables on Fridays to see how you’d react. He wanted you to force your way into the reckoning for Saturday; I got that but others didn’t. Dr Jo Venglos was ‘such a likeable wee guy’, eccentric with it, and maybe he should have wound his way along to Thistle after his year at Parkhead. At training, to improve stamina, he made the players run while holding their breath. Really, the whole club was doing this, waiting for O’Neill.

“Intelligent, articulate, terrific at getting his point across,” is the McNamara assessment. Sometimes for our man that point was: you’re not in the team. “I had to re-invent myself a few times,” adds Celtic’s Jackie-of-all-trades from that great era. “One of Martin’s masterstrokes was converting Didier Agathe from a striker to a flying wing-back, and I say that as the guy who lost out as a consequence.” Both manager and player left together after McNamara’s testimonial with O’Neill admitting: “I should have played you more, son.”

Even the articulate ones will bawl and curse sometimes, though, and even the quiet ones, too. “I’ve had my moments,” he says. “If I think the desire’s not there or they’re hiding, I’ll tell them. Last season we were in serious danger of going out of the Scottish Cup away to Culter and at half-time I think I must have taken three coats of paint off the walls.”

Just as well that Gary Lewis has got Martin Scorsese’s number. If that sitcom ever gets made – and here’s hoping – he could be out of a job.