Is there a nude I’m just not seeing, a reclining figure in the style of Modigliani, possibly inspired by a Partick Thistle tea-lady? Or a canvas imagining a Hamilton Accies cleaner dozing after her shift the way Klimt often painted his women in the altogether? Nope. There are no fabulously round Rubenesque creatures letting it all hang out in John Lambie’s Bathgate abode, no Botticelli-like nymphs.
Haltingly, I read out the last line of his Wikipedia entry. “Since ending his managerial career… John has become a very talented erotic artist.” Not just painting but sculptures, too. He plans to show them to the world.
“Whit?” he says from his favourite armchair, slippers twitching. It’s definitely the oddest inquiry I’ve ever put to one of Scottish football’s characters, 76 this week, but maybe we’d believe anything of this fellow. “Nah, that’s not me. Some bugger’s at the wind-up.”
In a career of mischief and mayhem – miraculous results, too – the culprit could come from just about any boardroom, any dressing-room. If the subject of this interview was anyone else, a scribe might be disappointed that potentially the raciest tale concerning him had just been rubbished. But Lambie, who once lit up the scene with his ranting, White Owl cigars and savage humour, can still leave you reeling with his yarns. They’ll take you so deep into a West Lothian netherworld of dog tracks and dodgy characters that you’ll forget to mention, one more time for the people, the Dead Pigeon Sketch.
This was when a Partick player irritated the doo-fancying Lambie so much the manager struck him with a pigeon which had expired, ceased to be, was bereft of life – or very close to it. “Declan Roche just wouldn’t shut up. I had a pigeon, not one of mine, a bit past it, which I was going to let go up at our training field but I got so irritated I took it out of the basket and threw it at the clown.”
If this was anyone else the hack might be wondering if he could catch an earlier train back to the office, but in Lambie’s world there will, after all, be nudes. When he was one of Eddie Turnbull’s coaches at Hibernian, pre-match meals were at Edinburgh’s North British Hotel. “Arthur Duncan always had Corn Flakes and fresh fruit; the rest were steak and toast. One time Ned [Turnbull] peered over his specs: ‘Everybody here?’ ‘Aye, boss,’ I said. ‘No’ they’re no’. Where’s Best?’” Gorgeous George was staying at the NB so Lambie and fellow coach John Fraser were despatched to his room. “We chapped the door – no answer. ‘He’s not there, boss.’ ‘Did you go into the room? ‘No, boss.’ ‘Get the f****n’ porter!’ George was there, right enough. In bed with this dolly-bird, bottle of champagne. ‘George,’ I said, ‘you need to get downstairs for your pre-match meal!’ He just smiled. ‘I’ve having it here!’
“He was the loveliest man, surprisingly shy. There were no superstar airs; often he’d go into the gym with the Hibs laddies. I used to put on his bets for him: three fifty quid doubles and a fifty quid treble every week. He once gave me a 100 quid bottle of aftershave. And here’s something I’ll never forget till my dying day: Ralph Callachan crossing balls at training and George turning his back and, 18 yards out, back-heeling them into the net.”
From the NB we head to Aviemore’s Coylumbridge Hotel, the base for a Thistle tour of the Highlands. “The night before a game I got told some of the players had girls in their rooms. I went after the likeliest offenders, my two strikers, who took a long time answering their door. Nae girls, but I was sure my hunch was right. ‘Here’s what I want you to do tomorrow, lads,’ I said. ‘When we’re attacking one of you should make a near-post run, the other should check out and come in at the back stick.’ They were wondering why I was giving them tactics at gone ten o’clock but I kept going. Eventually there was a bang on the windae and some wailing. The lassies had been hid on the balcony wearing just their knickers. That was a costly trip for seven of my team. They were each fined 500 quid, including Colin McGlashan, a lovely lad who never really caused me any trouble and moaned: ‘But I never even got a kiss!’”
The same McGlashan, by the way, was the fall-guy for Lambie’s greatest quip after being knocked out in a game. Physio: “Gaffer, he’s got concussion. Doesn’t know who he is.” Lambie: “Slap that f****n’ wet sponge on his face and tell him he’s f****n’ Pele!”
Lambie’s riotous life saw him shuttle between Partick and Hamilton many times but he also veered wildly in the direction of Haiti where, during a Hibs expedition, the natives got extremely restless after the club complained about their hotel was like a prison and a near-riot ensued. If Haiti was lively, Blackpool wasn’t dull for Lambie, and it was from the Lancashire seaside resort that he masterminded Accies’ most famous victory – dumping Graeme Souness’ glittering Rangers team out of the Scottish Cup.
What a day that was. It’s the 30th anniversary of the shock win and, wouldn’t you know, Hamilton are back at Ibrox in the tournament this lunchtime. The current management and players will have their own ideas for a repeat, and good ones they might be. They will not, however, involve our man, his favourite American televangelist and pigeons.
“I’d chosen Blackpool [for the pre-cup camp] for a sneaky wee reason – it was the hosting Britain’s biggest pigeon show,” he explains. “I think in my life I’ve understood pigeons better than footballers – and actually greyhounds better than the doos. The training went quite well but with the players Rangers had in 1987 – [Terry] Butcher, [Mark] Hateley, [Graham] Roberts, [Chris] Woods, [Ally] McCoist and [Davie] Cooper – everyone expected us to get tanked.”
Lambie can sound as irascible as he ever did in his pomp. The current Rangers? He’d bin all but three. His chatter features numerous ne’er-do-wells: “My worst-ever signing… That idiot, couldnae play tiddlywinks… I could tell you stories about directors that would make your hair curl.”
Back in the day he used to get “awfie stressed” by management until one of his daughters gave him a book by self-help guru Joyce Meyer.
“It was about the power of positive thinking. I read it and honestly I turned myself. All negative thoughts went out the windae.”
Just before kick-off and what seemed like inevitable defeat in Govan he knew some of his men would be tense. “Kevin McKee was very quick but very nervous. Going round the team I came to him and said: ‘Kev, I know I won’t have to worry about you because you’ll have Cooper in your back pocket.’ He did, too. I thought I’d need ten of our 11 to be exceptional and that’s what I got. [Dave] McPherson sold the goal, Adrian Sprott scored it and after that Rangers panicked and lumped big, high balls into our box. Dave McKellar was fantastic – one of the best goalkeeping displays I’ve ever seen.”
After the game the Hamilton bus returned the players to the social club next to the old Douglas Park. Sat alongside Lambie was Accies’ most demanding and opinionated fan, Ian “Fergie” Russell, who was only allowed to make the journey after missing his supporters’ charabanc on condition he stayed silent. Fergie was true to his word but let out a volley of abuse, even in glory, at the other end.
Lambie gave the social club a miss and thinks he may have nipped into Morrison’s, a pub in his native Whitburn, for a half-pint shandy.
But, after that, his post-match routine was the same as usual: “I disappeared into my pigeon hut.
“The birds had raced that day. I found out how they’d got on and they found out how I did. My pigeons relaxed me.” Lambie doesn’t have his 80 birds anymore. He also used to race 14 greyhounds but they’ve gone, too. He’s split up from his wife, Mamie, although the parting was amicable and he drives her to the line-dancing every Thursday. In 2015, he lost his younger brother, ex-Dundee winger Duncan. He hangs in there, swears by Manuka honey and the odd dram, only occasionally making it out to the football, a sport that is less colourful for the absence of notables like him.
Remember that story about how Accies, on a ten-game losing streak, were costing him his conjugal rights? “It was a joke, my attempt to get us some publicity, but it embarrassed the wife and made her stop speaking to me for an extra three weeks!”
“I’ve been having problems with my chest and blame that on another trip to Blackpool with Thistle,” Lambie continues. “The players grabbed me and were going to chuck me in the sea. Andy Murdoch let go my foot and I tried to kick him in the face. Then everyone stopped laughing because my head had ballooned. With that sudden movement I’d punctured a lung, broke some ribs and ended up in hospital.”
But he knows his health issues are minor compared to those endured by Dens League Cup winner and Euro hero Duncan, a victim of dementia. “He had what Billy McNeill’s got, a horrible, horrible disease. I’ll tell you this: if that was me I’d be taking a pill and to hell with it.
“Duncan played for a while in Germany, came back, didn’t know what to do with himself. I told him to try betting shops and to look at me for how successful they could be – I was a compulsive gambler who’d have bet on two fleas running up a wall. Duncan became a professional gambler and a millionaire. He didn’t have much heart as a player but was fearless in gambling. The funny thing was that I don’t know if heading a ball would have been an issue for him because I don’t remember him doing it. Here’s another one who avoided headers, by the way, and I was a defender. I knew something was wrong with him when we were out in Thailand and he was stashing thousands under his pillow. The end was sad to see. One minute he was running around, the next he couldn’t even walk. There were a lot of tears.”
Lambie is the son of a miner and the grandson of a Wishaw provost. He joined the SNP to help with a council election drive but stopped short of seeking office. “I’m out-and-out Scot but when it comes to politics I’m thick.” As a lad he was put off digging for coal as a career after being given a tour of the Polkemmet pit, which had probably been his father’s intention. “The men were eating their pieces with rats round their feet.” Aged 14 Lambie was a bit of a tearaway. “Out cycling I knocked an OAP off her bike so the old man took me to the dogs at Armadale to keep me out of trouble.” This indoctrination was to prove more lasting.
Still with a fine head of hair from not letting a ball near it too often, Lambie played in the fine early 1970s St Johnstone team which reached the League Cup final and enjoyed stirring nights in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. The manager was Willie Ormond, who finished every team-talk with the considered words: “Roll up your sleeves and get f****d in. The skill will take care o’ itself.”
When he entered management Lambie turned swearing into an art-form. A TV documentary about Partick eavesdropped on the dressing-room at half-time, recording this gem for posterity: “Too many of yous want to f****n’ doddle about and no’ put anything f****n’ intae the f****n’ game.” Lambie groans. “The BBC dropped a microphone into the room without me knowing. I should have sued!”
Perhaps, given the modest talent pool, this was the best way to impart knowledge. After all, he didn’t have George Best at his disposal. He sought out “heid-bangers” because they were winners. To Lambie, a great admirer of Brian Clough, the phrase is a term of endearment and, as a manager, he cheerfully calls himself one.
Calls himself a Christian, too. Despite causing the TV bleep-out button to overheat – and, he thinks, setting some sort of unofficial swearie record – he used to attend church every Sunday and admits to deserving a “slap in the jaw” for having recently fallen out of the habit.
“At Thistle, if I wasn’t happy with the players, I’d get them in on Sundays for extra training. Chic [Charnley] grumbled but I’d tell him we were both missing our day with the Lord and that, being Catholic, at least he could go to the evening service. Then, having strapped a tyre to his back and sent him on a run, I’d nip off to my church!”
Lambie was a crafty wheeler-dealer in the transfer market, earning his clubs good fees to go with the four promotions. When a Yugoslav centre-half was pondering a move to Hamilton, the boss was careful not to show him round the modest ground during daylight hours. His favourite heid-banger, though, was Charnley, who could score goals from halfway and, when confronted by a Samurai sword, pick up a parking cone and win the duel.
“I don’t know what that was all about as I got the hell out of the way,” says Lambie of the training-ground incident that’s entered Firhill legend. “These guys were obviously unhappy with Chic. Well, he is from Possil. He could have been the best but he knew all the rogues of the day. Don’t get me wrong, I knew a few myself.”
Does he wonder if he could have managed at a higher level? Ach, I think I beat myself. I was too harum-scarum.”
But he did once beat Rangers. Graeme Souness himself wasn’t playing 30 years ago and Lambie remembers him becoming increasingly agitated on the touchline.
“He was brilliant at the end, stood up like a man to the defeat and congratulated my team. Afterwards, though, he’s supposed to have put his foot through a telly.”
Even the very best can be heid- bangers sometimes.