Interview: Terry Christie on juggling football management and school teaching

Terry Christie’s most recent football match as a fan, the Hearts-Livingston Scottish Cup tie last Saturday, left him and a pal £800 richer. “We won the prize draw,” says the retired manager who famously combined dugout duties with those of head teacher at one of the country’s toughest schools. Doubtless as a Hibernian fan in boyhood he was chuffed to be strolling out of Tynecastle with this tidy sum, so will good fortune smile on him again at Ochilview on Tuesday night?
Terry Christie at home with his trademark duffle coat. Picture: Toby WilliamsTerry Christie at home with his trademark duffle coat. Picture: Toby Williams
Terry Christie at home with his trademark duffle coat. Picture: Toby Williams

Christie has been invited to Stenhousemuir’s cup replay with Aberdeen, as well he should be, given that he masterminded the Warriors’ greatest-ever day 24 years ago when they dumped the Dons out of the competition. If history is to repeat then the League Two side might need more than Christie’s favourite duffle coat.

In cup football the little guys often benefit from a big dollop of luck when toppling glamorous opponents. “That was the case in every big shock Meadowbank Thistle pulled off when I was there,” says Christie, “but the Aberdeen game was different. I thought Stenny deserved to win.”

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Aberdeen had Theo Snelders in goal, a strike partnership of Duncan Shearer and Billy Dodds, plus the dancing feet of Joe Miller and Eoin Jess. Stenhousemuir, reading some accounts, had mud. “My memory is the pitch wasn’t so bad,” adds Christie. “We had a good, honest team. Miller Mathieson and Adrian Sprott had great games – they all did. And a dairy farmer by the name of Tommy Steele, a gangly winger whose control wasn’t the best but who liked to lurk at the back post, scored both our goals.”

There are, I reckon, two very good reasons to be calling on Christie at his trim home in the Duddingston area of Edinburgh, although if truth be told I could listen to his yarns at any time and not only the football ones – those from the blackboard jungle are just as engrossing. (And as for his “How I met my wife” tale – what a stormer!). One football-related reason is the prospect of Ochilview going orgasmic again; the other is the demise of Meadowbank Stadium. The wrecker’s ball is currently doing its worst to the athletics arena where the other Thistle played their football. The aesthetes and lovers of fine architecture will shed no tears – “Brutalism!” they often cried – but Christie developed a perverse love for the place.

His father, having spent all his days on rain-lashed building sites, had hoped his laddie might enjoy a working life spent cosily indoors. Christie might have frequented staffrooms at his various schools but Meadowbank was never snug. “There was a permanent gale: a wind tunnel from Waterloo Place at the east end of Princes Street right down to the pitch with nothing standing in its way and certainly not our massive crowds,” he laughs.

The pitch, indeed, became an obsession. “Through the weeks the athletics boys used it and the shot-putters could do some terrible damage. On Friday nights I’d have to raid the long-jump pit for sand to fill in all the craters.

“I pushed through a rule that on Saturdays when we had a game at 3pm the athletics had to stop at 1:30pm. There was an occasion when these guys wouldn’t clear off. They were running in spikes, churning up the mud some more. ‘Come on, that’s enough,’ I said. They wouldn’t stop. I called their leader an ignoramus, which might have been too big a word. He loomed over me. ‘Just to confirm that, are you now about to punch me?’ I said, and he did.” Maybe as well the javelin-throwers didn’t join the squabble, I say. Or the small-bore rifle enthusiasts.

“Every team we played absolutely hated coming to Meadowbank so we had to use that to our advantage,” continues Christie, now 76. “In the early days the dressing rooms were the standard municipal ones; long corridors of benches and lockers with nowhere for the manager to stand and pronounce.” And because the lockers required 10p, the opposition sometimes had to borrow coins from their hosts. Indeed, it’s written into Meadowbank mythology that the great Sir Fergie of Govan was reduced to footering around for small change the day his Aberdeen came to play a friendly, although Christie, absent because of a family wedding, cannot confirm this.

“To make their trips to the stadium as painless as possible, teams started changing in the hotels where they’d had lunch beforehand. But beggars can’t be choosers at that level of football. Meadowbank, for all its faults, was still a damn sight better than some grounds. Cliftonhill, for example, was almost Third World. Oh, the smell from the cludgies… ”

Christie, the brainy teacher, recalls a wizard wheeze from his 14-year Meadowbank stint: “Because we only had the one stand and the far side was always deserted, I decided to move my dugout across the pitch to create my own crowd.” No more would the likes of Sprott, the future Stenny and indeed Hamilton Accies cup hero, have to wander lonely as a lower-league cloud, wondering if anyone loved him. “Adrian used to get a bit lost on that side and then suddenly he had me shouting in his lughole.” Sprott was one of Christie’s doughty dependables, guys who made a little go quite a long way. Others included Tom Hendrie, Mickey Lawson and Graham Armstrong, all exponents of Meadowbank’s highly effective near-post corner routine, maintained in defiance of those such as Fergie who dubbed their tactics anti-football. Under Christie in the 1980s the club evicted Hibs, St Johnstone and Morton from the cups and would have dizzily appeared in the top flight but for some sneaky league reconstruction.

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There was an extra benefit to Christie’s remote dugout. Being banished from it by referees fed up of his moaning, however well-worded, only meant a climb of a few steps to the summit of the modest terracing. “There was a walkway and when I was younger I’d run along it during games, catching out linesmen who’d called offsides wrong. They loved that.”

Football management for Christie sounds like it involved a lot of conflict management. Conflict between rival sports; conflict between different professions. He doesn’t dispute this. When he was appointed head teacher of the capital’s Ainslie Park High School, education bosses wanted him to give up managing Meadowbank. He resisted, and was able to juggle the jobs, though not without the odd hairy moment: “A postponed game was re-arranged for parents’ night and I was just about able to be in two places at once. A very early team-talk, a mad drive across town to the school to welcome the mums and dads, then back to the stadium for the game, which we won.”

Mums and dads? Well, sometimes. Ainslie Park served Pilton and surrounding schemes, a blighted corner of the capital with next to no amenities, homes riddled with dampness and, in many cases, heroin. “At some parents’ nights the only fit person able to attend would be a poor kid’s big sister’s boyfriend.” Irvine Welsh grew up in Muirhouse and wrote about the heroin scourge in Trainspotting. Life for Christie’s pupils was often horribly chaotic. A boy in the school football team, running to make kick-off, was struck by a car. Christie delivered him home to his mother, though the door was answered by a strange man in his underpants. “Who was that?” Christie asked the lad. “I dinnae ken, sir.” More chilling still, a girl related to Christie how one brother had murdered another: “James said to John: ‘You’ve got my shoes on.’ Then he pulled out a knife and stabbed him. John said: ‘You’ve killed me, James.’”

In 1984, Meadowbank magically reached the League Cup semi-finals, opponents: Rangers. This was big news for ITV’s Saint and Greavsie who despatched reporter Jim Rosenthal north to meet what they probably believed to be a comedy team run by a school beak. Christie can’t remember if this was before or after he’d ordered the bricking-up of 90 windows, smashed in the latest bout of weekend vandalism at Ainslie Park, and the occasion when a golf ball flew into his study while he was interviewing a candidate for a teaching post, this hopeful diving under the table and being deemed too timid for the job. Either way, Rosenthal saw some action on his visit.

“There was a commotion in the playground. I went to investigate and Jim asked to tag along. This fellow stripped to the waist was waving a railway sleeper above his head. He was obviously high on something. Then I realised he was an ex-pupil. Thankfully he was amenable to meeting his old headmaster again and calmed himself down.”

This leads us neatly to the tale of how our man got together with the second Mrs Christie. First we must flip back to another Edinburgh school, Portobello High, where Christie was assistant head and among his duties were pastoral care and supervising the regular Friday night discos. This was the mid-1970s when the big novelty hit was Ray Stevens’ The Streak, a hymn to the fad for spontaneous disrobing in public places. On the night in question there was another commotion: “Sir, sir,” Christie was told, “you better get along to the girls’ cloakroom right now: there’s a lassie says she’s going to streak and she’s daft enough.”

This was Susan and a blushing Christie was able to persuade the 16-year-old that this display of exhibitionism maybe wasn’t the best idea. Flash forward ten years to the city’s Americana nightclub: “I was 43 and divorced from my wife Margaret, a lovely woman who couldn’t cope with my football obsession any more. Mickey Lawson had dragged me along to a party for a friend who was emigrating because I’d been living like a monk. I was pretty miserable that night and about to shoot the crow when he suggested we dance with these two women. The blonde one turned round, looked at me and went: ‘Aagh!’ She wouldn’t stop screaming. It was Susan and I’m afraid I couldn’t come up with a better chat-up line than: ‘Oh, I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on.’ That was 1985 and we’ve been together ever since.”

History shows that Meadowbank didn’t vanquish Rangers, Ally McCoist spoiling hopes of them winning the dead rubber “home” tie played at Tynecastle because their own ground wasn’t up to the job. “Rangers and Celtic were the only teams I never managed to beat,” Christie says with justifiable pride. Jim Rosenthal saw first hand the challenges he faced Monday to Friday at school. He took these responsibilities seriously and kept his football profile low, conscious of agitated parents who might have questioned how he could do both jobs. Christie, who has three children including ex-footballer Max from his marriages and one granddaughter, insists they weren’t mutually exclusive.

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“When I started out in management I was soft. You have to be a wee bit autocratic and you have to be brave. Responsibility lies on your shoulders. You might not get it right every time but you have to make the decisions and live by them. It’s the same for a head teacher because you’re being entrusted with running a school. If you look at poor managers quite a lot of them simply have not been brave enough.”

Christie jokes that he was “bilingual”: able to switch seamlessly between the language of the game – “I’m Lowland Scots so, in essence, I’m a ‘ken’ and ‘dinnae’ kind of guy” – and the more refined tones of the staffroom. “In football, you wouldn’t have known I was a teacher,” he says, except that there was an awareness of this. He reckons it stopped him getting bigger jobs.

“I regarded being a teacher as an advantage in football. For one thing, running the school selects I knew who the promising players were. There was also the wider perspective on the world being in education gave me, but, as far as the guys who run football clubs go, being a teacher was a massive disadvantage. In Scotland these are mostly small businessmen who weren’t hugely successful at school themselves. I don’t think they liked the idea of a teacher coming to their club and running it for them. I hope this doesn’t come across as big-headed but if someone had said to me, ‘You’re going to do all these quite amazing things with wee teams but you’ll never get a shot at a big one’ then I would have thought that highly unlikely.”

Weaned on Hibs’ Famous Five, Christie’s fondest wish would have been to become Easter Road manager and he got close a couple of times. Instead, though, he had to be content with a quarter-century of service to the lower leagues, with Meadowbank and Stenny – both favourite clubs of DJ John Peel, a muso far too cool to have ever played The Streak on the radio – and the Wasps of Alloa 

At Meadowbank he encountered a Hibs boss on the way down, Willie McFarlane, first as No 2 then his replacement, and mention of the latter’s name in Duddingston today prompts a final burst of ribald anecdotes. “Willie went to the library once and came back with a training manual called Place Changing, about players running off the ball, and we all had to follow it slavishly. He was a betting man and bookies slips were always tumbling from his pockets. He wrote out the team on these slips, sometimes changing the left-back to right wing. Out for meals he was often chatted up by waiters who said they could play so he’d invite them down to training – they were all hopeless. He couldn’t stand the secretary and vowed to take out a contract on him, although I’m sure that was a joke. When we were bottom of the league, he thought what the team really needed was a sleep therapist. Don’t be unkind about Willie: he’d been a great enthusiast but when he arrived at Meadowbank his heart really wasn’t in it anymore.”

Then Christie took charge. And all over the land ramshackle wee grounds would echo to the same grumble: “Ach you’re nothing but an effing schoolteacher.” He laughs. “Thirty-seven years of my life were spent looking after the weans of the nation, Monday through Friday. Then on a Saturday afternoon that’s the gratitude I got!”