There are myriad ways to reflect on John Lambie’s impact on Scottish football. One of the simplest is to turn to a copy of a book of Scottish football quotations.
To be precise it’s the third volume of Kenny MacDonald’s Scottish Football Quotations I’m consulting, just because it’s the nearest to hand. It has all the usual contributors, those everybody would expect in such a publication: Sir Alex, Craig Brown, Gordon Strachan. But the index entry for John Lambie says it all: “Page 4, 5, 67, 74, 76, 92, 106-107, 158, 159…”
You get the drift.
It sums up how deeply woven Lambie was in the Scottish game and what a huge part he played in it. Whether it’s dressing up in a samurai outfit or being tossed into the sea by his players, few people so perfectly captured the colour of Scottish football or perfectly expressed its idiosyncrasies as Lambie, who has passed away at the age of 77.
All his appearances as a player, and his 20 years as a manager, were in Scottish football, at what many would term “proper” Scottish football clubs. Falkirk, Hamilton Accies, St Johnstone and of course Partick Thistle, who grew to become his enduring passion.
For as long as it is possible to remember he has been a magnificently coiffured, cigar smoking, pigeon-fancying pillar of football life north of the Border.
But they will know him in England and elsewhere too because of his larger than life persona. Another quotes book on the shelf, one purporting to collect quotes from football people across the globe and not just Scottish football, includes Lambie’s all-time classic. It’s the one that would surely be selected were we forced to pick the equivalent of a world XI, the most quotable quotations so to speak.
Informed by his physio that Thistle striker Colin McGlashan was on the floor concussed and didn’t know where or who he was, Lambie replied: “That’s great, tell him he’s Pele and get him back on”.
If there’s any doubting the accuracy of the quote it’s only because it lacks Lambie’s usual quota of three f words per sentence. But no matter, it has stood the test of time. It’s a catchline that is now sadly sure to survive him.
If, under Lambie, Partick Thistle had won the European Cup twice, had he led Hamilton to two European titles rather than two First Division championships, he would be Scotland’s Brian Clough. Perhaps he already is. He had the quips and, more than he is given credit for, the football nous. When I met with Chic Charnley last year, the notorious joker was deadly serious about one thing: Lambie knew his stuff.
“He could be rough and ready but he was a great coach,” Charnley said. “People don’t give him credit for that. Jim Duffy says it too. He was old school. But he knew a player and he knew football.”
Perhaps Charnley would say that. After all, Lambie signed him on four different occasions, once for Hamilton and three times for Thistle. As recently as Friday, Charnley visited Lambie in hospital. Before that he would phone twice a week to check on his mentor, whose failing health was compounded by the shock of suddenly finding himself single in his seventies after splitting from his wife, Mamie. But the split was amicable. That he still drove her to the line dancing in Whitburn every Thursday is the kind of detail that encapsulates Lambie.
Having shuttled as many times as he did between Hamilton and Partick Thistle, it seems like he should maybe be older. When Lambie tried to break the sequence of to-ing and fro-ing between the same two clubs, he endured a terrifying experience of being nearly run off the road by an irate Falkirk fan. Playing more than 200 games for the club in more than a decade at Brockville counted for little when he suffered a Scottish Cup defeat by Stenhousemuir while manager in 1996. He later laughed this off as he laughed off most things – he suggested it would take more than this to kill off someone who’d signed Charnley as many times as he did.
Like one of his beloved doos, it might now be said Lambie has flown from his perch to a better place. But his own version of Paradise is where we will always see him, crouched in a dugout above piles of cigar ash – at least until Uefa banned smoking on the touchline, to Lambie’s great irritation.
“I don’t see their cause for banning smoking,” he said in 2003. “It can’t harm anyone in a dugout for goodness sake. I suppose you might brush against the arm of a substitute, but that would be a good warm-up for them.”
Like the clank of substitution boards or lettered scoreboards, he and his sheepskin coat are redolent of another era. Lambie hated the split. “I couldnae wait for that loat to sort it oot,” you can almost hear him say of the SPFL as he signed out amid ridiculous dithering over the release of the post-split fixtures.
“He lives for football,” Gerry Collins, Lambie’s long-time assistant at Accies, Thistle and Falkirk, once said. Scottish football might have given Lambie everything. But then he gave far more back.