Partick prepare to make a stand

PARTICK Thistle’s rapidly- heightening ambitions were yesterday illustrated by the decision to press ahead with plans to build a new 1,700 capacity stand at Firhill in readiness for the club’s return to top-flight football, something which might occur as early as next year.

Chief executive Alan Dick revealed that the building of a 500,000 stand at the north end of the ground had been given the green light by the club’s board, with Thistle having taken up sole residency at the summit of the First Division at the weekend for the first time this season after the 5-1 defeat of Falkirk.

Not only this, but the current league leaders of Italy’s Serie A are apparently desperate to play the Jags, with a postponed meeting from the start of the season now set to be replayed in early summer, by which time Thistle might be deserving of such illustrious company.

"Chievo Verona were due to come and play us at the start of the season, but they decided to call off the tour because they wanted more time to prepare for their first ever Serie A campaign," said Dick. "Now they have indicated they still want to play us, hopefully at the end of the season."

Dick yesterday admitted that such a bright start by the newly-promoted club - Thistle, not Chievo - had not been anticipated by the board, even though they know manager John Lambie’s capacity for doing the unthinkable. "He took Hamilton into the Premier Division twice," remarked Dick. "So nothing he does surprises us."

While they had always planned to take the Firhill capacity to above the 10,000 covered seats that are required by the SPL - the current seated capacity is 9,300 - there is now a sense of urgency enveloping a place once shrouded only by the apathy instigated by a team underachieving to the extent Thistle were as recently as two years ago. "This is a new era," said Dick. "We have to be ready to grasp the nettle if we are still top in May."

Lambie returned to Firhill in March 1999, with the club struggling in the Second Division under the stewardship of player-manager Tommy Bryce.

"I believe in miracles, " he said when he took over. That was just as well, for the team won only two of their first 18 competitive games under Lambie. In October of that year the veteran manager was facing the once unthinkable prospect of ‘losing’ the Thistle support.

"Maybe the majority aren’t quite against Lambie, but voices are rising strong," said Geddes Thomson, a fan of more than 40 years standing, after a defeat at home to Hamilton, for many the final straw.

How things have changed. Lambie, at 60, is the oldest manager in the Scottish league, and he has used all his experience to nurture a side that has lost only two league games this season. This after losing five games last season on their way to the Second Division title.

A prime reason for this is the introduction of five players who played at least some part in Livingston’s successful promotion team of last season. Derek Fleming, Gerry Britton, Jim Dolan, Paul Deas and Marc McCulloch all know what it takes to win a First Division championship. Britton, indeed, scored twice on Saturday, taking his tally to an impressive 12 for the season.

Fleming draws a direct comparison with Scotland’s other team of the moment: "There is hardly any difference between here and Livingston. The dressing room is as good and so is the quality."

Lambie, you have to conclude, has done it again, once more exposing the flaw in the argument that you should never go back. This, after all, is his third spell as manager at the club.

Dick is not slow to recognise the changes Lambie has effected at Firhill, with the latest example being the pushing through of plans to render the stadium acceptable for the SPL.

"The decision [to build a new stand] was taken a number of months ago," said Dick. "But it is having to be brought forward now because we are a bit ahead of schedule. At the start of the season we did not honestly think we would be leading the First Division by three points in November. Work will have to begin a bit earlier."

It will indeed start in January, although the builders are yet to be confirmed. Fittingly, the local student population, from where Thistle have traditionally pulled many of their fans, have helped the club realise the ambition of finally renovating the north end of the ground. Part of the considerable amount of land behind the goal has been sold, with the construction of six-storey student flats already underway.

They will be ready in time for the start of the next university year, by which time the construction company may be able to add this enticing morsel to their sales pitch: "Over looking the ground of SPL club Partick Thistle - watch the Jags from the comfort of your own home after a hard night down at the union."

Few, except perhaps some bitter Clyde fans, can begrudge the club another moment in the sun, 30 seasons after that extraordinary League Cup final win and with Thistle now in their 125th year.

Dick arrived almost exactly three years ago from Motherwell, in a move that was deemed strange in terms of career enhancement. Dick, however, considers Thistle "every bit as big as Motherwell".

His first major decision involved the re-appointment of Lambie at the expense of the inexperienced Bryce. "The big change in fortunes was inspired by Tommy Bryce leaving the club, although nobody likes to see a manager leave, and John Lambie coming.

"Lambie gradually put things in place for a successful club. We had to change just about every player. There are only three of the squad he inherited in March 1999 still here."

This, then, is very much a new Thistle, though one honed by well-kent hands.