x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Thistle a club to prick the senses

While city rivals Rangers and Celtic display all the trappings of wealth and power, dear old Partick Thistle, the 'Great Unpredictables', remain the thinking man's team. A club which, despite winning just two trophies since 1876 (the Scottish Cup in 1921 and the League Cup in '71) enjoys a unique place in the heart of football folk everywhere.

One of the few joys of being a supporter of the tiny Scottish club Partick Thistle lies in bumping into John Lambie at a game at Firhill Stadium. When my beloved Jags' honorary vice-president (who spent a total of 10 years as manager in three spells between 1988-2003) finally leaves football he should be stuffed and mounted for he is a national treasure, as precious in his own idiosyncratic way as Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Matt Busby.

A brief history of time may be necessary here for those unfamiliar with the fortunes of a club, which, in the interests of accuracy, the comedian Billy Connolly reckons should be renamed Partick Thistle Nil. Situated in Glasgow's Bohemian west end, Thistle traditionally attract what few fans they possess from actors and television personalities, university students, doctors and nurses from the Western Infirmary, and anyone on a weekend break from the Farm For The Seriously Bewildered.

While city rivals Rangers and Celtic display all the trappings of wealth and power, dear old Thistle, the 'Great Unpredictables', remain the thinking man's team. A club which, despite winning just two trophies since 1876 (the Scottish Cup in 1921 and the League Cup in '71) enjoys a unique place in the heart of football folk everywhere. Rangers and Celtic may think they have divided up the hearts and minds of Glasgow's citizens, but the romantic dreamer has always been irresistibly drawn to Firhill Stadium, the dear old Jags' mystical field of dreams which can be found snuggling between the red sandstone tenements of Maryhill.

If Robert Burns, an incurable romantic if ever there was one, had played football, he would undoubtedly have been a Thistle player. Equally certain, Basil Fawlty would have been in goal, Laurel and Hardy at wing-half, and Monty Python's Flying Circus up front. Lambie comes armed with a fund of tales, such as the time he offered a three-week trial to an Albanian international called Xvojxa, who was given a medical and asked if he could read the bottom line of the eye chart. 'Read it?' repeated the interpreter seriously. 'He says it's his uncle.'

A passionate pigeon-fancier, Lambie, who once marked Real Madrid's great winger Gento in the Estadio Bernabeu during his playing days as a right-back of the uncompromising old-school at St Johnstone, can spin a yarn like no other. Take the case of one-time centre-forward Colin McGlashan, a player of diminutive stature and even more diminutive talents who suffered a bang on the head during one game.

"He's in a bad way, boss," reported the physio on his return to the Thistle bench. "He's concussed and has no idea where he is or who he is." "Bloody marvellous," enthused Lambie, "get back out there and tell him he's Pele." And what of the former Yugoslavian international of indeterminate years he invited to Scotland during a sabbatical from Thistle when he briefly took charge of Hamilton Academical? "He kept ringing up from the airport to say he'd arrived, and I'd have to keep putting him off," explains Lambie with devastating logic. "The first time he called, I told him to have breakfast. The second time, I suggested he went for lunch. The third time, I advised him to have a couple of beers. Why? Because I couldn't let him see the Hamilton ground until it was dark. If he'd walked in there in broad daylight, he'd have taken one look at the place and bolted."

Saturday's 2-1 defeat of Livingston which propelled Thistle into third place in the Scottish First Division was a typical mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. How did Lambie keep his sanity intact during his decade as manager? "By going home to my birds." To race them? "No. To wring their bloody necks...." @Email:rphilip@thenational.ae