THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

On Saturday I watched Saint Mirren clinch the Championship Title.

12 months earlier I witnessed the Buddies perform the Great Escape when they avoided relegation to League One on the final day of the season.

There is one, and only one, reason for this amazing turnaround in the Paisley side’s fortunes and he goes by the name of Jack Ross.

Sure, chairman Gordon Scott and chief-exec Tony Fitzpatrick deserve praise for the way that they have helped galvanise the club since they took control and players like Stephen McGinn, Lewis Morgan and Gavin Reilly obviously also played their part but the manager has been the catalyst for the club’s revival.

When he arrived at the Paisley 2021Stadium the team were bottom of the pile and bereft of confidence and cohesion.

Previous gaffer Alex Rae might have turned it around with a bit of luck and another transfer window but wasn’t given the chance.

Instead the directors decided that they would look to Alloa Athletic manager Jack Ross and since he arrived he has hardly put a foot wrong.

His first couple of months were spent rebuilding the confidence of the players – and the fans. Who can forget his ‘debate’ with the punters following the Queen of the South defeat in early January last year?

That was the watershed; when the fans saw how much it meant to him too.

With an influx of players throughout that transfer window, including the signing of the inspirational skipper Stephen McGinn, things started to change on and off the pitch.

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Me with Stephen McGinn after the final whistle on Saturday

Four straight wins including a victory over Champions elect Hibs and, more importantly, against fellow strugglers Ayr United at Somerset Park changed the dynamic.

Suddenly the Paisley Faithful had something to believe in and were witnessing the turning of the tide.

Between that game in Ayrshire and the end of the campaign Ross guided the Saints to safety; taking 22 points from the 36 on offer. The job was done.

Or so we thought.

Come Season 2017-18 we wondered how the Buddies would fare with most pundits and punters suggesting a season of consolidation and perhaps a charge to the Premiership Play-Offs was a possibility given a good wind.

Instead, following some very decent recruitment including the addition of Craig Samson, Liam Smith, Ian McShane, Gavin Reilly and Harry Davies to name a few, the Buddies bounced into league action with a convincing 3-1 win over much-fancied Falkirk.

A 4-1 pumping at Cappielow the next week however put the Buddies’ gas at a peep.

That only sparked them into real action with six wins from the next seven league fixtures. They sat on top of the pile and, in truth, seldom looked like being anywhere else.

Blips at East End Park in the middle of September and a home defeat to Dumbarton in early December were the low points of an almost perfect campaign.

In fact, ironically for the Saints, their home form has been the backbone of their league success with 13 wins from 16 games and only one defeat at the Paisley 2021 Stadium.

That’s the House that Jack has built and although other clubs have been welcome, very few have left with anything.

Craig Samson has only picked the ball out of his net nine times in Paisley and actually broke the club’s home clean sheet record with eight on the bounce – incredibly he’s not conceded at the 2021 this year yet.

All-in-all it has been whirlwind 18 months for St Mirren and their fans.

You wouldn’t know it looking at their manager though.

He retained his cool, calm demeanour following the game when I was interviewing him and was quick to heap praise on his players for their efforts and achievements.

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Interview over – time to relax

You get the distinct impression that this won’t be the only time this young man gets the chance to celebrate as a gaffer in the madcap world of football management.

Last week I wrote about John Lambie being a man who had a huge influence on everyone he worked with in football. Jack Ross is not unlike him.

Minus the pigeons, cigars and expletives of course.

 

 

ONE JOHN LAMBIE

Some individuals are memorable in so many ways while others are worth forgetting.

John Lambie was someone that once you encountered him you were unlikely to ever forget him – even if you wanted to.

My former Partick Thistle Gaffer sadly passed away on Tuesday but his memory will live on in my mind for the rest of my life – he was one of those enduring characters.

From his industrial language and incredible energy to his cigar smoking and giant smile he caught your attention.

He spoke his mind no matter what the subject was and irrespective of who was listening.

He didn’t give a monkeys what other people thought of his opinions – they were his and that was all that mattered to a man who believed in honesty and hard work.

If you didn’t agree, so what? If you did concur with him, so what?

John Lambie didn’t want sycophants around him. He wanted workers.

I first encountered his colourful language while I was on a train between Bristol and London 24 hours after he had replaced Tommy Bryce as manager at the Jags in 1999.

I had been quoted in a newspaper saying how disappointed I had been – as a former teammate and as a player that he signed for Thistle – about Tommy’s sacking.

Lambie phoned me and simply said that I could put any emotions to the f***** side and that he was now the f***** manager and wondered if I had a f***** problem with that?

When I replied no he simply said, ‘good, we’ll get on just f***** fine then’.

And that was the start of a tremendous relationship.

Promoting my book where he featured plenty..

I liked to work for managers who didn’t operate with agendas and left you in no uncertain terms where you stood. John epitomised that style of management.

Along with his assistant Gerry Collins it was pretty damn hard to misread ANY situation.

Both men were cut from the same cloth – hard as nails but fair.

In truth, Lambie had his own ideas about how the game should be played and when he was on the training pitch I wasn’t alone in questioning some of his thoughts.

But, there is no doubt that he got it right far more often than he got it wrong when it comes to his time in charge at Firhill – his record speaks for itself.

He was more into heart and hunger than tactics and transitions and you can forget periodisation and other modern buzz words; for him it was all about picking players.

And, to be fair to him, he consistently got his selections right and results followed.

Did he know a player? Yes. Could he piece a team together? Yes. Did he get them to play for him? You better believe it.

If he thought someone wasn’t pulling their weight he would give him both barrels. If someone deserved praise they got it. And, guess what? Players responded to that.

Throughout his managerial career he had a real knack of picking up guys who had something to prove and provided them the platform to build or rebuild their career.

During my time at Firhill he plucked Martin Hardie from East Stirling and he went on to have a wonderful career in the game. Stephen Craigan arrived from Fir Park as a kid with plenty to prove yet he became a defensive rock for Lambie before returning to Motherwell and winning over 50 Caps for Northern Ireland.

Lastly, Danny Lennon, who had already hit the heights with Hibs and Raith Rovers, signed up and his spell at Firhill signalled the best of his career as John’s trusted lieutenant during a glorious spell for the club that included back-to-back titles.

Me? I was simply privileged and honoured to be his captain for a period of time and will never forget his honesty and his constant efforts to ‘bat for his players’.

We knew that he would do everything for us so we did everything for him. Simple.

He offered me a new contract and even guided me on what money to accept by shaking his head behind the chairman when the first and second offers were made to me.

When the third deal was proposed he winked and the handshakes were instigated and the contract was signed.

Even when it was apparent that I wasn’t going to be a permanent part of his plans moving forward he dealt with me brilliantly.

I just wanted to play football and was finding myself more and more on the bench as Alan Archibald’s career blossomed in Lambie’s favoured formation of 3-5-2 at that time.

When his old St Johnstone teammate John Connolly had a bid accepted by Thistle to sign me for Queen of the South I sat down with John and asked him his thoughts on it.

In typical style he said “it had to be my f***** decision and that he would be f***** delighted to keep me as part of his squad.”

But, when I then asked him if he would prefer to use my wages to help sign another full-time player he smiled and said “well, when you f***** put it like that.”

I was then the one who smiled, shook his hand and thanked him for everything.

Every time I bumped into him after that night we would shake hands, have a laugh and try to rip the piss out of each other.

I genuinely liked the man and admired him for what he was in a game that all too readily conformed to the pressures from people who didn’t know football.

John Lambie knew football. That’s a fact.

His death is a sad loss to the many people who played for him and called him a friend. To the Partick Thistle fans it is a JFK moment – every Jags’ fan will remember where they were when they heard of his passing. That’s how much he meant to the supporters.

They sang “One John Lambie, there’s only one John Lambie”

Truer words have never been sung or spoken.

RIP Gaffer.

THE LOYALTY GAME

Gone are the days when loyalty to a badge, a board of directors, a set of fans, a manager or a cause was more important than the colour of your pounds, euros or dollars.

Sadly, as football as morphed from a sport to a business, so have the rules of engagement with employees. In most circumstances it is ALL about what is in their pay packet.

Now, we all know that football is a short career and footballers need to capitalise financially where they can. But, that thought process and dynamic is constantly eroding the connection between the fans and the players year on year.

It is no surprise that men such as Billy McNeilL, John Greig, Willie Miller and Maurice Malpas are held in such high esteem by the supporters of Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United respectively as well as the wider footballing public.

As ‘one club’ men they are entitled to be celebrated and revered by the fans because they not only delivered silverware to their clubs; they played for the jersey.

Could the same ever be said about Nicolas Anelka, Carlos Tevez, Zlatan Ibrahimovich or many of the modern players who have been engineered to look after themselves first?

Contrary to regular opinion though, there are still loads of guys out there who give their all for their club over a significant period of time.

Lewis Stevenson at Hibs, Scott Brown at Celtic, Keith Lasley at Motherwell and Andrew Considine at Aberdeen are great examples of individuals who have ALWAYS given their lot for the people who pay their wages.

In truth, amongst the backdrop of a game that is now regularly paying players £400,000 per week, there are thousands of guys who go about their business week in week out in a more committed manner for literally 0.1% of that figure.

From Kris Doolan and Chris Millar to Steven Hammell and Steven Anderson there are plenty of guys who put in a real shift for one club during their career and that is why they are loved by the punters – it is not the money that drives these guys, it is all about their professional pride and conscience.

If you look hard enough you will find plenty of others in Scottish football who have operated in the same way.

And, that brings me to Queen of the South’s Derek Lyle.

Now, I’ve known Del since he was a gallus kid at Partick Thistle under John Lambie.

The only difference now is that he’s no longer a kid – sure, he’s still just as gallus – and already half way through his 21st season in Scottish football. That takes some doing.

Throw in the fact that he suffered a really bad knee injury during his time and it is remarkable that he is still doing what he does best – scoring goals.

As one of only five players in Queen of the South’s history to score over 100 league goals he is quite correctly celebrated down Dumfries way.

He is currently third highest goalscorer in the club’s history and is only three goals behind the late, great Bobby Black who graced Palmerston back in the ’50s and ’60s.

As Queen of the South’s most decorated player, he has won two League titles and two Challenge Cups, it is safe to say that he will always be part of the Doonhamers’ family.

It is no surprise that his Testimonial Dinner last Saturday night in Dumfries was sold out and that the feeling within the room towards him was nothing short of incredible – I think he almost enjoyed them as much as they enjoyed him.

That proved to me that loyalty is still a two way street and very much alive in football.

You just need to know where to look for it.