BY GARY THACKER
East Stirlingshire Football Club is based in the town of Falkirk in Scotland’s Central Lowlands, and without doubt, their most famous ex-manager is Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the Scot’s first step into management, but the set up was far removed from the grandeur of Old Trafford. The job was part-time and paid only £40 a week. He stayed there for just 17 games, joining in June 1974 and leaving in the October to take over at St. Mirren.
Over recent times, the club that has been the archetypical football basket case and now struts its stuff in Scotland’s Lowland League – one flight below the SPFL set up. Once, not so long ago, it gained promotion to the Scottish First Division – in effect the second tier of the domestic league structure – being one step down from the Scottish Premier Division – and reached the giddy heights of the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup, an achievement equalling the club’s previous best run in the competition, dating back to 1889-90.
That all-too-brief period was back in the early 1980s. The manager at the time was the little-known Billy Lamont. For East Stirlingshire and their long-suffering fans, these were the champagne years, and they had Lamont to thank for those fizzy, if only relatively successful, times.
Hardly a club ahead of its time, East Stirlingshire didn’t have a manager until 1966, with all management decisions, including team selection and the signing or disregarding of players, falling within the remit of the club’s directors, and even after the first official appointment of a man to manage the club – Lawrence Binnie – the influence of the directors remained a potent factor. By the time Ferguson had come and gone though, things were taking a more traditional format, and three managers later, Lamont was appointed.
Billy Lamont was born in Larkhall in 1936, with his early childhood years dominated by the strife of the Second World War. A goalkeeper by trade, Lamont played for junior club Bellshill Athletic, before joining Albion Rovers in 1958. The move began a career between the sticks that took him south for a short time with Cheltenham Town, and back to Scotland with Hamilton Academical (twice) and a return to Cliftonhill.
His first period with ‘The Accies’ lasted for half-a-dozen years from 1963 to 1969 and it was during this time that he first cut his managerial teeth. Although only in his early thirties at the time, it was clearly something that Lamont had a natural aptitude for and, five years after retiring in 1972, he took on the job of managing East Stirlingshire.
Then, the club was very much the poor relation to Falkirk’s other football club, that bore the town’s name. The ‘Bairns’ were, and for much of the time since, remain a far better bet for fans seeking relatively successful football from their club, but the diehard ‘Shire’ fans were about to enjoy something of a heyday, even if it still left them in the shadow of Falkirk.
After a couple of seasons settling into the job, in the 1979-80 season Lamont performed the footballing near-miracle of getting East Stirlingshire promotion. At the same time, some 125 miles or so to the north-east, one of the club’s former managers took the league title to Aberdeen’s Pittodrie for the first time since 1955, disrupting the cosy duopoly of Glasgow’s Old Firm. East Stirlingshire’s was tempered a little by the fact that their second place in the league placed them precisely one place below their cross-town rivals.
The season hadn’t started brilliantly, and it was half-a-dozen games in before the club recorded its first victory, a 2-1 win over Brechin City. A reverse in the following game, losing 0-1 at home to Queen of the South suggested that any recovery was merely a temporary mirage, but after that, form began to firm up. Eight wins in the next nine games sent ‘The Shire’ rocketing up the league. Ironically, the run came to an end after the 1-2 victory at their local rivals. If the giddy excitement of that victory inspired high hopes, a 0-1 home defeat to Cowdenbeath in the following game dampened expectations down to a more realistic level.
After that though, a further three victories on the bounce suggested that there was still plenty of fight in Lamont’s team, and although the middle of the season form was less dynamic, there were enough wins and points garnered to keep the club towards the head of the table. A Boxing Day victory to complete a ‘double’ over Falkirk was just what the doctor ordered to suggest that the New Year would hold more glory to come.
Throughout the winter things plateaued and although the club collected a number of wins, some frustrating draws and a home defeat to Queen’s Park at the end of March had the feel of the kind of results that the club would regret come the end of the campaign.
On the final day of the league season, a 1-1 draw at Brechin City left East Stirlingshire a single point from top spot in the Scottish Second Division. That the club finishing above them were no other than local rivals Falkirk, did little to ease the frustration. There was, however, the valuable prize of promotion to savour as both clubs moved up to Scottish League Division One. If there was any regret at the dropped points that may have cost the club the title, there was plenty of solace in the thoughts that anyone offering East Stirlingshire fans second place and promotion at the start of the season would surely have had plenty of takers.
Lamont in his first managerial role, although still only a part-time appointment – as all of his succeeding managerial positions would be – had conjured a promotion run from the most unlikely of circumstances, but in the relatively rarefied atmosphere of the second tier of Scotland’s domestic football structure, the next task would be to survive there.
The new term started very much as the promotion season had; with five games passing by before East Stirlingshire recorded their first win, a 0-2 triumph at St Johnstone. This time though, there would be no eight wins out of nine to propel the team up the league ladder. In fact, across the entire league season Lamont’s team would only win six league games. It was a total equal to Stirling Albion and one more than Berwick Rangers achieved, both of whom were relegated. Ironically though, whereas the previous season’s drawn games had probably cost the club the title, this time, the number of games where they rescued a point was their salvation. They drew no less than 16 games across a 39-game season, comfortably the highest total in the league. This had meant that, despite failing to win any of their last seven games, East Stirlingshire finished the season on 28 points, five clear of relegation. Although the league had hardly been filled with glory, in the Scottish Cup, the club had much more to celebrate, reaching the fifth round, before a 2-0 defeat to Celtic.
The two-year period of promotion, survival and a profitable cup run had not only enhanced the club’s finances, it had also raised the profile of Lamont, and when the chance came for a move to take over at Dumbarton, it would have been a bold decision to turn it down. For all the success Lamont had enjoyed at East Stirlingshire, the potential for further advancement was surely limited and it was no surprise that, in the following season with their manager now departed, the club were relegated. Lamont’s new club finished 11 points ahead of his previous employers. It suggested that the move had been a sage decision.
In the 1982-83 season, Lamont took Dumbarton up to seventh in the First Division, and in 1983-84 season had them challenging for top spot before deciding to move back to the Central Lowlands and the town of Falkirk. It was no emotional return to East Stirlingshire, instead, Lamont became manager of The Bairns. It was a bitter pill for ‘The Shire’ fans to swallow.
Dumbarton, carried forward by the momentum created by Lamont ended the season in second place and achieved promotion to the Scottish Premier Division. Lamont’s new club finished in seventh place, but it wouldn’t be long before he had his new charges heading in the same direction, whilst Dumbarton would quickly fall from their newly-won lofty perch.
In 1984-85, Dumbarton were relegated, finishing a full eight points from safety and Falkirk had climbed to third in the First Division, missing out on promotion to Clydebank by a mere three points. That gap was eliminated during the following season though, and Falkirk were promoted to the top tier of Scottish football. Dumbarton finished sixth, just two points behind Falkirk, and East Stirlingshire finished eleventh in Scottish League Division Two. The previous employers of Billy Lamont must have been contemplating what might have been. For Falkirk however, there was also a sting in the tail.
Throughout his managerial career, Lamont had maintained his position as a part-time employee, still feeling the need to keep his ‘day-time’ job, and he believed that with the promotion to the Scottish Premier Division, came the need for a full-time manager, and he decided to resign. Persuasive arguments and encouragements failed to sway his decision and he was succeeded by Jim Jeffries. Falkirk survived one season before being relegated. Lamont would go on to have brief terms at Partick Thistle, a short and ultimately unhappy return to Falkirk and then a period at Alloa Athletic before retiring from management.
Success can be measured in many ways, and the year after Lamont took Falkirk into Scotland’s top league, that other previous East Stirlingshire manager moved to Old Trafford to begin one of the most dominant periods of modern times. Whilst there can be nobody who follows football that hasn’t heard of Fergie and Manchester United, much less is known of the exploits of Billy Lamont. In their own ways though, both achieved outstanding successes. It would be foolish to rank those achievements side-by-side of course, but it would be equal folly to dismiss what Lamont accomplished in different circumstances. Just ask football fans in the town of Falkirk.
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