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 a single season, joining in June 1974 and leaving the following October to take over at St Mirren. If Ferguson was the most famous of East Stirlingshire’s managers due to his later successes however, his short time in office was insufficient for him to make any sizeable impact at the club any tangible results were a long way behind the man who took the club to its highest position in the league.
Over recent times, the club that has been the archetypical football basket case and now struts its stuff in Scotland’s ‘Lowland League’. Once however, and not so long ago, it gained promotion to the Scottish First Division – in effect the second tier of the domestic leaguer 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 of days in the sun was back in the early 1980s, fifteen years or so after Ferguson had left the Falkirk-based club. The manager at the time the little-known Billy Lamont. At other times, different managers with different clubs may look at such achievements as minor distractions, but for East Stirlingshire and their long-suffering fans, these were the champagne years, and they had Billy 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 witihin 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 in decision making. By the time Ferguson had come and gone though, in the mid-1970s, things were taking a more traditional format, and three managers later, Billy Lamont was appointed.
Billy Lamont was born in Larkhall in 1936, with his early childhood years dominated by the the strife of the Second World War. A goalkeeper by trade, Lamont played for amateur club Bellshill Athletic, before joining Albion Rovers in 1958. The move began a career between the sticks that took in a sojourn south of the border for a short time with Cheltenham Town, and two periods with Albion and Hamilton Academical.
His first period there, 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.
At the time, 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 mini-revival, even if it still left them annoyingly 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 the Glasgow giants. Such high-profile success was however considered as small beer in the quieter environs of Falkirk. East Stirlingshire achieving promotion was far more important to the fans of ‘The Shire well, especially among the townsfolk there who followed ‘The Shire.’ Albeit such joy 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 and had the fans swooning at such unexperienced heights of success. Ironically, the run came to an end after the 1-2 victory at their local rivals. If the giddy excitement of that victory set off dreams of grandeur, a 0-1 home defeat to Cowdenbeath in the following game was the bucket of cold water over the head to bring things back down to level of reality.
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 though, things plateaued and although the club collected a number of wins, some frustrating draws and particularly a home defeat to Queens Park at the end of March had a feel of the kind of results that the club would rue on the day of reckoning.
On the final day of the league season, a 1-1 draw at Brechin City left East Stirlingshire tantalisingly 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.
Billy 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 in 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 last season drawn games had probably cost the club the title, this time, the number of games where they salvaged 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 Billy 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, however, 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 was 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 bite 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’s hardly anyone who follows football that hasn’t heard of the success of Fergie with Manchester United, much less is known of the exploits of the success that Billy Lamont achieved north of the border. 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 merely dismiss what Lamont achieved as unworthy of respect. Just ask the football fans in the town of Falkirk.
(This All Bluer Daze article was originally produced for the “Football Pink” website).