Come on, then, John Lambie, what's all this faith business? And maybe more to the point, what about all this swearing? And can't you put out one of those fags, just for a moment, so that I can see through the smog whether you're smiling or merely praying?

The Partick Thistle manager, perhaps on the brink of further divine intervention when his team face Rangers in tomorrow's Scottish Cup semi-final, sat cocooned within plumes of smoke in his office yesterday, his desk piled high with fag-ends and tickets for Hampden. One after another, his players trooped in, asking their gaffer for some big-match favour. Thistle, with 12,000 fans set for Hampden, haven't been in such ferment since they made a laughing stock of Jock Stein 31 years ago.

You may have heard, amid it all, that Lambie has found the Lord. The Sun recently called him ''a born-again Christian'', though even within the Sun's straight-talking lexicon, this is a cloudy phrase. It certainly hasn't always been evident to those who take in Thistle's matches within earshot of Lambie's dugout on Saturday afternoons. Withered must be the minister of Brucefield Parish Church in Whitburn, where Lambie has been a regular, between smokes and swears, for the past 20 years.

''Look, I don't make a big meal o' it,'' he says between further swatches of a fag. ''By the way, before we go on, don't tell Mamie [Lambie's wife] about these fags. But this born-again thing is rubbish. I like religion. I like Christianity. I'm a spiritual man. You know that thing about 'six days shall I labour and do all thy work . . . and the seventh day is the Lord's'. Well, I like that. I've always gone to church. Are you tryin' to tell me we all do all this stuff in our lives and we can't spare an hour once a week for the church? That's all it is.''

Just as Lambie was pronouncing on this, his phone suddenly rang. ''Hallo?'' he said, grabbing the receiver. ''No. Aye. Well, maybe. Look, I'm sorry, but ma heid's burstin'. I went to that do last night and all I meant to have was a

couple of glasses . . .''

Not many guessed that, after 44 years in football, the most authentic man left in a Scottish football dugout would come to this Biblical pass on the brink of the biggest match of his life. Thistle today actually have a chaplain, Mark Fleming, whom Lambie drools over almost as much as he does Scott Paterson.

''The guy's brilliant!'' he says, stubbing out fag No.6. ''I say to him: 'Come and say something to the players', and he'll be absolutely fantastic. Mark's actually the minister of a Pentecostal Church in Kilsyth, which I've been to and found to be my kind of thing . . . you know, with guitars and the music jumpin'. I go to church like anyone else, to ask for forgiveness. If I don't go, I miss it. If I miss communion, I hate it.''

Today, he says, one of his great fulfilments is watching the God-slot on Sky TV. At least, maybe it was a great fulfilment of Lambie's. Research yesterday seemed to suggest that, at least on Sky, God appeared to have been laid-off.

''It was a great show, 6.50pm, I watched it all the time,'' he says. ''Have you heard of Joyce Mayer? She's brilliant. I've been reading her book, Positive and Negative Thinking, and it has helped put my life in perspective. I was called a hatchet-man as a player but I'm not like that now. Ask my wife.''

I wouldn't dare put fragrant Mamie Lambie on the spot over this, though she would know, having been wedded - and welded - to Thistle's manager for more than 35 years. Mrs Lambie would, though, recall her husband when he was a whippet full-back for Falkirk throughout the 1960s, a time when Lambie's magnificent bouffant hair billowed in the breeze up Brockville's muddy flanks.

There is a period-piece testament surviving from this time, a bubble-gum pack picture of Lambie from a 1960s series, with the famous bouffant thatch sprouting like corn in summer. I've always loved this picture because it preserves the other Lambie, the younger footballer many of us can't remember today. It also symbolises one of two odd aspects about his career.

Lambie is idolised at Thistle, and little wonder, because his achievements are beyond dispute. Yet if you drove 30 miles west to Falkirk, where Lambie was an accomplished defender in a fine tradition of Falkirk full-backs such as Jimmy McPhee, Joe McDonald and Alec Parker, you'd hear something less than glorifying about his character.

Lambie, it is almost forgotten, was Falkirk's manager for a brief interim in 1995-96, a time which one Bairns fan last week described as ''one of the club's great fiascos''. Towards the end of that sorrowful reign, fitted in between Lambie's endless to-ing and fro-ing between Thistle and Hamilton, one Falkirk supporter even tried to drive him off the road after a match.

It is odd how, despite Lambie playing over 200 games for Falkirk, and scoring a decent haul of goals as a defender, he is only remembered for his disastrous managerial reign. It is also odd that, having four times achieved promotion with moderate teams at Thistle and Hamilton, his successes seem to have been exclusively tethered to these two clubs.

He is typically robust, straight-talking, and slightly moralistic - a consistent Lambie trait - on the subject.

''I'm not going to go into all that but I should never have gone back to Falkirk,'' he says. ''One director, and I'm not going to tell you who, told a lie. When I lie, I have trouble sleeping at night, but I was misled at Falkirk. Too many of their players were over the hill. The pity was I'd had such a great time there as a player.'' The pity also was that, the previous year, Falkirk under Jim Jefferies had finished fifth in the Premier Division. But they started sinking under Lambie.

His other previous incarnation outwith the Thistle-Hamilton axis also ended in tears, about which the mercurial Lambie was also hazy last week. To some reporters the impression was given that Lambie's first job as a coach came amid Eddie Turnbull's great heyday with Hibs, though this wasn't quite the case.

Lambie certainly did work with Turnbull from 1978, and then with Bertie Auld, though their Hibs teams had started to wilt. ''We were going great guns when they [the Hibs directors] suddenly wanted us out,'' he said to me yesterday. The record books, though, don't seem to bear this out.

Under Turnbull, of course, Hibs had been magnificent throughout the early to mid-1970s. By 1979, though, despite a Scottish Cup final against Rangers, Hibs were sliding down the table, and, in fact, just at the point of ''going great guns'', the club was actually relegated in 1980. Lambie, though, is adamant about one thing. ''Eddie Turnbull was one of the best three managers in the world,'' he says.

Is it just something in Lambie's water that makes him special, and almost incorrigible, in the context of Thistle? Tomorrow at Hampden, he says, he'll certainly be bursting with belief.

''Nothing's impossible in football. The day I don't feel positive, the day I feel I've lost my drive, will be the day I chuck it. Rangers are hot right now but I still believe we've got a chance. We're like a big outsider in the Grand National but look at some of the horses that have won that race.''

I asked him if, tonight, he would pray about the match.

''Naw, that wouldn't be right,'' he replied with surprising sensitivity. ''I don't think that would be fair. I mean, you can't do that, can you, it's up to me and the players, nobody else. If the breaks go against us, so be it. I've got better things to pray about.''


Rangers V Partick Thistle

THE last time Rangers played Thistle in a competitive match was on April13, 1996 which the Ibrox club won 5-0. You have to go back three years previously to find the last time they beat Rangers, a 3-0 win. In the 12 meetings since, Rangers have won eight and there have been four draws.

They have played each other 201 times Rangers winning 139 of them, Thistle 27 and 35 ending in draws. In the Scottish Cup the club have met 15 times, Rangers winning 11, Thistle two and two draws.

The last time the clubs met in the Scottish Cup was also at the semi-final stage back in April 1979. The first match ended in a 0-0 draw with Rangers winning the replay 1-0. Partick Thistle haven't won a Scottish Cup tie against Rangers since they beat them in the final in 1921. In 1930 Thistle lost in the final to Rangers in a replay after the first match ended in a 0-0 draw.

Ayr United V Celtic

Ayr have yet to record a cup victory over Celtic. The last five meetings of the clubs have all been in the League Cup, with Celtic winning them all. The most recent match was Celtic's 4-0 win at Somerset Park back in October 1999.

The total games between the clubs show 93 meetings, with Celtic winning 73, Ayr 12, and eight have been drawn. They have met four times in the Scottish Cup with Ayr drawing once and losing the other three. The draw came in February 1977 when Ayr held Celtic to a 1-1 fourth round draw at Parkhead before losing 3-1 in the replay

The four meetings between the clubs in 1974-75 provided a real goals rush with 26 being scored. Celtic won 5-2, 5-1, and

5-3, while Ayr won the other 3-2. The first recorded meeting was in the league in 1913, with Celtic winning 5-1

Route to Semis

Ayr United

Rd 3 (a) Deveronvale 0-6

Rd 4 (h) Dunfermline 3-0

Rd 5 (a) Dundee United 2-2, (h) replay 2-0


Rd 3 (a) Alloa Athletic 0-5

Rd 4 (a) Kilmarnock 0-2

Rd 5 (a) Aberdeen 0-2

Partick Thistle

Rd 3 (a) East Fife 2-3

Rd 4 (h) Dundee 1-1; (a) replay 0-1

Rd 5 (h) Inverness CT 2-2 (a) replay 0-1


Rd 3 Berwick Rangers (a) 0-0 (h) replay 3-0

Rd 4 (h) Hibs 4-1

Rd 5 Forfar Athletic (a) 0-6