EVERYTHING was going so well. After an eight-year hiatus from the top flight, Partick Thistle were pushing for promotion from Scotland’s second tier. Thistle were neck-and-neck with Greenock Morton as the pair battled it out for the Championship title. Then, the title bid threatened to go off the rails in January. McNamara swapped Firhill for Tannadice, leaving the Jags to turn to a man with no senior management experience: Alan Archibald.

“The whole thing was bizarre,” Archibald recalls. “The only thing that stood me in good stead was that Gerry [Britton] had already asked me to coach the under-17s. I had done my cruciate when Ian [McCall] was still in charge so I got in with the under-17s, then the year before Jackie left I started taking the reserves. I was still playing a bit-part role in the first team but we couldn’t afford a youth coach so it was Jackie that said I could do the reserves and do bits and bobs in training. I was only in the team now and again but he got a great bunch of young boys together to play.

“When I took over, I was prepared in terms of dealing with the set-up of a team and stuff like that. But I wasn’t totally prepared. We were flying high at the top of the league and then Jackie left. The wheels came off a wee bit because we couldn’t win away from home.

“It was sink or swim. If you go and you don’t get promoted it would have been my fault, so it was all to lose rather than having everything to gain. But the lads were fantastic. What I found out – because I was still coaching them as well – they were such a naive bunch. They had never really been in a dressing room after a manager had left so once Jackie decided he was going, they were so vulnerable. They were so worried about who was going to come in next.

“Around 60 percent of that squad had all been rejected at bigger clubs. Stephen O’Donnell, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, Conrad [Balatoni], Sean Welsh; they had all been binned by top-flight clubs. They had worked with managers that they didn’t get on with but Jackie had a totally different approach. He gave them a platform for them to go and play. That made it easy to take them on; they just wanted security, they just wanted things to be the same. In that sense, it was very easy to take over.

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“I had a lot of respect because I was already in the dressing room. One thing Jackie said was that I would probably be better in the coaching room, so that season I started getting changed with the other coaches. I still went on the nights out and stuff like that. They didn’t tell me everything, right enough. That’s what happens in dressing rooms! That made the transition a lot easier to be honest. The lads were desperate for me to be in charge because they wanted somebody that they knew. They didn’t want change so they were as desperate as me for me to get the job. They knew what they were getting with me so it was quite a smooth transition. Thankfully, we kept on winning games.”

Archibald may well have been hesitant about his aptitude for first-team management but he needn’t have been. The Jags gained the upper hand in the title race and with just a few games left to play, hosted Morton in what was essentially a title-decider. It turned out to be one of the most memorable nights at Firhill in years, with James Craigen’s first-half strike proving decisive and effectively handing the title to Thistle. It was a game where Thistle showed their mettle – something that was seriously questioned just a few days earlier when they lost the Challenge Cup on penalties to Queen of the South, despite a 119th-minute equaliser from Kris Doolan.

Unsurprisingly, the game sticks out in Archibald’s mind.

“My biggest memory of that game is that we were s*****g ourselves! We had lost the Challenge Cup final on the Sunday before on penalties. We probably didn’t prepare for it as best as we could. I was just in the job and we had a cup final. I felt our preparation could have been better. We had a lot of young guys playing in their first final that probably played their worst games that day because it was too much for them. They just weren’t used to it. It was a big crowd as well but they showed great desire to go and win the Tuesday night game against Morton. The crowd that night was brilliant. It was one of the best nights that Firhill has had in a long, long time if you ask any fan. It was incredible.

“James Craigen scored the only goal of the game and it was good that he did. Every player in that squad played an integral part, they all gave something. James was always on the periphery because at the time we had Stevie Lawless, Ross Forbes, Chris Erskine and Kris Doolan. James played a part as well as guys like Christie Elliot, so it was great that he got the goal and I don’t think there was any way we were going to lose after that. Things just go for you. We went to Airdrie the Saturday after that and got two goals right at the end, it was fantastic.”

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Promotion – and the title – were secured not long afterwards before Archibald guided Thistle to safety the following season. Thistle travelled to Tynecastle in their second-last fixture of the season knowing a win would be enough to ensure their survival. Trailing 2-1 at the interval, they came roaring out of the traps and stormed to a 4-2 victory.

An eighth-placed finish arrived the next season, followed by ninth the year after. Archibald had established the Maryhill club as a Premiership side. Then, the following year, he went one better as the club finished in the top six. It was Thistle’s highest final league position since 1981.

“Finishing in the top six is probably my biggest achievement,” Archibald says reluctantly. “For such a club – when the club has been languishing at the bottom end and with the smallest budget, it’s a massive achievement. There wasn’t that feeling of joy for getting the top six – it meant a lot to the players because of their bonuses I think! But winning the Championship, and the relief of staying up at Tynecastle, I always looks to as massive moments for the club. Because if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have got to the top six. They’re the two standout games for me.”

Things wouldn’t be quite so rosy the following season. Liam Lindsay left for Barnsley in the summer and the defence looked a shadow of its former self without the centre-back. Things started poorly, got worse, and before he knew it, Archibald’s side finished in eleventh: the dreaded relegation play-off spot. A two-legged tie against Livingston beckoned, where Thistle were soundly beaten. Their five-year stay in the Premiership was brought to an end less than a year after that historic sixth-placed finish.

“The whole season was disgusting,” recalls Archibald, not holding back. “I spoke to Danny Lennon after St Mirren had won the League Cup and I always remember him saying that they barely won a game after that. He said a lot of the lads struggled to deal with it so I was very aware of that. But I thought we had a good squad and we added a couple too.HeraldScotland:

 

“The big thing was losing Liam Lindsay and then we got injury after injury that season. I hate saying it because it sounds like an excuse but we had eight or nine key injuries. We added to the squad but even when we did win games it wasn’t great to watch. We beat St Johnstone out there and it was f*****g horrible. It was all about hanging in there.

“You go from having a squad you can rely on and trust and then you find that when you get to the top six, a few players think they are better than what they were and think they can live their life a certain way. I was probably a bit too loyal to them if I’m being really honest. People would tell me that I was too loyal to them but we didn’t have the budget to ship 10 players out and 10 in, it doesn’t work like that. We done well to get to the play-offs, we only finished 11th on goal difference.

“The game I look at that season was away to Motherwell. We lost a late goal from a set-play when [Ryan] Bowman scored and I think that was the difference. It was a sore one. We played Livingston and they had what we didn’t – a real togetherness, a real fighting spirit. I had that with John Lambie’s team. They were everything that we weren’t to be honest. I think, deep down, some of the players knew that as well. Some didn’t fancy the battle. I know that they didn’t fancy a battle. But four or five still did, there were some good pros in there.”

Archibald was retained as manager by the club – a decision that some supporters disagreed with – and was given a clear remit to bring the club back to the Premiership at the first time of asking. By October, with Thistle languishing towards the bottom end of the Championship, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. Archibald was relieved of his duties after almost six years in the Firhill dugout. It’s a painful memory for Archie – but the decision was one that he was prepared for.

“You know it’s coming,” he said. “You’re aware that you’re two or three results away from that all the time. There had been changes in the boardroom and a total upheaval of the playing staff. We weren’t really set for the Championship. The first game of the season we had two players on the bench which for a big club coming down, supposedly going to be winning the league, that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t a surprise when it came. It’s always hard to leave a club that you’ve been so involved in for such a long time but there were no hard feelings about it.”

After spending the best part of a year out of the game, Archibald then returned to Firhill to work as Ian McCall’s assistant following Gary Caldwell’s disastrous tenure in Maryhill. He admits he was initially reluctant to return but one thing convinced him that it would be worthwhile: McCall’s vision.

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“Ian phoned me and asked if I fancied coming back in,” he said. “I wasn’t sure about it but after speaking to him I thought it was worth giving it a go. Speaking to Ian about it, you would think he’s been at the club for the same amount of time as me because he cares every bit as much. He lives in the west end and he lives and breathes the football club.

“He was always on the phone when I was out of work – and in the job as well -  and I wouldn’t have come back for anybody else. Because it was him and the way the club was at the time, I thought it needed someone like Ian to come in and grab the bull by the horns and take the club forward and really give it a drive. They had lost so much. You go from having the same people in charge and a sense of stability around the club to changing the manager, changing the manager again, there’s disgruntled fans… you just need everyone pulling in the same direction and I think Ian has always been able to do that.

“He’s morphed into John Lambie. He doesn’t know it but he has! He’s always had traits of John Lambie. He signs good players, he signs guys that are good at what they do and he manages them very well. He’s always had a good, strong dressing room. That was the only reason I came back -  because I know the way he works. When I was here we had a strong dressing room, it was a mix of good players and good characters and that’s the way he wants to work. I thought he could get the club back into the Premiership and that was the main reason for coming back.”

Archibald’s return has, of course, been anything but straightforward. Once again, Thistle are locked in a relegation dogfight at the foot of the table and it appears as though simply surviving in the Championship is, for the second successive season, the club’s primary focus. A huge part of the issues that have created this predicament can be found in defence; the Jags are yet to record a clean sheet in the league this season, and have just two to their name for the entire campaign. One arrived against Penicuik Athletic in the third round of the Scottish Cup, the other against Connah’s Quay Nomads – a club perhaps best known in Scotland for dumping Kilmarnock out of the Europa League at the start of the current campaign. As a former defender himself, Archibald feels the frustration about this more than most.

“It’s infuriating,” he asserts. “It’s bizarre, we kept a clean sheet against Connah’s Quay Nomads, a team that people struggle to keep clean sheets against because they’re so direct and physical. It’s a real bugbear. We’ve lost a couple of games because of set-plays recently as well. At least it’s not from open play but it’s got to be better. The team will not stay in the league unless we start keeping clean sheets. It puts a lot of pressure on the front guys to score goals so we’re well aware of that and it’s got to get better.”

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Archibald does not envy the job McCall has on his hands. The daily pressure of staving off relegation is something that the 42-year-old doesn’t miss – although he can envisage a return to first-team management on day. Just not anytime soon.

“At some point in the future, yeah [I would return to management],” he says. “Probably not at Partick Thistle. I think I’ve still got a lot to give. I’m actually really enjoying the role I have just now. After we lost away to Ayr, I was looking across the desk at Ian and thinking ‘Oh my god, that was me for years’. Being the manager is putting yourself in a lonely, lonely place. People think you just pick a team on Saturday and go with the flow but there’s a lot more to it. So I’m quite enjoying not being the guy that’s not right in the firing line. You need to be there for the manager as well at times, so it’s quite enjoyable to experience a different aspect.”

A quick glance at the clock tells me our time is almost up. But there’s one more thing I’m dying to know, however frivolous it may be. How does Archie feel about the ’12 Archibalds Of Christmas’ song that the fans wheel out on an annual basis? (For the uninitiated, it is exactly what it sounds like. Each daily festive gift is replaced by Archibald, starting from the first day. A full rendition takes the best part of five minutes – a glowing testament to the commitment of the Thistle supporters that bellow it out.)

Archibald bursts out laughing. “It was good at Inverness away! We won by three or four goals and that was the first time I’d heard it so that was fantastic. It’s different when you’re not in charge. Gary Harkins was still here and Jeebsy [Harkins] sang it when I came back, and the players sang a song for McCall as well. Then Jeebsy said, ‘We need a song for [assistant Neil] Scally, he’s not got one!’. It was a wee bit cringeworthy.

“But the fans have been brilliant with me the whole time. Even when I got sacked, they were fantastic. The fans have had their ups and downs. I think there was a realisation after we got relegated from the Premiership that it’s not always going to be great at Partick Thistle. I think that’s part of what makes it a great club; the people, the characters. The story of a Partick Thistle is never easy. It’s always a bumpy ride.”

It’s a sentiment that many Thistle fans will be all-too-familiar with. Over the last 30 years, Jags supporters have experienced the elation of promotion on five occasions, and the deflation of relegation five times. Archibald is right; it’s a topsy-turvy club where nothing is ever simple. He’s also correct to say that it’s the people and the characters that make Thistle special to its fans. He is, without question, one of those unique individuals who are so deeply woven into the fabric of the club that they become inextricable. It is difficult to envisage Archibald without Thistle; it is nigh-on impossible to imagine the Jags without Archie.

Alan Archibald was promoting Thistle’s A Pizza, A Pint and A Title Winner event at Firhill on Friday 13 March, which will feature a fans Q&A with Archie, Kenny Arthur and Denis McQuade – tickets via ptfc.co.uk