Sunderland born wing half Ted Birnie joined First Division Newcastle United in June 1898 from Sunderland Seaburn, where he had represented Northumberland County, making his Football League debut against Notts County that September. During seven seasons at Newcastle he was never more than an occasional starter, and by the time he joined Southern League club Crystal Palace in the 1905 close season he had made a mere 20 appearances for The Toon.
He had a single season with Palace scoring 3 goals in 29 appearances before he signed for Second Division Chelsea for £100 in May 1906, helping them to promotion from the Second Division as runners up in his first season, and playing a further three seasons for them in the First Division, scoring 3 times in 108 appearances before he joined Tottenham Hotspur in July 1910. But he only played 4 times, scoring once, in his single season at Spurs, before joining FC Mülheim in Germany as player coach in August 1911. He returned to England with Rochdale in 1912, joining Newcastle City in 1913 and he played for Southern League club Leyton in 1914 before his playing retirement.
After the First World War had ended, Birnie had a spell as a trainer at Sunderland from August 1919. In January 1922 he became manager of Southend United and spent twelve seasons in charge of the club, becoming the only manager to preside over a Southend team for more than 500 matches, his record totalling 559 matches in charge. He achieved a notable FA Cup 4th round giant killing when The Shrimpers convincingly beat the then Division Two leaders, Derby County 4-1 at The Kursaal in January 1926. Having led them to third place in the Third Division (South) in 1931-32, Birnie retired in May 1934.