We already know a lot about Paul Lambert’s achievements with Norwich as well as his tumultuous time at Aston Villa.
But, as I did with Walter Zenga, I wanted to dig a bit deeper and found out more from those who witnessed the highs and lows of his managerial career first hand.
First stop: Livingston, West Lothian, Scotland
Livingston (June 2005 – February 2006)
Although Lambert did not take up his first managerial post until 2005, he had made it clearly for a number of years beforehand that he intended to move into coaching.
In 2004, Celtic allowed him to take part in two four-week-long coaching courses organised by the German FA. Lambert chose to return to Germany, where he had previously been a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund, because he believed the continental influence would separate him from other British coaches that all have similar methods and mind-sets.
So, he was given the opportunity to try out his German-influenced philosophy in West Lothian. However, things didn’t quite go according to plan as Livingston supporter Andrew Semple explains:
Lambert’s appointment was met with a muted response from the Livingston faithful. Here was an inexperienced coach coming into his first manager’s job – no one really knew what to expect. But he had a good track record as a player and many people endorsed him as an aspiring coach.
Unfortunately, his football was utterly dreadful – and that is putting it politely! There were lots of long, aimless balls and we relied on opponents making mistakes. Of course, he didn’t have a great team at his disposal but that’s no excuse really.
Lambert’s tenure came to an end after just eight months at the helm when he resigned after only winning five of his 32 matches in charge. Semple added:
We were all relieved when Lambert resigned. One of the worst nights in the club’s history came when we travelled to Hibernian on a Tuesday night and lost 7-0. But the scoreline could – and probably should – have been so much worse! Fans threw scarfs away and Lambert was hounded.
Amazingly he remained in charge until the following Saturday evening after we lost yet again. During the game a banner was unfurled by the fans which read ‘Lambo Out’. Fortunately, he resigned later that evening.
So we start with a black mark on his CV, but things can only get better from here.
Next Stop: High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
Wycombe Wanderers (June 2006 – May 2008)
Just four months later, Lambert was unveiled as the new manager of Wycombe Wanderers; following an endorsement from his former Celtic boss Martin O’Neill.
Phil Slatter, Chairman of Wycombe Wanderers Independent Supporters Association, admits that Lambert’s appointment was very much a leap of faith.
Given his relative lack of managerial experience, we had no idea what to expect so at the time it was a case of ‘wait and see’. His record as a player was impressive but he had a poor record at Livingston. He did seem to come with a recommendation from Martin O’Neill (a god at Adams Park) so that was a plus point.
Nevertheless, Lambert proved to be a good fit for The Chairboys and his winning mentality soon won over the sceptics. No more so than when he led the club to glory in the League Cup, where they were eventually knocked out by Chelsea having reached the semi-finals. Slatter commented:
Paul took over from John Gorman whose gung-ho style of football was absolutely thrilling but suicidal at times. Lambert was more measured and focused on winning. A good comparison is our League Cup campaigns from that time. In 2005, we were 3-1 up at half-time against Aston Villa and Gorman instructed the team to go out and get a fourth goal instead of shutting up shop. We lost 8-3. A year later, Lambert took us to the semi-finals on the back of resolute second half defensive displays at Fulham and Charlton.
Overall, his style of football was relatively defensive minded and our shape was very narrow – Lambert was not a fan of wingers and tried to play through the middle an awful lot. There is no denying it was effective though as he got us to the League Cup semi-finals and then into the play-offs, even if at times it was hard to tell what his actual tactics were.
In the season that followed their glorious cup run, it looked like promotion could be on the cards for the club as Lambert led them to a seventh-place finish. However, it wasn’t to be as Wycombe lost out to Stockport in the play-off semi-final. Slatter concluded:
I personally don’t think Lambert was appreciated in his time at Wycombe. He had a bit of a rocky relationship with the fans which was partly due to the style of football he employed (at a time when there were resources available) and because he was something of a part-time manager – during his first season he still lived in Scotland and commuted on a weekly basis.
That said, the League Cup run was terrific and he took us into the play-offs at a time when League Two was arguably the strongest it’s ever been. I think if he had stayed he may well have achieved promotion – the following year Peter Taylor did so with a similar brand of football. But quite how well we’d have done in League One under Lambert is anyone’s guess.
The fallout from the Stockport defeat was instant: Lambert resigned shortly afterwards, saying it was time to “hand over the reins to someone else”. He would take a short break from football before returning to club management later that year.
Next stop: Colchester, Essex
Colchester United (October 2008 – August 2009)
Firstly, a disclaimer – trying to find a Colchester United supporter willing to speak objectively about Paul Lambert was akin to trying to find ice in a desert.
I had several leads, but no one seemed willing to talk. One responded by saying he had an unjust banning order during Lambert’s days and didn’t pay much attention to football. Another flat out refused to answer any questions and labelled some of football from that time as ‘soporific’ – admittedly, that had me reaching for the dictionary!
Several more messages went unanswered until long-time Colchester Gazette reporter Jon Waldron answered my SOS.
Lambert’s arrival came as something of a surprise. He wasn’t high in the bookmakers’ list of candidates for the job, so it was a bit of a turn up for the books when he got the role, especially as he hadn’t had any previous links to the club. It was the first appointment that Robbie Cowling had made as chairman so the U’s fans were willing to give him a chance, especially given the results in the opening weeks of that season.
Lambert had arrived midway through the 2008/09 season with the U’s in 20th place in League One following a miserable start to the season. Within a few months, he had Colchester on the cusp of the play-offs until they faded later in the season and finished mid-table.
When asked about how Lambert was able to turn things around so quickly, Waldron commented:
He came in with fresh ideas and decided pretty quickly who he wanted at the club and who he didn’t. It seemed to work, as Colchester went from having won only two league games to taking seven points from a possible 12 during his opening weeks in charge.
It took him a little time to get his style across but that was mostly due to personnel and he made a number of signings that made a difference, such as Marc Tierney, Magnus Okuonghae and David Fox. Certain players were deemed out of favour and a number of players were rather clinically left out of the squad for a pre-season trip to Germany.
He made changes off the field, too. He changed the dressing rooms around in the new stadium and ensured that the away changing room was a lot less comfortable for visiting teams, instructing that it be painted battleship grey and making it considerably smaller than its previous size.
He began the following season with a 7–1 win over Norwich City, who then proceeded to sack Bryan Gunn and appoint Lambert as his successor. It’s safe to say that the Colchester faithful have never forgiven him for the manner of his exit. Waldron added:
By the time Lambert quit Colchester, he had moulded a team capable of playing stylish football but also one that was able to grind out results, when needed. His methods were not always popular but he got Colchester playing, as their 7-1 win at Norwich ultimately proved.
The manner of his departure as Colchester manager will forever taint the memory of his brief reign at the club and what he achieved in the eyes of many U’s supporters. Nevertheless, he left his mark and will always be remembered for masterminding one of the club’s greatest-ever wins; the magnificent opening-day triumph at Carrow Road.
Finally, I asked Jon what his lasting impression of Paul Lambert is. He replied:
A driven, no-holds-barred manager who knows what he wants. Paul Lambert knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and create at Colchester and arguably, he left them in a better position than the one he found them in.
A solid if unspectacular spell, but his greatest managerial success would come in his next position.
Next stop: Norwich, Norfolk
Norwich City (August 2009 – June 2012)
The fallout from Lambert jumping ship to Norwich was nothing short of incredible. The two clubs were unable to reach a compensation deal and relations at boardroom level were hostile for months on end.
The Scot was seemingly appointed on the strength of that humiliating loss his Colchester inflicted on the Canaries. However, Michael Bailey, Norwich City correspondent for the Eastern Daily Press, doesn’t think the result was the sole reason behind the appointment:
Then chief executive David McNally was new to the post and also knew of Paul Lambert from his time at Celtic. He wanted him – but that extraordinary result certainly greased all the wheels with the rest of the board.
Despite being surrounded by controversy, Lambert quietly got on with his job and by the time he returned to Colchester for the return fixture, Norwich were second in League One and heading for promotion. They would win 5–0 that day and go on to win the league at a canter. The following season was even better, as Lambert led Norwich to their second successive promotion when they finished second in the Championship.
Here Bailey explained the secret behind Lambert’s success:
Lambert got the players and fans bonded together. He got his side to run for him and for themselves, and he picked the right players to sign so that they had strong characters – that all brought the drive and hunger everyone needed to succeed.
I then quizzed Michael on a comment I’d heard from another journalist, who claimed that Lambert was only successful at Norwich because Grant Holt organised the dressing room. He replied:
Grant was a major part of the success, and we never got to see Paul Lambert without him at Carrow Road. The rise was so miraculous – and PL’s success since has been remarkably limited – that it does beg the question his time at City was just the perfect chemistry of several things. I’m genuinely stunned it’s been so fallow for him since – and I’m yet to be convinced he can be as successful without his team of Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa.
But certainly Paul, his coaching staff, the chief executive and numerous other players all played a major role in the club’s success. Grant was just one piece.
A year later, Lambert would guide Norwich to a 12th place finish in the Premier League – which is still his highest-ever finish as a manager. However, it would be his last season at Carrow Road, as he left the club in June 2012 to become manager at Aston Villa. His departure left a sour taste in the supporters’ mouth. Bailey added:
When he left, many were very angry. But I’d say with the passing of time, he’d get a very good reception back at Carrow Road – and in truth, quite a few City fans would have him back in charge of the club right now.
Next stop: Birmingham, West Midlands
Aston Villa (June 2012 – February 2015)
Aston Villa are a club that have been in steady decline since the departure of Martin O’Neill in August 2010. After Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish both tried and failed to restore Villa’s reputation as one of the top clubs in England, the board turned to Paul Lambert in the hope that the Scot could bring a winning mentality back to Villa Park.
Aston Villa blogger Justin Hawthorne felt that Lambert was the right man for the job:
Lambert seemed to be a great choice at the time. He had worked wonders at Norwich and had a very good reputation in the game as a progressive up-and-coming coach. His appointment was welcomed by the fans, but to be honest given that he was replacing Alex McLeish we would have probably welcomed anyone! Nevertheless, he received our full backing from the get go.
Unfortunately for Lambert, his tenure at Villa did not go according to plan. Given the hugely difficult circumstances he faced, some may argue that he did well to keep Villa in the top-flight during his first two seasons. Those campaigns were hamstrung by cash constrains and an increasingly disinterested chairman. It seemed like Lambert’s position was under scrutiny from day one, but he always managed to claw his way back from the brink of disaster. Hawthorne commented:
He was methodical in his approach and his German influences really shine through in the way that he sets his sides up. He wanted to play football and initially had the team playing through the midfield. The signing of Benteke was a masterstroke as he became the focal point of our attack, and we were at our best when we played to his strengths.
Lambert was often plagued by heavy defeats, such as the 8–0 loss to Chelsea, but somehow he always managed to nick a result when he needed to. He also didn’t take other competitions seriously enough and we suffered embarrassing losses, none more so than the League Cup semi-final loss to Bradford.
In his final season at Villa, Lambert’s trusted aides Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa left the club due to allegations of bullying he appointed the capricious Roy Keane as his number two. Initially, it proved to be a shrewd move with Villa yielding 10 points from their first four games. Following that they registered just two wins in the next 21 matches. Keane left in December and Lambert was dismissed just two months later.
Hawthorne believes that Lambert’s decision to completely overhaul Villa’s playing style was the catalyst for his departure.
His demise came as the result of his change of style. Suddenly we went from a direct attacking style to a possession based system the goalkeeper playing it out from the back. That style of play is fine if you have Barcelona or Bayern Munich’s players at your disposal, but not when you have our team.
While Lambert had to do his job under difficult circumstances, with our owner downing tools and stopping the spending, let’s not forget he was in charge of a side that the likes of Benteke, Cleverley, Delph, Vlaar, Grealish and others. His tenure was very boom and bust, but with more downs than ups, and he managed to break every negative record we had including the longest run without scoring, and he could never get us winning at home.
So I do feel a change was needed and it was the right decision to let Lambert go when we did.
Following his dismissal from Villa, Lambert spent much of his eight-month sabbatical travelling through Europe observing the likes of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen. But by the end of 2015 he would be back in football at a rather surprising destination.
Next Stop: Blackburn, Lancashire
Blackburn Rovers (November 2015 – May 2016)
Last November, Lambert was unveiled as the new manager of Blackburn Rovers. Admittedly, joining a club owned by the Venkys was a strange move for someone who had experienced two-and-a-half years at a club run by another disinterested owner. Blackburn had fallen to 16th in the Championship under the stewardship of Gary Bowyer and, as Rovers fan Mikey Delap explains, supporters were desperate for Lambert to succeed.
It’s safe to say that when Bowyer left his post at Rovers the club itself is much you like you see now – lacking in direction and any real leadership behind the scenes. At the time Lambert’s appointment was greeted with more or less universal approval, which given the last few years of growing disinterest and widespread apathy was nothing short of a miracle.
Lambert’s arrival gave Rovers an immediate lift, collecting 11 points from his first five games in charge. However, after selling top scorer Jordan Rhodes and long-serving defender Martin Olsson in the January transfer window, a run of eight winless games followed and Blackburn found themselves hovering precariously above the relegation zone.
Rovers were also under a transfer embargo, meaning that Lambert had to work minor miracles in the loan market to offset to loss of key players. Delap commented:
We marginally improved under Lambert compared to Bowyer’s reign but not to any significant degree. Rovers were far from exhilarating to watch under Lambert. The formation was compact and the aim was to make us difficult to beat…which sort of worked, but at the cost of any substantial enjoyment.
Danny Graham, Jordi Gomez and Tony Watt were all bought in on loan with varying degrees of success. Not most people’s preferred tactic but they seemed to do a decent job of keeping us ticking over until the summer.
In April 2016, once Blackburn’s Championship status had been confirmed for another season, it was announced that Lambert had activated a release clause in his contract that would allow him to depart in the summer. In the days that followed, the Scot admitted that he wanted to go in a different direction to the club. Delap added:
Although Lambert’s reign wasn’t an unqualified success, there are other factors at work at Blackburn Rovers which simply don’t exist elsewhere. I thought given the ‘right’ backing he would have done a good job here. But this is Venky’s we’re talking about – the right backing was never going to materialise. When he left it felt disappointing to me but I could understand he had just got a tad annoyed at being messed around by the omnishambles that is our owners.
Next Stop: Wolverhampton, West Midlands
So overall, what conclusions can I draw from Paul Lambert’s CV.
He’s had success, he’s had failure. Name me a manager who hasn’t tasted both of those at some point in their career.
His time at Blackburn and, of course, Aston Villa has been mentioned by several critics, but there is no denying the success he achieved with a Norwich squad that wasn’t overly dominated by star names.
With all due respect, if he can take the likes of Grant Holt and Zak Whitbread to the Premier League, surely he should be able to utilise the talents of Helder Costa and Ivan Cavaleiro more effectively than his predecessor did.
His past is not important. What’s important is what Paul Lambert does next.
Lambert has taken over a set of players who belonged to someone else. With the exception of the luckless Mike Williamson during his time at Wycombe, he has never worked with any of the current squad.
Can he galvanise a squad that has failed to register a single win in their last seven games?
Fortunately he has a reputation for making his teams hard to beat and that in itself is a good place to start.
This was originally where I intended to wrap up this article, but last week I was invited to join Tom, Ben and a few others at the training ground for a meet and greet with Mr Lambert himself.
The first thing I noticed was how different he looked compared with the last time I last saw him in person. He looked bright, refreshed and purposeful – a stark contrast from the visibly stressed-out demeanour he exhibited in 2014.
I could see a man desperate to prove everyone wrong, he had that steely glint in his eye; he was hungry and wanted success.
He recognised a number of facts that have been all too evident this season: we play too open, the squad is too big and we are not scoring enough goals.
He also expressed concerns about whether the players are currently fit enough to play a 46 game season and spoke about how the noise from the South Bank should be motivating players to drive towards it.
In reality there is no time for pleasantries and promises. Wolves could be in big trouble if they fail to get a positive result against Preston on Saturday. They need results and quickly.
But when quizzed on that very topic, Lambert replied: “I’m not aiming for survival. I want to us to be up there with the Newcastles and Norwichs. We’re going to go for it!”
Desire – something that has been not too prevalent around Molineux in recent years. Paul Lambert has desire in abundance.