Paul Lambert: The Unlikely Messiah

Stoke City

Optimistic and exuberant are hardly words that have traditionally associated themselves with Paul Lambert, but suddenly after just one game in charge he has transformed the mood around the Britannia Stadium from one of despair to one of hope. Lambert is the man unexpectedly tasked with preserving Stoke City’s Premier League Status by Chairman and Owner Peter Coates. Then again, Mr Coates is the Head of Bet 365 and is therefore someone who knows a thing or two about gambling.

It is fair to say that the arrival of Paul Lambert was not greeted with a ticker tape celebration on Sir Stanley Matthews way. Most Stoke fans were hopeful of a more prestigious appointment. The media had seduced them with stories first of Gary Rowett from Derby County being unveiled. Then supporters hopes were sent soaring into a frenzied spiral with the thought of the dream ticket of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane being ready to accept the post. However that was topped with the news that Quique Sanchez Flores had been enticed to leave the sunshine of the Catalonian coast for the exotic charms of Arnold Bennet’s Five Towns in mid-winter. In truth, so desperate were Stoke fans to see Mark Hughes leave the Britannia that some were even warming to the possibility of the return of Tony Pulis.

So a massive cloud of despondency descended over the Potteries (with the possible exception of the Burslem area) when, out of nowhere, it was confirmed on January 15th 2018 that Paul Lambert was the man charged with guiding Stoke City away from the dreaded drop. As soon as this was announced the rumours started that Paddy Power were prepared to pay out on Stoke’s relegation immediately. Lambert was derided by many for being the club’s fourth choice. When this was put to Lambert, he responded with a steely Glaswegian growl, “I’m not bothered”. Nobody who knew the man would have been surprised by his determination.

The reservations of the Stoke tifosi were understandable. Paul Lambert had not managed in the Premier League for almost three years since leaving Aston Villa. His two most recent posts had been in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers and Wolverhampton Wanderers. The more cynical supporters had reasons for believing that the club had already accepted that the Championship was their next destination.
Lambert only had a few days to work with the players prior to their crucial fixture with Huddersfield Town on Saturday 20 January. A defeat would see Stoke firmly rooted in the bottom three, a win would place them within one point of Huddersfield. The team had only won two of their last ten league fixtures and were conceding goals at an alarming rate. Fortunately, Lambert inspired his new charges to a perfect start, they defeated their rivals with two second half goals from Allen and Diouf but more importantly with a defence that was the worst in the division, for the first time in fourteen games, they did not concede a goal. Suddenly the league table looked healthier as Stoke climbed out of the bottom three to reach the safety of seventeenth position. If they are still there come the final game of the season then Mr Coates’ gamble would have paid off.

Despite his long association with football it is still easy to forget that Paul Lambert is only forty eight years old and that he has an impressive record both as a player and a manager. He started his career with St Mirren winning the Scottish cup with them in 1987. He moved to Motherwell in 1993 and a string of eye catching performances in midfield started to attract the attraction of both Celtic and Rangers as well as several English clubs in addition to Borussia Dortmund who he had played against in the previous season’s UEFA cup. He decided to expand his football experience by moving to Germany to play for Borussia Dortmund in 1996, playing in the side that won the Champions League in 1997 defeating Juventus three one in the final. He became the first British player to have gained a winner’s medal in the new format of the Champions League. As a result of his time there, he can still speak passable German and prior to his appointment at Stoke was a regular pundit on several German Sports channels this season. In fact , some might prefer him to hold his press conferences in Deutsch as his strong Glaswegian brogue can make immediate comprehension unclear to those living south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Lambert returned to Scotland to play for Celtic and can proudly reflect on the fact that he has won every domestic honour in Scotland as well as the Champions League. He is also one of the few Scotsmen still involved in English Football who can remember what it was like to play for the national team in a World Cup.

Since the start of the 2005/06 season , he has managed eight different clubs in England and Scotland and has been in charge of teams in every division of the English League. Unlike his predecessor Mark Hughes, he spent the first years of management in the lower leagues. Paul Lambert is not normally a man clubs turn to when things are going well. Throughout his career he has been sought out by club Chairmen looking for a way out of a perilous League position. Yet, Lambert is not a man to compromise himself and on more than one occasion he has resigned from a post when he felt that he could take the club no further.

Strictly speaking he has never been sacked by a club , although he has left by “mutual agreement” when with Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers. His first post was with Livingston in Scotland who were then playing in the Scottish Premier League and had a cloud of an impending financial administration charge hanging over them. In a pattern that would be repeated with some English clubs, he resigned as he felt he could not improve the team. In a surprising move he went next to Wycombe Wanderers who were in bottom tier at the start of the 2006/07 season. He took the team to the semi- finals of the League Cup that season , the first time a League Two club had progressed that far in thirty years. The following campaign, he led Wycombe to the play- offs but resigned when they lost to Stockport County.

With his success at Wycombe, maybe he felt that some bigger side might come calling. Curiously, they did not and the start of the 2008/ 2009 season he was still seeking employment until in October, when Colchester United of League One appointed him after sacking their manager Geraint Williams. They finished the table in a comfortable mid table position.

As Roberto Martinez demonstrated in 2013 , there is no better way of illustrating your credentials for a post than by inflicting a memorable defeat on your prospective employer’s team, as he did when Wigan destroyed Everton three-nil at Goodison Park in the quarter finals of the F.A. Cup. Three games into the 2009/10 season , Lambert took his Colchester side to play Norwich City at Carrow Road where they annihilated the home team seven- one. The result left Norwich bottom of League One and by the end of the week , Lambert was their new manager. It was to prove to be an inspired appointment.

Within two seasons and with two successive promotions, Lambert transformed the fortunes of the club leading them back into the Premier League. His achievement deserves more recognition. No other manager has taken a team from the bottom of League One to the Premier league in such a short space of time. Lambert has legendary status in that part of East Anglia. After such a rapid rise, Lambert’s challenge was now to keep Norwich in the top division and he further increased his reputation by leading Norwich to a comfortable finish in twelfth position. It was inevitable that a “bigger” club would come hunting for him and so at the start of the 2012/13 season he was appointed as manager of Aston Villa.

Lambert found Aston Villa to be a totally different proposition and after a promising start they finished in fifteenth position. They occupied the same place the following season and Lambert’s supposed “dour” style of football combined with cup defeats to lower league opposition turned fans against him. He was forced to operate in a different financial market as Chairman Randy Lerner put a brake on transfer spending and when Villa dropped into the bottom three in February 2015 , most fans felt it was the right decision to relieve him from his duties. Five managers later, as Aston Villa now spend their second season out of the Premier League, perhaps Lambert was not given sufficient credit for his time at the club.

If Randy Lerner was a difficult owner to work for , he would have been a pussy cat compared to working for the Venkys at Blackburn Rovers . Lambert has never been one to shirk a challenge and when offered the position of Blackburn manager in November 2015 he accepted ensuring that they avoided relegation to League One. However, it was no surprise when he activated a release clause in his contract and left at the end of the campaign. Blackburn were relegated the following season.

Having gained a reputation over the years as a man who could “turn things around” it was no surprise when struggling Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers came calling in November 2016. He steadied the ship , achieved a notable FA Cup victory at Anfield and Wolves finished mid-table. Nevertheless, the new Chinese owners were looking for a manager with a “sexy” image and a media loving profile and Lambert was clearly not that. He left by mutual consent in May 2017.

Lambert is a proud man. When asked at the press conference on Monday if his experience in being involved in Premier League relegation struggles would help Stoke , he bristled and fixed a steely glare on his inquisitor before gruffly pointing out that he had never been involved in such a struggle . For the reporter concerned it was a real “I’ll get me coat” moment. Yet that reply spoke volumes and you can see why Lambert impressed the Stoke board when interviewed.

Paul Lambert has made a successful start at Stoke City and in Monday’s press conference he seemed relaxed but realistic. Already he has introduced a strong disciplinary code for the players, which had become somewhat lax under Hughes, and has added intensity and innovation to the training sessions. In response to any player who may demand “Show us your medals” he has a Champions League medal in his locker. For a man who the majority of Stoke fans did not want as their manager, judging by the reaction of the crowd in the last home game , they are prepared to give him a chance.

It would be fair to say that earlier in the season that Crystal Palace fans were not demanding that Roy Hodgson be appointed and that most West Ham fans felt the same about David Moyes, but look at their respective league positions now and it is clear that experience still counts in the Premier League. Stoke City have experimented with the “Stokalona” phase , it didn’t work. Paul Lambert is clearly not going to have his side play breathtaking Guardiola type football but if he can restore pride and discipline to a side that has been clearly lacking both, if he can turn the Britannia Stadium into a hostile fortress again, then perhaps he could be the man to guarantee Stoke’s survival this year. He knows an opportunity like this will not present itself again any time soon and judging by the resolve shown so far Paul Lambert could yet prove to be the “Messiah” as Denry did in Arnold Bennett’s famous book about the Potteries, “The Card” when he came to the rescue of struggling fictional local club Bursley F.C. “And yet” demanded Councillor Barlow, “what’s he done?”
“He’s identified” said the speaker “ with the great cause of cheering us all up”.