The Paul Lambert Years: Part Three

Posted by on June 7, 2012 in General | 2 comments

he champagne was still fizzy, the players still hungover from their Vegas celebration and the summer barely begun before a familiar fight approached; the battle to keep Paul Lambert. The man who led the club to back-to-back promotions was in familiar territory, holding a straight bat to speculation linking him elsewhere. And it wasn’t without merit. West Ham, recently relegated, were reported interested, to the bafflement of Norwich fans everywhere. Yet the speculation persisted, and while the thought of leaving for West Ham may never have been at the front of Lambert’s mind, his future was, and the early period of the close season was dominated by talk of unhappy contract negotiations. It wasn’t a case of money, though he naturally got a pay rise – the sticking point was in clauses. Specifically, clauses that protected Lambert and his ambitions for his future, that guided the club in case other suitors came along. Eventually a contract was drawn up that satisfied both sides, but it was a period of tougher negotiations than many fans realised when Lambert, bolstered by his success, had the power to push for the sort of contract few others would have got.

With that housekeeping out of the way, preparations began in earnest for the upcoming Premier League season. It became clear early on what Lambert’s approach was going to be; to give chances to players from the lower leagues, those who were young with something to prove. Character was key, a willingness to run through walls for the team, to play wherever they were needed to get on the pitch, to put in the miles to keep Norwich up. Seven was the number frequently quoted to bring in, but as the transfer window came to a close Norwich had eight new faces; Vaughan, Morison, Bennett, De Laet, Johnson, Pilkington, Naughton and Ayala. While Vaughan predictably struggled through injury and De Laet didn’t last the season, the others proved their worth over the course of the season and justified all the faith that was placed in them.

While their promotion to the Championship brought excitement tempered by realism, promotion to the Premiership was a whole new ball game. With evidence of the clubs living on different planets emerged with the huge sums of money being paid out by others for otherwise average players, Norwich continued to go about their preparations quietly, dealing with their business early and preparing for opening day, an unglamorous trip to Wigan that resulted in a draw. It was a bright start from Norwich who continued to play well without reward in early games vs Stoke and Chelsea, but it wasn’t until the trip to Bolton that they finally picked up a win. As well as a vital three points, they also did in just five games what Nigel Worthington’s team failed to do all season; win away.

With that monkey off their back, Norwich grew in confidence and strength, and assumed a position in the table, as high as 8th and as low as about 14th, that they never looked like leaving. While they took little time to get to grips with the Premier League, for Grant Holt things were tougher. An indifferent start to the season saw him drop to the bench as Lambert shelved his trusty diamond and began to experiment. While Norwich fans had gotten used to this formation over the previous two seasons, they saw it a lot less in the third as Lambert showed a tactical eye that ranked among the best.

Morison was the initial beneficiary, the new front-man playing superbly as a lone striker in a new 4-5-1 formation, and began to get in the habit of scoring key goals. Anthony Pikington was another to take to his new club well, scoring goals from midfield and giving nightmares to some of the best fullbacks in the country, while Bradley Johnson impressed so much he made the provisional England team before his form dipped slightly. With each game some new thinking emerged, different players stepping up and putting in performances and most spending large periods of time on the bench. It became increasingly rare that the same eleven would start consecutive matches, with formation switches, tactical tinkering and injuries taking their toll.

Injuries increasingly played their part at the back as knocks for Ayala, Ward and Whitbread left Russell Martin playing out of position for a large part of the season, and never looking a beat out of place. A calm, mature presence at the best of times, the presence of Martin often got the best out of Leon Barnett, and the two put in repeated excellent showings that saw off teams like Sunderland and QPR, while claiming a draw at Liverpool with a remarkable defensive showing.

Players that had certain first team spots the previous year became droppable. Holt had already spent time on the bench before he got back to form, while Hoolahan became another who was frequently in and out of the side depending on the task of the day, but he was always a contributor when picked. This was unfortunately not the same for Andrew Crofts, an unsung hero in the promotion season but frequently out of his depth at a higher level, and he found his opportunities limited as the season went on. David Fox maintained his form in the middle and was often in the centre of things when Norwich put in their best performances, a calming presence in the middle and able to retain possession seemingly at will.

As 2011 drew to a close, Norwich had exceeded expectations with a series of results that saw them comfortably midtable, while Holt began to find his scoring boots. Satisfying results at home to Swansea and QPR were followed with good draws away at Wolves, that saw Surman dominate his old team on their turf, and Everton, where Holt scored a goal of huge technical class. This team of lower league players, underrated, unappreciated, always told they weren’t good enough, were in fact proving the opposite; that with a little faith and some good management, they could take on the best in the league and come out shining. In fact, with Holt doing so well, there were some tongue in cheek demands for an England spot. They didn’t stay tongue in cheek for long.

Norwich’s good form continued into 2012, including going the whole of January unbeaten with some promising displays at the back from a new partnership of Whitbread and Ayala. While the latter was often late in the tackle and sometimes clumsy, they both possessed assuredness on the ball and were developing a good partnership until injuries again intervened. During this period Norwich kept their first clean sheet of the season, an itch which had been growing the longer it went on, and it came at home to Chelsea of all teams, Whitbread putting in a superb game to stifle Torres.

Confidence was high as Norwich dipped into the transfer market again, and with the same tactics; young, lower league and full of hunger and ability. In came Jonny Howson and Ryan Bennett and both would go on to make good impressions before the season was out. Lambert, aided by Culverhouse, continued to baffle with unpredictable selections that always seemed to work out, even when they didn’t, and before long it became clear that Norwich were comfortably clear of relegation with a large gap separating the bottom clubs from everyone else.

With safety all but assured and eyes turning to the future, City began to suffer a dip in form that left some fans with questions; had the team gotten complacent? Were they mentally on their holidays? Had Lambert been found out? Was he getting too clever for his own good with his constant chopping and changing? While Norwich fans had tolerated defeats before, they usually came with some sort of style, a going-down-swinging approach that would give credit to the approach and effort even if not the result. This began to change with insipid, dour results away at Sunderland, Stoke and Blackburn in the back end of the season, results that only half told the story of a team devoid of ideas and hoofing it around to no-one in particular. It may seem the height of arrogance for a smaller team such as Norwich to suggest, but the fans liked a particular style of football, to be entertained and be attacking, and games away at Stoke and Sunderland in particular had nothing of this style. This is not to say Norwich hasn’t been a direct, physical outfit at times during the season, but it’s a lot easier to forgive when you’re winning, and under Lambert they did everything they could to win. They would play nice, play ugly, play long, play short, play narrow, play wide, play 1 up top, 2 up top, 3 up top, 3 at the back, 4 at the back, 5 at the back… whatever the task of the day was, the players on the pitch followed instructions. If Lambert was the mastermind when Norwich won, he was surely the culprit when they lost.

This dip in form was easy to telegraph, however, as it mostly coincided with a horrid run of fixtures towards the end of the season, facing most of the big clubs one after another, yet it was to the ‘smaller’ clubs that the worse results came. Defeats against Manchester City and Liverpool, while embarrassing for their comprehensiveness, were expected. Being so bad against relegation battling Blackburn wasn’t. In between these dodgy performances came the Norwich everyone knew and loved, however, with trips to North London in particular being memorable. A 2-1 away win at Tottenham was incredible for those in attendance, just as a 3-3 draw in a pulsating match with Arsenal was for the travelling fans who saw Steve Morison silence his doubters with the late equaliser.

Morison had endured an up-and-down season with his new club, initially outperforming Grant Holt before a serious dip in form saw him fail to score for about four months. A talented striker, his downfall seemed to be his supposed lack of movement – especially in comparison to the constantly active Holt – and sour demeanour. His body language and mannerisms had the look of an unhappy player, his head looked down and his finishing was wayward. When he did get a chance, such as away at Fulham, he failed to take it, looking a shadow of the player who started so well. By the end of the season he had many fans both passionately for and against him; many praising his contribution and defending his performances and many claiming him not up for the task, too lazy for the job. No other player endured quite the mixed reception, but the goal late on at the Emirates gave him a chance to quieten any doubters.

Morison seemed to suffer in comparison to Grant Holt who, after starting the season slowly, had again made himself practically undroppable with a series of performances and stunning goals to rival anyone. As the season wore on he found himself in double figures, and the second highest England goalscorer, backing up his claims to an England spot. While few outside Norwich and selected media gave it serious consideration, it was a fair reflection of the superb season Holt had, scoring goals against the very best and putting in performances to blow the myth of a big burly battering ram out of the water. You only have to look at his efforts against Everton or Man Utd, or the performance against Arsenal, to see the sort of player he was – and he was finally beginning to get recognition.

Not enough, though, as England failed to call despite his quite public appeals for a place. While he was unsuccessful, one player who had a bit more luck was John Ruddy who capped off an excellent season in goal with a callup for the European Championships before injury ended his dream. It was just reward for the man who finished second in the Player of the Season awards, and won the Players’ Player trophy.

With the season winding to a close, Norwich’s final home game of the season was at home to a Villa side on the brink of booting out their manager, and all talk was pointing to an approach for Lambert. The great fear of Norwich fans, of being too successful to keep the man who made them that way, was on the horizon, and that day Lambert got a first hand account of just how appalling Aston Villa had become. Norwich finished the season with a comfortable 2-0 win, and while Lambert never said he wanted to leave, he dodged all questions about wanting to stay. His tightrope walking immediately made fans nervous, and with reason. After he had joined Norwich in such controversial circumstances, the worry was always that he would do the same to us as he did to Colchester.

This worry grew and receded as the season finished. Villa seemed to want someone else, perhaps Solksjaer or Martinez, but the rumours about Lambert were always there. Norwich City supporting journalists like Charlie Wyett and James Nursey were adamant that he was interested despite the sometimes hostile reception these reports got, but Lambert continued to remain quiet and act as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. When one journalist too far asked him about his future, he seemed to get hostile (more hostile), claim he’d never said anything about moving and it was just fans and the media making up stories where he hadn’t said anything. He then went on record with his wishes for next season, claiming that constant progress was key for him.

In a sign that all was not as rosy behind the scenes as it was on the pitch, Grant Holt shocked the club with a transfer request on May 18th following a breakdown in communication and fallout with the club over a new contract. Holt, upset at what he believed to be broken promises, was left furious as the club seemed to renege on a previous agreement to both considerably up his salary and extend his contract, and felt poorly treated as David McNally preferred the crowd of Lords to dealing with it. On the advice of his agent, the transfer request came in.

It was a shock to Norwich fans who had loved Holt like no other over the last three seasons. Holt was the first to win the Player of the Season award three times, had been top scorer in all three seasons, he was Norwich. He symbolised this new era and was adored by the Carrow Road fans, and the feeling was mutual; Holt had never had a spell in his career like at Norwich. What stung for a lot of fans was the timing, coming just days before the deserved testimonial of Adam Drury, but Holt nevertheless got a good reception. The feeling was clear; he was still wanted.

What the fans want, though, they often do not get. And so it was a couple of weeks following this request as, late one night, news filtered through of the apparent resignation of Paul Lambert following the clubs refusal to let him talk to Aston Villa. The club was insistent; their manager was not available. Lambert, ambitious and eager to hear what they had to offer, was furious, and backed by the clauses inserted into his contract at the start of the season, forced his resignation and engineered a move.

Within the space of a fortnight the club captain had asked for a transfer, and the most successful manager in the history of the club had resigned.

The Paul Lambert Era was over.

2 Comments

  1. Blimey, the morning after the Hughton press conference, this already seems like past history.

    The key ingredient of the Lambert/Holt era was the subordination of player Ego to the super-Id of team spirit, to get all Freudian about it. That’s what enabled the constant changes in team selection and formation which enabled the club to survive the first Premier-thingy season. How ironic, as Sigmund himself would have said, that the end of the era should come through the ultra-egoism of its two principal characters – Lambert’s ‘ambition’ in one case, and Holt’s self-importance/hubris in the other.

    Lambert, like most PL managers, has his eye on the Man U job, and his career options are determined by what will be the best position to go for it from when Fergie pops his actual or football clogs. Lambert will either succeed at Villa, in which case he’ll be off within two years, or he’ll fail, in which case he’ll just be off. Not too much for Villa fans or anyone else to get too excited by there. It’ll be interesting to see how he copes without Culverhouse and Karsa if they decide/are contractually required to stay with the Hughton consolidation-project (just as interesting in football terms as the meteoric rise under Lambert).

    As for Holt, my gym buddy Iwan Roberts tells me it’s a simple matter of his agent having screwed up the last round of contract negotiations. He should have made a third year dependent on a certain number of PL goals – let’s say 15 for sake of argument – but didn’t. As it stands, McNally is simply following established PL procedure with players in their 30s. Holt should dump his agent (like Iwan did when his agent tried to engineer a move to Forest to finance his own divorce – I think it’s in his book) and find a reasonable compromise. Or else stop the silly twittering, clear off to the elephants graveyard at West Ham, and help finance a proven younger striker to play alongside Morison.

    So endeth the Lambert/Holt era at NCFC – OTBC, IM&HWT, WFLSM,and TBOGFYAO (Take back our game from Yanks and Oligarchs).

    • There’s a bit more to the Holt situation than just his agent cocking up – genuine falling out over perceived/actual broken promises.

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