The Paul Lambert Years: Part Two
ver the summer of 2010 the word on everyone’s lips was safety. There was a palpable sense of managing expectations around Carrow Road after the roaring success of the League One campaign, but as the weeks rolled on it was hard to contain. Season ticket numbers grew yet again leading to the introduction of new seats to the stadium, raising the capacity by around a thousand. The board promised to back Lambert in the transfer market and over time the team began to resemble something belonging to him, rather than his predecessors. But it was all about safety.
After the near destruction of the club, everyone was relieved to be back in the second tier. It wasn’t a place of untold riches and security, but it would stave off the creditors for longer. The calibre of player they could attract was higher, the number of televised games was higher, it was the least that a club like Norwich could expect. Given the problems experienced by every single Norwich manager over the last 15 years, with the exception of Worthington, getting out of the second tier was always going to be a struggle. Safety was demanded – after that we could build.
With this in mind, the squad began to change. Long serving names, staples of our struggling years were let go. Gary Doherty, a rock at the heart of our title winning defence, was released and moved on to Charlton, while Darel Russell, eager for a longer contract than that on the table from Norwich, cast his eyes elsewhere and found that contract withdrawn by the time he was ready to sign. Lambert clearly had confidence in players that he was able to attract; younger, hungrier, not tarnished by years of trench warfare at the bottom of the Championship. With Zak Whitbread forever in the treatment room following his January switch from Millwall, Elliott Ward came in to plug the gaps at the back. At left back, to provide some younger competition to Adam Drury, Steven Smith was brought in from Rangers, while up front Simeon Jackson came in for about £600,000 to provide some pace to go alongside the force of Holt. Goalkeeper John Ruddy was brought in to fill the shoes of Fraser Forster, a popular player following his excellent performances the previous season.
In midfield, Lambert began looking at players who would slot into the diamond formation, but with the signing of David Fox from his old club Colchester displayed a change of tactical emphasis that wasn’t initially clear. Fox’s responsibility was the base of the diamond, but he was no tough tackling enforcer like Russell – he was a metronome, a sort of second-rate Paul Scholes used to control the tempo, retain possession and build play from deep. With the added inclusions of Andrew Crofts and Andrew Surman, the emphasis was clearly on playing football the right way. Competition for places was high with Lappin and Smith no longer nailed on first choices.
Already the first team squad was large and the board had been true to their word – Lambert was backed in the transfer market to bring in his own players and a team was taking shape, and as the opening day rolled in, optimism was high. It all proved to be too much too soon, however, as Norwich crashed on TV to a home defeat at the hands of Watford. Expectations again came crashing down; this was not to be an easy season and the players had no right to an easy game. The standard was much higher and, for most of the players, this was their first time playing regular football at this level. It was a steep learning curve and with so many changes, it would take the squad some time to adapt. Lambert, seemingly aware of bedding in too many new faces at once, tried to make it more gradual. Nelson retained his place at the back until injury stepped in, while Drury was still preferred at left back. Following the opening day defeat both Smith and Lappin had spells of games as Fox and Surman struggled to make an early impact, while Simeon Jackson was hot and cold up front and Chris Martin had plenty of chances to shine.
The story of the season, though, became clear in the opening weeks. Late wins against both Scunthorpe and Swansea showed a team that didn’t know when it was beaten and who played until the final whistle. Russell Martin became a leader at the back while Andrew Crofts looked like he’d played at this level his whole career. Ahead of them Wes Hoolahan was again displaying the sort of touch and class that put him head and shoulders above most players in the division while up front, after a slow start, the goals began to flow for Grant Holt. After 5 losses in their first 14 games, they lost just 3 further times all season – 32 games all in all.
Once the team had found their feet, they looked difficult to stop. As 2010 ebbed towards it’s end Norwich were faced with a run of fixtures that would really show how far the team had come as they faced Cardiff, Burnley, Reading, Leeds and Ipswich in the space of a month. The results were inconclusive – one defeat and a bunch of draws seemed to suggest a team that was good, but maybe not quite good enough to really impact the division. Then came Ipswich.
It had been tough for Norwich fans who watched their club hit the bottom while Ipswich, a division above, seemed to be rolling in the cash. That’s what they proudly sang about while Norwich crashed out of the Championship, but a chance to redress the balance was there for the taking. Ipswich, pottering around the lower end of the division despite their alleged wealth, rolled up to a snow-covered Carrow Road for a fixture live on the BBC. What followed turned Grant Holt from popular to legendary, and Norwich from potential contenders to actual contenders. The 4-1 rout was the result that gave the team, and fans, renewed confidence and they never looked back.
Things were looking healthy as 2010 came to a close and Norwich sat in the playoff places. Publically, everything was still about survival. After every result, after every mention of their place in the table, Lambert would reply with a well worth catchphrase – we just want to survive. Managing expectations was key for the boss who was keen to get the crowd on the right side, not expecting too much or getting complacent, even arrogant. Along with the board he realised the value of having everyone pulling in the same direction, those inside and outside the club, and to start making noises about promotion, about being on the up, would only invite problems. It was an underdog mentality, even if Norwich were no longer underdogs.
Off the pitch signs were there that the club was at last being run with some sort of structure and long term plan. Under the stewardship of David McNally the club went public with its Seven Year Plan, a document that laid out in stages exactly how they would attain top flight football, allowing for a period of consolidation in the Championship, some yo-yoing between divisions before, finally, being settled as a Premier League club. This was welcomed as being both realistic and ambitious and tallied with the supporters’ wishes of getting back to the top but without risking everything to get there.
As time wore on, however, it became clear this plan may be too conservative. With Norwich continuing their good form on the pitch, the January transfer window rolled around and left the club facing a choice – to go all out for promotion this season or remain more cautious, sticking to the plan. There were plenty of fans who fell on both sides of the argument, with good reason. On one hand, you didn’t want to risk the future of the club by investing money in players who didn’t work out, or got injured, or if form fell away. On the other, you never knew if this sort of form would come again – there was no guarantee that they’d be as good next season, if we’d retain players or even if we’d still have Lambert.
The latter prospect reared its head over the New Year period, giving Norwich fans their first real scare of losing the talented manager, as well as their first insight into how he operates in public. Ever since their controversial appointment they had been reminded by Colchester fans of Lambert’s supposed lack of loyalty, how he will walk out on one club if he feels he has better prospects elsewhere. He was fiercely ambitious but the thought in all Norwich fans was that he would meet these ambitions at Carrow Road and nowhere else. When Burnley went public with their approach, most Norwich fans would have struggled to imagine him leaving – it was nothing more than a sidestep, surely? Then stories began to swirl, rumours mounted online; Lambert was unhappy down south, his marriage on the rocks over his prolonged absences, he believed he wasn’t being totally backed by the board in his efforts to move the club forward. Any and every rumour was latched upon by paranoid fans scared of losing the manager who had delivered them good times after years of bad ones. And Lambert said nothing.
The agony for Norwich fans was in Lambert’s refusal, for days on end, to distance himself from talks. It wasn’t until the end of the week that he finally ruled himself out claiming that speculation was wide of the mark and he never had any intention of leaving. This was despite being given numerous chances to settle it, without taking them, even engaging in late night discussions with the board. When he did commit his future, the relief among fans was clear, and they could carry on building for the future. The general feeling was that Lambert had leveraged this interest into getting stronger backing from the board, into getting commitments to bring in reinforcements.
They came in the shape of Marc Tierney and Aaron Wilbraham who came in January to provide new options and depth, especially in the case of Tierney who stepped in for Drury and never looked back. The left back, who stated during his time at Colchester that he would never play for Norwich, turned out to be a revelation at left back and quickly became a favourite of the fans. There was, however, something missing. Goals.
By this stage Grant Holt had acquired legendary status but so much of the scoring burden was being placed on his shoulders. Chris Martin was inconsistent up front, netting the occasional goal but often going missing in games, not making the most of his undoubted natural talent. Simeon Jackson, a big hope following his move from Gillingham, had a purple patch during November but failed to follow it up and was mainly being used as a substitute. While Holt was admirably supported by Crofts and Hoolahan in midfield, he was still the main goalscoring threat and it was felt that fixing this problem was key to pushing for promotion. Too many games were finishing in draws, including obvious missed chances at home to Doncaster and Preston, and while City retained a strong position in the league, it appeared that they may be pipped to automatic promotion by one of Cardiff or Swansea. With one final push awaiting, Lambert turned to the loan market and brought in Dani Pacheco and Sam Vokes. The impact of these signings can be measured in more than just goals.
The run-in began at home to Scunthorpe on a glorious spring afternoon. Pacheco partnered Holt up front, set up his first two goals and left after 70 minutes to a standing ovation, replaced by one Simeon Jackson. Simeon saw his chance against a depleted and demoralised Irons side, and netted his own hat-trick as Norwich won 6-0. He got another two games later in a 2-2 draw with Watford, in which Vokes got his own key City goal, and from then on he was back in the starting eleven. Some might point to the introduction of new strikers as motivating Simeon, forcing him to play for his spot, but the truth is he had been playing well for some time, just without rewards. His appearances from the bench were bright, full of running and hard-work, and once he added a goalscoring finish he was undroppable. This was even more important with the news that Holt had a small hamstring tear and was playing the rest of the season injured.
By now Norwich had momentum. While other promotion rivals faltered, struggling to grasp the opportunity, Norwich kicked on, first despatching Forest on TV before destroying Ipswich on their own turf in the most satisfying derby win for years. A togetherness was evident in the side ever since their win away at Leicester, and as games went on different players stood up to be counted. Whether it was Crofts’ goalscoring efforts from midfield, Simeon’s continued goalscoring form or Russell Martin’s leadership by example, the team was bigger than the sum of its parts. Each game they went into looking stronger and confidence was high as Derby rolled into town.
Over the course of 90 minutes the nerves of Norwich fans went through the ringer. Going ahead, being pulled back, going ahead again, being pulled back again. As injury time approached, Norwich knew that failing to win would near-enough hand promotion to Cardiff but, pushed on by a man of the match performance from Russell Martin, they refused to quit. When Simeon Jackson knocked the ball in deep into injury time, the roof could have come off, an emotional release of tension that had built up for years. It might not have been the goal that mathematically did it, but it was the goal that sent Norwich up.
A week later and it was in Norwich’s hands. Cardiff had capitulated to Middlesboro, and Norwich knew that a win at Pompey would send them up. A tense game that Norwich dominated finally turned their way in the 2nd half as Jackson nodded in a beautiful pass from David Fox and Norwich closed the game out with a 1-0 win.
That was it. Six years after being dumped out of the Premier League, Norwich were back. Safety was the target, promotion was the result. It was dreamland. Norwich fans spilled onto the Fratton Park pitch, Marc Tierney cartwheeled and sang On The Ball City with John Ruddy, Pacheco danced around with a Spanish flag. So much for a 7 year plan – back to back promotions had been achieved for the first time in a decade, and the architect was Lambert. He rebuilt the side, attracting the right players, the right characters, to lead the club to glory. After two seasons, he was already one of the most successful managers in Norwich City history. And now he had the biggest challenge so far on his hands; Premier League survival.
To David McNally, things were a bit simpler. “We are back in the Premier League,” he said. “And we are never leaving.”