The Paul Lambert Years: Complete
ay 20th 2008; three days after Wycombe fell in the League Two Playoffs to a Stockport team featuring Anthony Pilkington and, on the bench, John Ruddy. Paul Lambert walks into the Chairboys’ training ground on Marlow Road early in the morning, gathers his things, says some goodbyes and leaves. In two years he had taken Wycombe to the Semi-Final of the League Cup before reaching the playoffs, but feeling he has done all he can at a club with limited resources and room for growth, he walks.
Two weeks earlier another exit was made, but this was less amicable. After a blindingly successful time, Darren Huckerby is released at 31. The time is ripe, according to then Norwich manager Glenn Roeder, for ‘new heroes’. It comes at the end of a long hard season for City who escaped relegation by a mere three points, continuing a rot that had set in long before. Other clubs weren’t so lucky, including local neighbours Colchester. Five months later, and with no sign of a turnaround in their fortunes, in comes a born winner looking for somewhere new. In comes Paul Lambert.
The prospect of relegation to the third tier was traditionally remote for Norwich fans – it hadn’t happened for decades. Over time they began to flirt with it more and more often, but usually finding themselves safe with a few games to go. Frequent seasons in the late 90s saw them conform to this standard, a dark age between the liquid-football success under Mike Walker and the organised dominance of Nigel Worthington. As the following season started Norwich were no different to any club in the Championship – cautiously optimistic of things to come. As time went on, it became clear just how far the rot had spread.
A distant dictator of a manager in Glenn Roeder saw the destruction of any scent of team spirit, only to be replaced by the well-meaning but out of his depth legend, Bryan Gunn. Above them sat a board presiding over a financial time-bomb, a group of people dedicated to the club making the mistake of backing the wrong man. Interest was piling up on loans that were soon due. The Chief Executive of the time, Neil Doncaster, ran the shop in a way that was best described as pedestrian, while morale was low inside and outside the building. Inertia crept, and Norwich were doomed.
The summer of 2009 saw evolution at Carrow Road when revolution was needed. Despite his poor record as Caretaker while Norwich got relegated, Bryan Gunn was absolved of responsibility and handed the manager’s job on a permanent basis on May 13th, a decision that may not have been made had David McNally, appointed as new CEO a month later, was already on the board. The removal of certain members of the board following relegation seemed only natural, and Doncaster in particular left without complaint. His replacement was an unknown quantity, credited with the smart appointment of Roy Hodgson and the not-so-smart appointment of Lawrie Sanchez at Fulham during his time there, but if there was any sign of a change in direction from the Norwich board, the fans were yet to see it. With Gunn in place and new players coming in, preparations for the new season were underway.
When it arrived, expectations were high and the atmosphere was optimistic. Within half an hour it was toxic. By the end of the afternoon Norwich had suffered their worst ever home defeat and two fans had jumped the barriers to throw season tickets at Gunn. Their futile protest symbolised a lot. New signings like Holt and Nelson, as well as McNally, must have wondered what they were letting themselves in for. It was the bottom. The architect of that afternoon was Paul Lambert.
Bryan Gunn lasted one more game as Norwich manager, a morale boosting away win in the League Cup over Yeovil which gave Norwich fans their first taste of Grant Holt in full flow. The noises coming out of Norwich City management all summer had been troubling, talk of one year’s consolidation in League One before a promotion push, while his assistant made the prophetic claim that as Norwich “weren’t Arsenal”, they shouldn’t play like them. He was true to his word as his two games as Caretaker were turgid and offensive.
With Norwich managerless, rumours began spreading like wildfire, but McNally retained a laser focus on one man; Paul Lambert. And eventually, controversially, and illegally, he was ours. This was a sea change for Norwich, a radically new way of running the club – ballsy, single minded and without remorse. The sacking of Gunn after two games was brutal but necessary, the bullying antics in coaxing Lambert from Colchester were those of a club tired of being ‘little’. Little Norwich, the friendly club who didn’t make waves; this was the feeling among fans. It was devoid of ambition; but no more.
Compensation was a long far from being agreed between Norwich and Colchester as Lambert took the reins for the first time against a certain Wycombe Wanderers. They were swiftly despatched 5-2 in a performance that lifted the crowd and gave cause for real optimism. Lambert began experimenting with shape, trying to figure a way to get the best out of the squad he inherited. Players who came in expecting to play, like Tudur Jones and Gill, were suddenly sidelined, while those who had floundered under old managers, like Simon Lappin and Chris Martin, were given chances. Korey Smith rose from the youth team to become a key part of the midfield while Darrell Russell emerged as a tough tackling protector of the back four.
The biggest emergence came in the shape of a short, one footed Irishman. Wes Hoolahan had been a Roeder signing, but had failed to live up to the billing. Never at home wide on the left, and frequently short of fitness, he was in and out of the team as rumours of a move to Swansea built. Initially left out of the side as Lambert got to grips with things, he emerged as the mercurial presence at the tip of a newly fashioned diamond. Lambert had found his formula. It had taken a few games to figure out, including a spell of 1 win in 5 during September, but this newly inspired side went on to win a massive 17 of their next 20 in the league. This was the same side, the same players who were smashed on opening day, looking devoid of confidence and out of ideas. Now they were putting teams aside with assured ease. Leeds and Charlton had occupied the top two all season, and held an impressive gap over Norwich in late 2009. As time wore on, Norwich chipped away and chipped away until there was nothing left to see.
Off the field, things were tougher. Gunn’s stated aim of consolidating one year before building for promotion the next was a road to disaster as the club grappled with drastically reduced income. Redundancies were made across the board as McNally and his associates battled to turn Norwich into a properly functioning business. Out went many concession prices, up went prices in bars and verification was suddenly required for underage season ticket holders – all in the name of saving money. The task was on to equip Norwich as a top outfit, the sort of properly run club that would attract names, sponsors and increased revenue, all of which would be piled back into the football club.
That seemed a long way off as Norwich settled down to extensive talks with their creditors. With examples of cost cutting and commercial growth, and a lot of wining and dining, they came to agreements to push back repayment of their loans. The alternative was administration, and despite the well-reported story in the News of the World for which Norwich got compensation, the prospect of administration was closer than many fans realised. The details in the press were sketchy and late, but early in the season, with cashflow poor and income down, the club was closer than at any time to going out of business. David McNally’s greatest achievement was preventing it.
Back on the pitch, Norwich had a chance for revenge; Colchester. Tensions had built as Colchester chairman, Robbie Cowling, repeatedly mouthed off to the press about the conduct of Norwich in attaining the services of Lambert while maintaining that in Aidy Boothroyd they in fact had a better manager. On a field sodden by rain they were outclassed, thrashed 5-0 at home in a performance that exercised the demons of that opening day defeat. Hero that day, as many others, was Grant Holt. It hadn’t taken long for Holt to be accepted by the Carrow Road faithful, desperate for someone new to worship in the absence of Huckerby, and Holt was the man who stepped forward and for clear reason. He ran into the ground for the cause, grasping his chance like a man who may never get one again. And he scored goals. Lots of goals.
During this time Lambert began to show his eye for talent, for finding the right player at the right price for the right need. Norwich had a big squad at this point but he clearly felt a need to bring in reinforcements. From Stockport came Oli Johnson, a tricky striker with good technique. From Swindon came Anthony MacNamee, a pacey and direct winger to provide width when our narrow diamond failed to break teams down. A transfer policy that would bear so much fruit over the next three seasons was beginning to be clear. Character counted, as did versatility and a willingness to run through walls. He wanted players to fight for the shirt, to take their chances and do their part. And they did. MacNamee set up a number of crucial goals as the season wore on, while Oli Johnson will be fondly remembered, if only for his stunning late double in the home win vs Southend.
By the time of Leeds’ visit in late March, Norwich were at a tipping point. A season of being challengers, of clawing their way back was about to be rewarded. A tight, tense game was settled by a late Chris Martin goal, a local boy putting Norwich on top in a moment that brough relief and unbridled joy to the 26,000 who crammed into Carrow Road. It was the moment that would convince many that Norwich were to bounce back after just one season in the third tier. Something that Leeds, among others, had struggled to do. This was confirmed a month later away at fellow promotion chasers Charlton, with Michael Nelson getting the goal to write his name in Norwich City history.
The turnaround was massive. Norwich had started the season battered and bruised, and finished with a dominant swagger. A season that could have ended in disaster on and off the field had been saved at the first time of asking. It took a little longer than expected, but Norwich did find new heroes. And this was merely the first step.
Over 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.”
The 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.