Paul Lambert could hardly have asked for a better 40th birthday present, albeit a day late, than the one his Colchester United team provided him on 8 August 2009. Not only did the U’s begin their new League 1 season with an away victory, but they did it in staggering style by hammering Norwich City 7-1 at Carrow Road. It remains the worst home defeat in the Canaries’ 109-year history and was a shattering early blow to their hopes of beginning the long climb back to the Premier League they had last graced in 2005. For United, it represented the chance to start something special.
Fast-forward ten days and Lambert was Norwich manager. It was a characteristic decision by a man who has never been afraid to make a bold move in his football career. Having had short spells at the helm of Livingston and Wycombe Wanderers before Colchester, the Scot was attempting to fast-track a management career to the top. In Norwich he spotted a club who, while at that time were labouring two divisions below the top flight, had a rich heritage as well as a reasonable claim to belong with the heavyweights.
But even the Glaswegian could not have predicted just how rapid Norwich’s subsequent rise would be. Helped by the goals of local hero Grant Holt, who bagged 24 during the 2009/10 league campaign, City recovered from their opening day stumble at the hands of their new manager to claim first place and promotion to the Championship with ease. Ultimately finishing nine points clear of second-placed Leeds United, the Canaries won the most matches, scored the most goals and kept the joint-highest number of clean sheets.
It did not stop there, however. With 21 strikes making Holt the talisman for a second season running, Norwich again plundered the most goals in the division and sealed automatic promotion to the Premier League by finishing second behind Queens Park Rangers. Doom-mongers pointed to the Canaries’ last top-flight adventure in 2004/05, when they were relegated after finishing 19th, as reason for caution. But astute summer dealings, with the emphasis on signing players such as Steve Morison, Elliott Bennett, Bradley Johnson and Anthony Pilkington from lower leagues, have paid off handsomely.
While the Premier League is traditionally seen as a difficult step up in class and quality, there seems to be no sign of Norwich’s momentum coming to an end. They currently sit tenth in the standings, the highest of the three newly-promoted clubs, and are as close to regular top-four contenders Arsenal and Liverpool as they are to the relegation zone. Heady days for a club that has languished in lower divisions for much of the past two decades, despite the fact that they were title contenders during the inaugural Premier League season in 1992/93 and eventually finished third.
Their performances have fully merited their position. Impressive displays at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford deserved more than narrow defeats, while a point gained at Anfield was the pinnacle of the campaign to date.
Lambert told the club’s website after their 1-1 draw with Liverpool: "The lads have been extraordinary in the last few years. It wasn't that long ago that we were going to places like Yeovil - no disrespect to them - and getting points. So now we're getting points at Anfield, everything is on the crest of a wave here."
Lessons learned as a player
Perhaps Lambert’s great success as a manager so far should come as no surprise, given his formidable record as a player. A combative midfielder who made his debut for St. Mirren as a teenager, Lambert had spent a decade in Scottish football before a rewarding transfer to Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund in 1996. There, he matured into a fine player and fans’ favourite, benefiting from the greater quality surrounding him, and earned a UEFA Champions League winner’s medal after the Germans defeated Juventus 3-1 in the 1997 final in Munich.
Lambert’s stay in Dortmund lasted little more than a year, but consistent success was to follow when he returned to his home country to join Celtic. Later becoming captain of the Bhoys, he won all major honours in Scottish football, including four Scottish Premier League titles, and was part of the side that came agonisingly close to winning the UEFA Cup in 2003, when Martin O’Neill’s team lost 3-2 to Porto in Seville. Throw in 40 international caps, three of which came at the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, and it is easy to understand the making of the man.
Norwich are at the Etihad Stadium tomorrow, against a table-topping Manchester City side side that has taken 35 points from a possible 39, scoring 43 goals and conceding just 12 in the process. That they go there undaunted is testament to the remarkable job Lambert has done over the past two years. And if the Scot can keep the Canaries in the Premier League for another season and begin to build even further, it may prove to be his finest hour yet.