However Paul Lambert rates amongst Norwich City fans, it’s time to look forward
It could almost be the title of a TV panel game but it seems seven out of 10 fans prefer . . . to think of Paul Lambert as a hero.
I refer only to Norwich City supporters responding to our burning question of the week. The Aston Villa jury are no doubt still considering their verdict.
We love our heroes and villains in football and, of course, it’s even better if our heroes become legends, a term rather liberally thrown around these days.
Mention of “legends” helps fill rooms at expensive football dinners but it also means players who may have spent no more than a year at a club and played fewer than 50 games can be voted into the hall of fame. But things are seldom as black and white as the headlines proclaim them to be – and at the risk of being accused of sitting on the fence, I don’t regard Lambert as a hero or a villain.
There is no doubt his achievements in three years in charge of the Canaries put him on a par with any manager in the club’s history.
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Ken Brown, Dave Stringer and Mike Walker all took City into the top five places in the country or higher, but they all took over initially with the club in the top flight.
Ron Saunders, John Bond, Brown and Nigel Worthington all presided over memorable promotion campaigns.
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That other Scottish miracle worker, Archie Macaulay, became manager after the club had narrowly avoided extinction and, in just over four years, booked his team’s place in the new Division Three, took them to the FA Cup semi-finals, led them to promotion to Division Two and then to fourth place in their first season back at that level.
But from similar depths, Lambert took City even higher. When he arrived from Colchester with the Canaries in the lower reaches of League One, anyone suggesting they would be a mid-table Premier League club three summers later would have been accused of living in a fantasy world.
In next to no time, we were all living that fantasy, so it could reasonably be argued he was the best City manager of all.
The word hero, though, brings to mind individual acts of valour – Duncan Forbes urging his players on with blood pouring down his face and shirt, or wheeled off to hospital with a punctured lung, Ken Nethercott playing on for half an hour with a dislocated shoulder, Gary Holt soldiering through the play-off final in agony from a broken toe.
By his own admission, what Lambert achieved he did not achieve alone. He repeatedly acknowledged the part played by his management team, his players and the fans – and I think he would be the last person to describe himself as a “hero”.
At the same time, while the manner of Lambert’s exit from Carrow Road left a lot to be desired, it is really only the revelations at the latest fans’ forum about the compensation battle being fought between City, their former manager and his new club that have seen him elevated, if that is the word, to the role of villain.
It has cranked up the needle element to tomorrow’s Premier League meeting at Villa Park, a factor new boss Chris Hughton and his players have been very keen to play down in the build-up to the game. But Lambert never pretended he was at Norwich for the long haul. I lost count of the number of times the phrase “When we’re gone from here” cropped up in his Press conferences, and towards the end of last season he was increasingly non-committal about his plans for City in 2012-13.
On May 4, the day before the trip to Arsenal: “We had to survive this season and Norwich have to survive again next season . . . that’s what the club wants to do. I’ve got my own targets on what I want to do, but the club wants to survive.” On May 13, after victory over Aston Villa: “We’ll get this season out of the road and then I’ll see what happens and think of what’s gone on and the achievements we’ve done, and we’ll wait and see.”
His rant at the Press conference after the Adam Drury testimonial, when asked perfectly reasonable questions, was rude and uncalled for, but most of his comments in the final weeks of last season suggested he was becoming impatient to move on to what he felt was something bigger and was unwilling to make promises he couldn’t keep.
Whether Aston Villa was the right move only time will tell. It hasn’t started well for him at Villa Park – and he wouldn’t be the first Norwich manager to discover the grass is not always greener at a “bigger” club.
But he has made his choice and now he has to get on with it, and so do we.