The Paul Lambert Years: Part One
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.