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The Fall And Rise Of Paul Lambert

9 May

11th February 2006: A 1-0 home defeat to second-bottom Dunfermline leaves Livingston six points adrift at the foot of the SPL table.  For manager Paul Lambert, it’s the end of the road as he resigns after winning only 2 league games from a possible 26.  His first managerial job has been a minor disaster and his replacement, John Robertson, is unable to save Livingston from the drop.

Given the start Lambert made to his managerial career, anyone who had suggested that within five years he would be one of English football’s most sought after bosses, would have their sanity questioned.  Yet that’s exactly what’s happened with Lambert leading Norwich City into the English Premier League.

Lambert took on the Livingston job at the end of a glittering playing career.  After playing for St Mirren (winning the Scottish Cup in 1987) and Motherwell he made the move in 1996 that would transform his career.  Borussia Dortmund spotted something that nobody else had, turning Lambert from a decent Scottish league standard attacking midfielder, into one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe.  Following impressive performances against Manchester United in the semi-final, he managed to keep Zinedine Zidane quiet in the 1997 Champions League final, as Dortmund swept Juventus aside 3-1.

Due to his wife’s homesickness however, Lambert’s time in Germany was short-lived and he returned to Scotland, joining Celtic early in the following season.  The success continued: four league titles, three Scottish cup triumphs and two league cup wins, with Lambert eventually becoming club captain as well as a mainstay in the Scotland national side.  Lambert also played in another European final, as Celtic lost out to FC Porto in the 2003 UEFA cup final.

Lambert had turned his attentions to a career in management before his playing days were over, travelling back to Germany to gain coaching qualifications.  Given that he had played for, and learned from, the likes of Ottmar Hitzfeld and Martin O’Neill (whom he seems to replicate in touchline behaviour and dress-sense), much was expected of Lambert the manager.  However, his appointment at Livingston came almost immediately after his playing days were over and perhaps it was too soon, as he failed to see out his debut season at Almondvale.

For some rookie managers, this experience would have been enough to convince that a coaching career wasn’t for them after all.  Lambert, however, is made of sterner stuff.  At the start of the following season he returned to the game, as the new boss of Wycombe Wanderers.  The Wycombe board received a glowing reference for Lambert from O’Neill, his former Celtic boss and himself a former Wycombe manager.

Over two seasons, Lambert took Wycombe to the League Cup semi-final (losing to Chelsea) and to the League Two play-offs (losing to Stockport County).  However he again walked away, this time just three days after failing to achieve promotion.  The decision was again his own, with the Wycombe board taken by surprise.  Lambert himself felt “that this is the right thing to do.”

Lambert’s next stop was Colchester United, in October 2008.  After guiding the Layer Road side to a mid-table finish in League One, the following season started in spectacular fashion with a 7-1 opening day win over Norwich.  Delia Smith and her colleagues on the board were obviously impressed as 10 days later, Lambert took over at Carrow Road.

In his first season in charge, The Canaries were champions and they’ve managed to carry on their impressive form, securing back-to-back promotions.  It’s therefore unsurprising that Burnley approached Norwich for permission to speak to Lambert, and he was even mentioned as an outsider for the Liverpool job before Kenny Dalglish’s appointment.

While it’s natural that Lambert’s head will be turned by interest from English Premier League clubs, he would be mad to consider moving on again.  Despite being in charge of four different sides, Lambert has not yet lasted two years in any managerial post.  Switching clubs again in the near future would throw up questions about Lambert’s loyalty, as well as his ability to see a job through.  He’s already at a club with plenty of potential – smaller teams than Norwich City have survived in England’s top flight

In the longer-term, Lambert will have another option if his career continues on its current upward path – Celtic.  While Neil Lennon is still in his first full season in charge and making a decent attempt at challenging for the SPL title, the shelf-life of an Old Firm manager is far shorter than it used to be, even more so in Lennon’s case given the recent threats and the explosive device sent in the post.  Being in charge for four or five years as boss at Celtic Park or Ibrox is seen as a decent run, and failure to deliver the title within two years usually results in being shown the exit door.  Lambert was amongst the bookies favourites before Lennon’s appointment was confirmed, and his name is likely to be close to the top of list if the position becomes available in the near future.

Lambert therefore, could potentially face the same dilemma as experienced by Owen Coyle in 2009 – to take charge of a huge club playing in an inferior league and with limited finances, or try and establish himself in the England’s top flight.  Coyle ignored boyhood allegiances and remained down south.  Lambert will do the same in the short-term but given that his family have remained in the West of Scotland for much of the time he has pursued a career in England, the opportunity of a job in the SPL would provide additional benefits.

The qualities displayed by Lambert as a player seem to be serving him well in management: intelligent, down-to-earth, efficient, and effective.  He described his club’s ascent to the English Premier League as a “miracle”, and while that is perhaps a slight exaggeration, he’s certainly made that short spell at Livingston seem like a very distant memory.


The Damned Benitez

30 Sep

It was clear before the end of last season that Rafa Benitez’s time in charge at Anfield was up.  Liverpool were going backwards and never really recovered from their failure to go on and win the title in 2009.  Benitez may have made an earlier exit, had he not received such strong backing from the Liverpool support, many of whom remained fiercely loyal to the Spaniard until the end of his reign.

Despite Liverpool’s 7th place league finish last season, Benitez was never going to be short of offers – on the continent he is still highly respected and of course is a former Champions League winner.  It was therefore little surprise when he landed the job at Inter Milan.

On the surface, it could be argued that Benitez landed on his feet; being in charge of the European Champions and the dominant force in Italian football.  While it’s understandable that he wanted to get straight back into the game at a high level, Benitez probably couldn’t have made a worse choice for his next club.

For a start, he wasn’t top of Inter’s list.  Massimo Moratti would have preferred Fabio Capello or Guus Hiddink.  On the field, the expectations are huge.  A season that would normally be considered very good, could be seen as failure when held up against last year’s achievements – you can’t improve on a Champions League win and a domestic double.  The European Super Cup loss to Atletico Madrid wasn’t the best of starts and winning Serie A is a minimum requirement given Inter’s recent record – failure to deliver will see Benitez out after a year. 

Then there’s the shadow that will hang over Benitez during his time in Italy – his old buddy and predecessor, Jose Mourinho.  Any manager would find it tough taking over from Mourinho, but there will be even more pressure on Benitez to succeed, given the bad blood that exists between him and the Real Madrid coach.  It’s only natural that comparisons will be made between the two, and how will Benitez handle being at a club where a man he clearly dislikes is such an icon? 

The situation at Inter isn’t dissimilar to the 1970’s rivalry between Brian Clough and Don Revie.  Was Rafa motivated by the thought of outdoing his old foe? Perhaps he thinks he can ‘win better’ at Inter, though it’s difficult to imagine him gathering his players and telling them to throw away all the medals and trophies they’ve won so far.

It’s too late to do anything about it now, but after his exit from Liverpool, Rafa Benitez should have taken some time to consider his next move.  By stepping back Benitez  would have allowed himself the opportunity to get over the disappointing end to his time at Anfield, and helped him to decide on a club that was right for him.  Instead, he has dived straight into a new challenge where immediate success is required.  Benitez may find during the current campaign that he can’t win, even when he does.

Joe Hart Is…

19 Sep

Given the hype surrounding Joe Hart, you would be forgiven for thinking that he is Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and David Seaman rolled into one.

Having seemingly fought off Shay Given in Manchester City’s battle of the keepers at the start of the season, Hart has justified his selection with some impressive early season performances.  He now seems set to be England’s regular number one and there’s no reason why he can’t be an international keeper for years to come.

The trouble is, we’ve heard it all before. Hart is the latest in a long line of English keepers supposedly destined for greatness.  Sure he looks promising, but so did many others.  Paul Robinson was supposedly the main man, but was sold by Spurs and mistakes in Euro 2008 qualifiers against Croatia and Russia cost him his England place – Robinson has subsequently retired from international football.

Robinson was dropped for the return match with Croatia, his replacement being Scott Carson.  Carson was at fault for Niko Krankjar’s opener in only his second international and has gained only one further cap.  A lack of big-game experience seemed to work against Carson; before finally settling at West Brom, he made only a handful of appearances for Leeds United and Liverpool, as well as loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton and Aston Villa.  Despite this, Steve McClaren considered Carson ready to play in a match on which England’s qualification for a major championship depended.  Carson having just turned 25, at least has time on his side.

Chris Kirkland was at one time Britain’s most expensive keeper, but failed to fulfil early promise.  Ben Foster meanwhile, stayed too long at Manchester United.  There were also high hopes for Richard Wright and Nicky Weaver, both of whom struggled with form and injuries over the years.

It’s clear that Joe Hart has the potential to go to the very top of the game.  If his level of performance in the months and years ahead can match his confidence, there should be no stopping him. 

However Hart cannot be considered the finished article, and is not at the level of club rival Shay Given.  His selection as Man City’s first-choice is more about the long-term, given his age and the risk of losing him to a rival if he isn’t playing regularly.  It remains to be seen where Hart will be mentioned in the same breath as the great, or simply the good.

The Game’s Over, Go Home

3 Sep

With a new season underway, let’s hope that this is the year when we finally see the back of a breed of football fan, which can be seen at grounds all over the UK.  Their shameful behaviour is an embarrassment to decent supporters everywhere and is seen every time there is a live game on TV.

The group in question are those fans who can be seen hanging around inside the stadium after the end of a match.  Their side has lost, but instead of going home to sulk, or heading to the nearest boozer to drown their sorrows, they remain at their seat.  Some will have their head in their hands; others will stare into space, looking like it’s the end of the world.  There may even be the occasional tear.

The worst offenders are the grown men standing with their kids.  There stands dad; bravely fighting back the tears after a four goal hammering from the local rivals, while junior is beside him thinking “Yeah I’m gutted too, but I want to go home for my dinner.”

Now there’s nothing wrong with being angry or upset after watching your side lose – for fans of many clubs it’s a regular occurrence.  However, it’s difficult to explain why these individuals act the way they do.  Is it an attention thing? Do they think it makes them appear more committed than their fellow supporter?  Or do they feel they should because they’ve seen other people doing the same.

There is another possible reason.  Perhaps the TV companies are sending employees into the crowd, or handing over a few quid to genuine fans on their way into the game.  These ‘plants’ then do what’s required if the result requires it.

Nah, that’s too far-fetched.  Broadcasters would never manipulate football to suit their own needs.  Would they?

Wilson Should Have Waited

23 Jul

This post was almost finished at the start of the week.  It was titled ‘Wilson Should Wait’, and talked about how the collapse of Danny Wilson’s proposed move from Rangers to Liverpool might be the best thing to happen to him.  Of course a couple of days later the deal was back on and Wilson had moved to Anfield.

The 18 year old came to prominence last season, with some impressive performances at centre-back resulting in him being voted SPFA Young Player of the Year.

Liverpool reportedly had a bid of £2million rejected and with the departure of Rafa Benitez, it appeared that the Reds had cooled their interest.  It also appeared to work against Wilson that he would not be considered a ‘home grown’ player, should he move south.

It’s understandable that any young player would be interested in a move to a club like Liverpool, but Wilson should perhaps have learned to walk before he runs.  While there’s no doubting his promise, Wilson was mostly a stand-in for Madjid Bougherra during the last campaign.  With Bougherra (if he stays), David Weir and the returning Andy Webster also fighting for a starting place, Wilson would have done well to establish himself in the Rangers first-team, never mind at one of the top teams in England.  A couple of years of regular SPL action, combined with possible Champions League football would provide Wilson with some much needed experience and possibly make him a more attractive proposition for other clubs.

Wilson only needs to look at the example of Liam Miller, who left Celtic for Manchester United after only 26 league games.  The move to Old Trafford didn’t work out and his career has never reached the heights it should have. 

Contrast that with James McArthur who has just left Hamilton Accies for Wigan Athletic.  McArthur has played nearly 170 times for Hamilton, and he moves as a reasonably experienced professional with over five years top team experience, rather than as a naive rookie.

Danny Wilson is a player of undoubted potential, and if he continues to improve then he has a big career ahead of him.  The timing of the move however, could go a long way to determining how successful a career he has.

Keane At The Crossroads

1 May
As with any high profile arrival at Celtic Park, hundreds of fans waited outside to welcome Robbie Keane. Late on a January evening, an assortment of media, fanatical fans and kids who should have been in bed for school, gathered to welcome the Republic of Ireland international. Despite only joining on loan, the signing of Keane was hailed as one of, if not the biggest, in the history of the club.

The move was, in fact, a last ditch attempt to help Celtic claw back Rangers’ lead in the SPL title race. Keane is the highest paid player ever at Celtic and was brought in very much for the here and now, in contrast with many of (now former) manager Tony Mowbray’s ‘long-term’ signings. However, defeat at Kilmarnock in Keane’s debut and losing at Ibrox in February confirmed that Rangers would be champions for the second successive year.

It’s been widely reported that regardless of how succesful Keane’s time is at Celtic, he will return to Tottenham at the end of the season. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp has said as much from the minute the loan was agreed, and Mowbray also indicated that it’s unlikely that Celtic could afford to buy the player on a permanent basis. Recent quotes in the English press attributed to Keane also suggest he will head back south in the summer.

If only it were that simple. Regardless of what the player and the managers involved are saying, Keane would be mad not to keep his options open – and at the end of the current campaign he should have several different clubs chasing his signature.

It’s difficult to figure out how it’s such a certainty that Keane will return to White Hart Lane. If he’s part of their long-term plans, then why isn’t he there now? Redknapp couldn’t provide Keane with regular first-team football due to the form of Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch, and with Eider Gudjohnsen brought in (on loan) and Roman Pavlychenko going from zero to hero in recent months, surely there will be even less opportunities for Keane. Should Spurs finish fourth in the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League, they will be in a stronger position, in terms of finances and profile, to bring in a striker of a higher standard.

While they may not admit it publicly, Celtic would love to make Keane a permanent signing. Given the season they’ve endured, extending his stay would be a massive PR coup and the fans would have the type of talismanic figure they haven’t seen since Henrik Larsson. However, Celtic’s majority shareholder Dermot Desmond would have to fund any deal, due to the transfer fee and the wages that would be involved. Convincing Keane to stay for the long-term may also prove to be a problem. Would he want to hang around at a club where most of the playing staff are not at his level? The humiliating Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Ross County merely confirmed how poor the current Celtic side is.

Perhaps the most likely outcome is Keane returning south to another English Premier League side. Aston Villa and Sunderland are rumoured to be interested, and would have no problem in meeting the transfer fee. Keane would be almost guaranteed a regular start, and would be back amongst players of similar, and sometimes higher standard. It remains to be seen how motivated Keane would be by such a move. His really big move, to Liverpool, has come and gone and the top clubs will not be interested.

Ultimately, Robbie Keane must decide what he wants from the remaining years of his career. He could be the big fish in the little pond, were the he is the focal point of the team and everything revolves around him. There would also be the chance of winning silverware. Alternatively, it may be all about the standard of football. After years of playing in one of the world’s top leagues, it could prove difficult to move somewhere else. The one certainty is that this summer, Keane will not be short of offers.






Tevez Made The Right Move

16 Apr

This weekend’s Manchester derby will provide the red half of the city with another opportunity to tell Carlos Tevez of their feelings on his career choice. Despite a successful two-year spell at Old Trafford, Tevez moved to City last summer seemingly feeling unwanted. United meanwhile, claimed they did everything they could to keep him – the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Tevez’s first season at Eastlands has certainly been eventful. City goaded their rivals with the infamous ‘Welcome To Manchester’ banner and Tevez had a very public spat with former teammate Gary Neville. He then had to return to Argentina when his newborn daughter fell ill, and in recent days Tevez has also expressed his concerns in the media regarding how much training they are expected to do under Roberto Mancini.

To his credit, on the field of play, Tevez has got on with the job. A return of 22 league goals make him City’s top scorer and he has become a talismanic figure. His robust, energetic style is well suited to English football and he has deservedly been nominated for the PFA Player of the Year award. While Tevez is still playing at the highest level and could well be back in the Champions League next season, his performances over the current campaign beg the questions – should Manchester United have made more of effort to keep him and, assuming Tevez was offered a contract, should he have stayed?

With Ronaldo gone, Michael Owen injured and Dimitar Berbatov clearly short of confidence and support, United are relying heavily on Wayne Rooney. When Rooney isn’t there it’s difficult to see where the goals will come from, as higlighted by the draw at Blackburn where Berbatov and Federico Marcheda struggled. At the moment they are crying out for another top-class striker – had Tevez remained at United, he would have made more starts in Rooney’s absence and appeared less from the bench.

However, it seems that Tevez thrives in an environment where he is the main man, and appears less comfortable in a supporting role. In the long-term, Tevez would still have been viewed as back-up at Old Trafford, particularly with Sir Alex Ferguson often playing Rooney as a lone striker, with support from midfield.

While he didn’t keep West Ham in the Premier League single-handedly back in 2007, Tevez was the driving force behind their survival. This season much has been expected of him again, and after a slow start, he has become City’s top striker. Carlos Tevez seems comfortable and is enjoying his football at a club heading in the right direction. The move across Manchester seems to have been the right one.