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.