Men as diverse as Hugh Curran, Robert Fleck, Bryan Gunn and Gary Holt have been celebrated as Player of the Year, while Carrow Road has been home to virtually an entire team of Scottish managers.
Paul Lambert is the ninth in Norwich City’s 102-year history. The past, however, is something that Lambert rarely dwells upon. That is why he has never been back to watch Celtic, where he spent seven years and captained in a Uefa Cup final. And events at Hampden Park yesterday would have been far from the thoughts of a man who collected 40 caps for Scotland.
Beating Walsall, not Macedonia, was Lambert’s sole obsession. Coca Cola League One now supersedes the World Cup. Such single-minded determination was what made him a favourite to his own managers, most notably when he shadowed Zinedine Zidane to the point of frustration, helping Borussia Dortmund defeat Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final.
That medal is tucked away in a drawer at home. Lambert is no Scrooge, simply a pragmatist. He displays the same attitude to his new place of work, even if the ghosts from Carrow Road’s past are friendly ones. The photographs of the Norwich City side – including a fresh-faced striker called Chris Sutton, who became Lambert’s colleague at Celtic – which captured attention around Europe when it knocked out Bayern Munich in the 1994 Uefa Cup, may console supporters after the club’s fall from grace, but they barely rate a second glance from Lambert.
“That stuff does not trouble me,” insists the 40-year-old who took over just three weeks ago. “There is history wherever you go. Celtic was steeped in it, Borussia Dortmund too. Norwich City have a great history behind them, but we are not at that level any more. Everyone has to get used to that. We have a great stadium and training facilities, which are a legacy of when the club invested the money from those good times, and we have great fans. It is up to us to get back up there for them – but it’s a long climb back.”
While Norfolk may not seem the most obvious football hotspot, Lambert is genuinely won over by the place. “It’s a nice part of the world,” he says. “Chris Sutton lives not far away and he held a get-together last year for the lads in the Celtic side that played in Seville. The people here are passionate about this club and we had 24,000 when Wycombe Wanderers came here two weeks ago, which was the sixth biggest crowd in Britain that day; and they do not sit and watch quietly, they are very vocal.”
Lambert discovered that truth for himself on the opening day of the season – as visiting manager. In what will become one of football’s most bizarre tales, the former Scotland midfielder inspired his Colchester United side to rout Norwich 7-1. That was too much for one Carrow Road season ticket holder, who vaulted the wall to confront Bryan Gunn – a Norwich legend – and Lambert was forced to use swift think to stop the fan before he assaulted his counterpart.
Humanity and ruthlessness in one brief cameo. Four days later, Gunn was sacked and a week after that Norwich lured Lambert from Colchester. “It is never nice for any manager to suffer that sort of defeat,” reflects Lambert. “I have been on the receiving end of that before. However, I had a job to do when I came here with Colchester and we did it well. Maybe if we had won just 1-0, things might have been calmer.”
Maybe not. There was a growing belief around Carrow Road that Gunn’s deep bond to the club for whom he played for 12 years, and the wave of emotion triggered by the death of his daughter Francesca from leukaemia in 1992, could not disguise a managerial inexperience.
Gunn was given just two games, but Norwich felt they could not take the financial risk of remaining in England’s third tier any longer than was necessary. Lambert’s own CV as a manager south of the border hints at progress. He took Wycombe Wanderers to the Carling Cup semi-finals before Chelsea ended the League Two club’s dreams, and then put in a solid campaign at Colchester in League One.
While he is uncomfortable obsessing about the past, he is not too foolish to listen to those from his own. When Norwich offered him the job, he sought the opinion of Martin O’Neill, his manager for five years at Celtic. O’Neill played and managed (briefly) at Carrow Road before Leicester City headhunted him in 1995.
“I spoke to Martin about the offer and he told me that Norwich was a huge club and that it was too good a job to turn down,” said Lambert. “He said that he had enjoyed his time here and that while there is a lot of pressure, it could be an incredible place.”
Once O’Neill was cited as a referee, no others were needed. Norwich were the second club to ask him to follow his mentor’s footsteps – Wycombe were O’Neill’s breakthrough job and gladly took on his pupil – but Lambert denies that he is replicating any route map that might ultimately end at Celtic Park.
“That’s just coincidence,” laughed Lambert. “I’m judged by my record as a manager down here, not what I did for Celtic or Borussia Dortmund. The important thing for me and the people at this club is the present.”