Manager of the Year? Manager of the Last Three

On the opening day of the 2009/2010 League One season, Norwich City, freshly relegated from the Championship, were given a less than royal welcome by Colchester City, falling to a 7-1 annihilation at home. It may only have been one game, but the steady slide looked to be the Canaries’ destiny. In the starting eleven for them that day were Grant Holt, Wes Hoolahan and Adam Drury, while Simon Lappin took his place on the bench. Colchester’s side included Marc Tierney and David Fox.

 

Two years and six days later, Holt, Hoolahan, Fox and Tierney started Norwich’s first Premier League game since 2005, as Lappin and Drury remained in the squad. In two short years they had gone from the aforementioned trouncing to the Premier League, and it was all down to the man who was responsible for that humiliation. 10 days after that miserable afternoon, Norwich had ensnared Paul Lambert from Colchester and handed him their managerial post. Lambert’s first game was a disappointing 2-1 loss away to Brentford, though the recovery appeared to start with the next two matches, as they picked up their first wins of the season. This progress was halted a poor run of just 2 points from four games; but this would eventually be regarded as a minor blip come the season’s end. 9 games played, 7 points gained and 14th position did not look like a team capable of promotion. What followed was spectaular.

 

At the end of what had been a dismal September, they gave Leyton Orient a comprehensive seeing to, which prompted the revival. They recorded 7 straight wins as a start of a run of 22 games without loss which was punctuated by just two draws, wherein they had a spell of 11 consecutive wins (featuring a cathartic 5-0 revenge victory over Colchester). By the time a loss finally came they were comfortably atop the League One table and in spite of three further losses, they claimed promotion in mid-April with a 1-0 win away at Charlton, going on to secure the title a week later after a 2-0 home win against Gilligham. The difference between the side that was slaughtered on the opening day was not a great upheaval in playing staff. The only change that had been made upon the new manager’s arrival was the loan signing of Fraser Forster from Newcastle – and no one who saw Michael Theoklitos’s horrendously poor showing against Colchester would deny that it was need. Three signings were made in January: Anthony McNamee arrived from Swindon but played rarely in his first six months and Russell Martin and Zach Whitbread also joined, and would go on to become another two for Lambert’s collection of players who had come with him from League One to the Premier League.

 

And so, to the Championship. While there were some players for whom adaption to the higher division would be easy, there were others who would not be able to make the transition. Upgrades were of the essence. As previously mentioned, Fox rejoined his former manager; John Ruddy was signed as a full-time solution to the goalkeeping problem after Forster had returned to Tyneside; Andrew Surman was signed from Wolves, Leon Barnett from West Brom and Andrew Crofts, Elliot Ward, Steven Smith and Simeon Jackson were also signed on. Older players were cleared out to make room. The aim was survival and the squad Lambert had built looked more than capable.

 

Despite losing their first game, they were up to seventh spot within two games. A 3-1 loss at Doncaster meant they momentarily slipped to eighth. This was the lowest position they would be in all year. Their 4-1 win over Ipswich at the end of November saw them rise into the play-off places. They did not follow the examples of so many other promoted teams who have a strong half-season and let their performances slip, content that they would be safe from relegation and that was their objective met. Nor did they follow the lead of so many other play-off chasing pretenders, who crumble and retreat at the mere idea of pressure and expectation to succeed. Lambert created an excellent spirit within the side, which was shown by the fact that they did not lose any two games back-to-back at any point through the season. In January, Aaron Wilbraham and Marc Tierney were purchased, after Henri Lansbury had arrived on loan two months previously. They began to threaten the automatic promotion spots at the end of January, but a number of ill-timed draws saw them slide around the play-off spots, but as the season drew to its end, their spirit was once more shown by a 15-match unbeaten run as they began to assert their position in the top two.

 

A Simeon Jackson goal in the 1-0 away win against Portsmouth secured their return to the Premier League. Less than two years since that game against Colchester, they were back in the top flight. Lambert described it as “a miracle”. Untrue. Miracles, as a phenomena, cannot be explained; this could, through his management. His effect on the team was shown best in his players’ glowing appraisals of him.

It becomes more evident in the proceeding season, but what had become clear from the two promotions is that Lambert, as a manager, is blessed with an ability that relatively few in the same field posses, but those who do are instantly separable from those who do not. Lambert is able to get average players to do brilliant things; to perform at a level so much higher than their abilities would ordinarily take them. It is evident (though with a far higher level of player) with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger and further down the league, in David Moyes and Brendan Rodgers – Kenny Dalglish is currently being exposed for his inability to do this. Lambert reflects one of Brian Clough’s great lines on management: “good managers make good sides; I’ve never heard of a side making a manager”. Through their Premier League travails, there are few individual players one could isolate from this Norwich side as the ‘star men’, but the way they work as a team and as a squad makes them a side who can survive comfortably in the league and even build further and become an ‘established’ Premier League team.

At this point in time, with 7 games remaining, they are one point off the ‘magic’ 40 points which, over the years, has been the marker of safety from relegation (though it may be even lower this year) and are only three points off Liverpool, who have spent £100,000,000 since January 2011 compared to around £10,000,000 from Norwich – a reflection on both sides’ managers. And I will say now that I will eat one of my hats if Norwich go down. Relegation has never looked to be a concern for them (though you would not guess it if you listen to Lambert in his interviews). What is more, like Swansea alongside them, they play attractive, short-passing, high-pressing football. While Stoke are prospering with Tony Pulis’s Neanderthal tactics, Norwich and Swansea are fighting the arguably more honourable fight. He has not yet had time to build a dynasty as they have been constantly rising. When he took over at Norwich they were second from bottom in League One. 8 months later they were league champions. 9 months on from that they were promoted again. A similar jump further through time sees them with a realistic chance of finishing in the top half of the Premier League on a first attempt with a squad of predominantly Championship-level players. This reinvention has completely been thanks to him and they will continue to prosper, entertaining all the while, as long as he is at the helm.

Many will mention Brendan Rodgers for the manager of the year award this season, but if you look at the situation at Swansea when he initially took charge, it was in complete contrast to Norwich when Lambert was given the job. The foundations for success – promotion and Premier League survival – were in place but they needed a manager talented and clever enough to take them forward. Rodgers was just that. This is not to denigrate his marvellous achievements at Swansea in the slightest, as he has done an outstanding job, but his triumphs have neither the magnitude nor the required skill that Lambert’s do. Player-for-player, it is debatable as to who of Swansea and Norwich has the stronger squad, but the answer from most corners would be Swansea. Though they are on the same number of points. Norwich’s rise and their sustained consistency through the league this season has been all down to their fantastic manager. Very few managers would be able to get such excellent results with that squad of players; the majority of them have joined in the last two years, yet they play with an understanding that would suggest far more time together. Lambert has grown with his team after having taken the more traditional route into management, starting at Livingston before moving south to Wycombe Wanderers, then to Colchester, then to Norwich. He is not an average ex-pro who has moved into management for want of something else to do with all their new-found free time. He has the potential to be great. It would not be a surprise if a ‘bigger’ club in search of a new manager came after him; and for many, he would be one of the best possible appointments.

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