Lambert Could be Facing His Toughest Test Yet

Say what you like about new Ipswich Town boss Paul Lambert (and a rudimentary trawl of Norwich City fan sites shows that people are saying plenty about him), but you could never accuse him of shirking a challenge. In fact, of the nine clubs the Scot has managed, it is fair to say that all but his first three were at a crisis point when he took over the reins. Sometimes it worked out; his current club’s bitter rivals Norwich are a stunning example of just how well it worked out, with Lambert picking the club up from its knees in the third tier and propelling them into the Premier League in successive seasons. Other times it has not worked out. So, given that history, it says a lot about the current state of Ipswich Town that the 49-year-old could be facing his sternest managerial test yet.

Lambert the Player

Despite having spent the vast majority of his managerial career in England, Lambert is in a very small minority of genuine world-class players from Scotland who never ventured south of the border to ply his trade. After beginning his career at St. Mirren, he moved to Motherwell. And it was while playing for the North Lanarkshire club against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA CUP that Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Dortmund coach, became so impressed with Lambert that he signed him. He was in Germany less than two seasons, but he made a huge impact. Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League—the Bundesliga club are currently 25/1 to repeat the feat—with Lambert being the first British player to win the cup for a non-British team. He returned to Scotland and joined Celtic, where he enjoyed eight mostly-successful campaigns.

(Another) New Beginning

Ipswich, his new charges, are no strangers to European glory. When they took to the field against West Brom last Friday, it was 44 years to the day since they beat Barcelona. For those who lived through those and subsequent glory days, they seem to be a long way away. For those too young, the stories must seem as distant as when man walked on the moon.

When walking around Portman Road, or seeing the players train in their very impressive facilities on the outskirts of the Suffolk town, you don’t get the feel that it is a club in crisis. It’s almost the opposite. There is a feeling among the staff, the players, and the fans that they are on the edge of an exciting new era for the club. It’s remarkable when you look at the league table and see that they are adrift at the bottom, with only a handful of points separating them from the teams above. It’s even more remarkable that those fans who were singing “We’ve got our Ipswich back” were doing the very same thing at the start of the season.

The acrimonious way in which Mick McCarthy, the new caretaker manager of Ireland, departed after six seasons left the club searching for a new direction—a new identity. In Paul Hurst, they thought they had found it. You would have been very hard-pressed to have found anything resembling a dissenting voice at the time. The appointment looked like a match made in heaven. It was what everyone had been crying out for—a young, English manager with knowledge of the lower leagues. For whatever reason (and that is a debate for another day), it didn’t work out for the ex-Shrewsbury man, and with uncharacteristic haste, owner Marcus Evans wielded the axe and brought in Lambert.

Creating a New History

Although in retrospect it looks a perfect fit, the move surprised most people when it was announced. This is not just because of the Norwich connections (which, by the way, Lambert is quick to dismiss). At first glance, his record since Norwich has not been that impressive. However, a deeper look reveals that the majority of the clubs he went to were either in full freefall or something closely resembling it. In most cases, he left the club in a better position and situation than when he joined.

Almost from the moment he walked into Portman Road, the atmosphere changed one hundred and eighty degrees. He invited club legends Terry Butcher, John Wark and George Burley in for a chat to get their takes on what made the club special; what being a player, manager, and fan of Ipswich meant; and what was needed.

The fans have responded in kind. Almost twenty-three thousand turned up for their Friday night game against West Brom, despite it being on Sky. Fans who have had to endure a decade-and-a-half of championship, mainly mid-table fare, are desperate for someone to offer them something different, something more exciting. And the team were cheered off despite being outclassed by the West Midlands side for much of the game.

The club, which has been revered for its academy and the talented, young players it consistently manages to produce, may well be sitting on some of the best it has had in recent years—even decades. Unfortunately, a relegation fight is no place to blood wholesale young talent. To make matters worse, many of the experienced heads were sold in the summer. No one is in any doubt about the task that Lambert is facing. There has been talk of funds being available in January. His first task is to ensure that, by then, his side is close enough to the pack for those signings to make a difference.

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