by Chris Dunlavy
PAUL Lambert seems to enjoy working with his hands tied. From a board at Aston Villa who wouldn’t spend any money to a club in Blackburn who can’t as they work to lift an embargo, the 46-year-old is clearly a glutton for punishment.
Lured to Villa Park from Norwich in early 2012, Lambert discovered a club who’d overspent, an owner who wanted out and star players with ‘For Sale’ signs slung round their necks.
Forced to shop in the bargain basement, he kept Villa afloat for two seasons but was eventually dismissed in February with relegation from the Premier League a distinct possibility.
Now, after nine months of R&R, he is back at Ewood Park facing monstrous debts, a transfer embargo and a struggling side. Didn’t he fancy waiting for a surer bet?
“No, no,” he insists. “There was never a moment of doubt. Yes, I knew the off-field issues, but the owners were really open about that. I felt comfortable.
“If you go down the road of negativity, people talk about it all the time. They talk about embargoes, about selling players. About not having enough quality and not winning games.
“And the more people talk, the more people listen. It becomes a vicious circle, all doom and gloom. There has to come a point where you stop fixating on problems.
“That point is now. The day I walked in here, I thought ‘Na, time to change.’ The only thing I want to talk about now is football.”
And Lambert does. About his old Norwich side. About the perils facing young players, such as 20-year-old Villa tyro Jack Grealish, who was dropped from the squad for going out clubbing. About a hiatus spent watching football across the Continent.
“A great experience,” says Lambert, who won the European Cup with Dortmund in 1997 and completed his coaching badges in Germany.
“I wanted to relax a little bit, have some time to myself. I hadn’t been out of football for a long, long time – maybe since 2008 when I left Wycombe. Going to see different teams, different managers, different cities. I had a great time, with no stress.
“You do get those moments. You’re sitting there watching Dortmund or Real or Leverkusen. You don’t have any demands on you. It’s a great life and you think ‘Yeah, I could get used to this’.
“But, realistically, it was always a matter of when I wanted to come back. I’m only 46 – what would I do with the rest of my days?”
Yet, having been sacked for the first time in a managerial career spanning ten years and five clubs, did the former Celtic skipper ever doubt his ability?
“No, I never did,” he insists with characteristic belligerence. “Because I knew the circumstances at the Villa. I did everything I could with the resources I had.
“We signed saleable assets, like Ashley Westwood. We brought through players like Fabian Delph and gave him a platform.
“I’m happy with the job I did and since I’ve gone… well, they’re not too healthy at the minute, that’s for sure. I was never in that position. And the money we spent was nowhere near what it was this summer gone.”
Lambert, though, is quick to assert that money isn’t everything.
It’s a point proved during 18 heady months when he led practically the same squad of Norwich players from the foot of League One to the Premier League.
“I don’t think anyone could ever have imagined what we’d do at Norwich,” he says. “But I think it just shows what you can do with a good fanbase and a set of good guys. They deserve so much credit for where Norwich are today.
“Money gives you a chance, but it’s amazing what you can do with your mindset. If you get a group of players who want success, who buy into your ideas and hit the same wavelength, anything is possible. Just look at Leicester now.”
He adds: “A manager’s job is to motivate players. No doubt. But the best manager in the world will never ever get anything from a player who isn’t self-motivated. That’ll take forever.
“If somebody doesn’t have that ambition or drive, if they don’t want to improve, forget it. They don’t belong in football and they won’t make a career of it. Those Norwich guys, they all had that. They wanted to achieve something.
“But these young kids out of academies, they get too much too early. That’s a big problem, especially in this country. They get the money, they get the trappings. And they think ‘I’ve made it’.
“But all the time you’re giving them money you’re taking away that desire to to win medals and respect.
“It’s no good for the game in this country. It’s no good for the player’s development. It’s no good for the club they’re at.
“Because, without that desire to improve and learn, they won’t stand a chance against lads like the ones I had at Norwich.”
And, as for a Blackburn side 13th in the table and likely to lose either Jordan Rhodes or Ben Marshall in January, does he believe this season is anything more than a write-off?
“We’ve come in at a difficult time,” admits Lambert, whose men beat Preston 1-0 in his first game.
“We’ve been here less than two weeks. It’s too early to make any guarantees, but the feeling is very upbeat and we need to ride that.
“Norwich showed the importance of momentum.
“We might go on a run of five, six wins and suddenly you’re in the mix. We might not. But let’s talk about trying to do that, not all this other nonsense.”
*This article was originally published in The FLP on 29 November.