It wasn’t about our club’s ambition. Paul Lambert did not stomp away from Norwich City in a strop over the cap imposed on transfers and wages next season.
You’ll have to trust me on that. I could blather on about “sources” or bury you in coded cliches, but instead I assert baldy that I know for an absolute fact that Lambert understood and accepted the need for Norwich to keep the spending brakes on for two more seasons.
That is not to say there was no tension between him and those who run the club.
Like every manager in the land, he wanted to have a bigger pot than he was told is available. He wanted a larger fund for signings and he wanted to ease the salary limit upwards. He wanted to attract the sort of players we’d all like to see wearing the new kit.
But, eventually, he accepted that next season’s budget – £10 million up on last season – is reasonable and had agreed to work within it without complaint.
He knew the seriously precarious position when he arrived and shared the view that that the great club in the Fine City must never again teeter on the brink of insolvency.
So he understood, applauded even, the stated policy of paying off all outside debts (everything owed to everyone other than directors) within the next two seasons.
And let’s be clear about this.
When our current board convened for the very first time, in the week following that 7-1 home humiliation by Lambert’s Colchester, the overriding imperative was to reduce those debts hurriedly.
David McNally went with majority share-holders Delia Smith and Michael Wynn Jones to London on the Monday following the Colchester game to address the “Capital Canaries” and I lost count quickly of how many times our new chief executive stressed the dangerously urgent need to get the debts down.
The room wanted to know what would happen to Bryan Gunn and the team, but McNally had seen the books and knew that, while it was right to debate City’s future, his principal concern was whether there would be a future.
And when, at the height of the first banking crisis, new chairman Alan Bowkett went to the worried institutions and renegotiated City’s repayment schedules, he had to promise that, if the club reached the Premier League, the sudden flood of money would be directed their way.
That was not a return to the old, derided “ambition with prudence” maxim. It was an essential element of a surival plan. Without that plan and the promise it necessitated, the banks (whose prime responsibility is to their shareholders) would not have let our club put off the repayments.
It was the pledge that “You’ll get your dosh if we get to the Prem…” that kept Norwich City alive. Without it, Lambert would not have been able to work his miracles, because the club would have been in administration.
So, although there were debates among board members and with Lambert about exactly how much could be spent on the playing budget, these were quibbles at the margin. Everyone understood the fundamental truths.
There can be no gamble on a £10 million striker. He might score the goals which would ensure more seasons in the big money Premier League. But then again he might get crocked at Colney.
There has to be more of the same: recruiting hungry young men from lower divisions for whom playing for Norwich represents an opportunity to prove a point.
That model was devised before Lambert was appointed and will continue now he has gone. But Lambert understood, admired and accepted this vital strategy.
No, it wasn’t about Norwich City’s ambition.
It was about his.
When I sat down for a long interview with him in Yellows early last season, Lambert said he wanted to win things. They all say that, of course, but for Lambert it was not a glib comment. It was an explanation of his core credo.
He wanted silverware in his hands when campaigns concluded, to have tangible proof that he had done his job well. The desire – need even – for trophies was what drove him as a player and what impels him as a manager.
My heart sank as he spoke animatedly about how much he had enjoyed getting his mitts on the League One champions’ trophy and the promotion pot a year later, and about how much he wanted to win more medals and cups.
I knew then that Lambert would not hang around at Carrow Road for the long term.
He would not be content with stabilising City in the Premier League and
launching sorties in the FA Cup and League Cup. He would not be sated even by leading Norwich into Europe.
To me, being able to harbour those dreams after all those dismal, literally hopeless seasons before Lambert seemed a marvel. To him, it was not enough.
As Martin O’Neill will have told him, Aston Villa will not take Lambert where he wants to be. But they can take him a big step closer.
American owner Randy Lerner will set a careful budget, but a Europa League place is not beyond a Villa team drilled by Lambert. Then he would be a credible target for a really top club, in this country or in Europe.
So when, inexplicably, Liverpool did not consider Lambert this summer, and West Brom shopped abroad for their manager, Villa became the only available step up for Lambert.
I know – take my word again, please – that Lambert regards Delia, Michael W J and Michael Foulger as good people and the very best sort of folk to work for.
I don’t doubt that, for all the talk about discussions being professional,
Lambert had a major falling out with McNally, and perhaps with Bowkett, over the refusal to let him talk to Villa while still employed by Norwich.
But the City men were doing their job.
So Lambert will manage Aston Villa. And when a club higher up the football food chain gobble him up in a year or two, we’ll feel then as Colchester fans feel now…