Delia Smith turned to Paul Lambert after they had watched Norwich City’s dismal defeat at Brentford and gave him a blunt, five-word summation of the task he had accepted a few hours previously.
It was Wednesday, 19 August, 2009. Lambert became Norwich manager that day, but too late for him to play any significant part at Griffin Park. So he opted to keep away from the players and coaches and to watch the match alongside the City board.
Norwich were abject. They lost 2-1. The result left them 22nd of the 24 teams in League One.
So Delia said to Lambert: “Good luck with that lot”.
I don’t know what she said to him 33 months later, but I’m sure it included: “Thank you”. Because on Sunday, 13 May, 2012, Norwich beat Aston Villa at Carrow Road to finish the season in 12th place in the Premier League.
That proved to be Lambert’s final game in charge. He had lifted City 54 places up the League ladder.
So I won’t boo Paul Lambert. Not on Sunday. Not ever.
Some want to greet him with scorn when he shows up with our inept neighbours for the last ever Old Farm league derby, but without him, I doubt we’d have a club to be exultant about. After all, it was in real and imminent danger when he arrived in 2009.
City’s debts stood at £23m. Most of the money was owed to two organisations: AXA and Bank of Scotland. They wanted their money back and insisted that the club call in accountants Deloitte and property consultants King Sturge — the former to see if there was any money to be made by any means possible, and the latter to look at whether Carrow Road and/or Colney should be sold.
When the accounts for 2008-09 were published, the club’s own auditors reported that there were doubts about Norwich City being able to continue as “a going concern”.
So Lambert could well have said to Delia: “Good luck with that lot”.
But two key appointments had been made before Lambert. Alan Bowkett, a strident critic of the board, took over as chairman, and a chap called David McNally became chief executive.
It was the triumvirate of Bowkett, McNally and Lambert who combined to turn the fortunes of Norwich City around — and the extraordinary thing is that by the end of their time together, none of them got along with the others.
The details of their turbulent relationships must wait for another day — when I can afford a good lawyer. But what can be stated with absolute certainty is that the barnstorming surge up the table under Lambert was a crucial ingredient in saving Norwich City.
I don’t think there has been a better managerial achievement by anyone in English football during the Premier League era.
As far as I can discover, only three other managers have achieved successive promotions from what is now League One to the Premier League: Joe Royle (Manchester City, 1998-2000), Graham Taylor (Watford, 1998-2000) and Nigel Adkins (Southampton, 2010-12). But Royle and Taylor both gained one of their promotions via the playoffs and their teams only spent one season in the Prem. Adkins did not survive for the entirety of Southampton’s first Premier League season.
Lambert led City to two automatic promotions, charging to the title in League One and galloping straight into the Prem as Championship runners up. And then he kept us up. Along the way, as we all recall with such glee, there were great dramas, magnificent wins — and two demolition derbies, in which the team he now manages were humiliated.
Of course, he had some help.
Alongside Bowkett and McNally, four other board members played key roles: Delia and Michael Wynn Jones, Michael Foulger and the quiet but properly involved Stephan Phillips.
Lambert’s predecessor, Bryan Gunn left three important players in place: he signed Grant Holt, rehabilitated Chris Martin and persuaded Wes Hoolahan to stay when others quit in the summer after relegation to the third tier.
And the value of Lambert’s assistants — Ian Culverhouse, who was effectively head coach and leading tactician, and Gary Karsa — might be guessed from Lambert’s lack of success since he ceased using them.
And then there was the Yellow Army. We did our bit. Just over three weeks after City were relegated to League One they announced something remarkable — inexplicable, really. A stupendous 18,376 season ticket holders had already renewed: 18,376 supporters had decided that they would remain steadfast. They were going back to Carrow Road for another season, even if it was in the third tier. Amazing. Wonderful.
And as the Lambert crusade began to gather pace, it became enormous fun to swamp away ends at places like Stockport and Swindon and produce support that home supporters couldn’t believe or match.
My enjoyment was enhanced by getting to know Lambert as well as I have known any Norwich manager. I found him engaging and inspirational.
But I thought it significant that he seemed to need to antagonise his former clubs. For instance, in League One, when Norwich grabbed a win at Wycombe (on the coldest day I have ever spent watching football), Lambert greeted the game’s late, only goal by sprinting up the touchline towards the Norwich fans, jumping up and punching the air. That display of triumphalism was smack in front of the main stand, and home directors were not impressed.
Two weeks later, at Colchester, on the only occasion their stadium has been full, Lambert strutted out onto the side of the pitch long before the teams came out to wave to the assembled Norwich fans behind the goal on his left. What was the real purpose of his early appearance though? Could it be that he wanted to wallow in the abuse from home supporters? That would be belligerence personified, wouldn’t it?
I relished it all at the time because his bullishness was on behalf of the club I support. But it occurred to me that he might need to fall out of love with former clubs to commit so fully to the current one.
It’s a tad silly for journalists (or retired ones, come to that) to attempt amateur psychoanalysis. But Lambert’s behaviour towards Norwich since he left us has not done anything to dissuade me from my theory.
And perhaps something similar — a need to fall out with people so that he can fully sign up for new projects — is behind the fact that he and Culverhouse are said not to be sending each other Christmas cards these days. And the words that were conspicuously absent from Karsa’s comments in the excellent recent Talk Norwich City video interview were “Paul” and “Lambert”. Karsa just couldn’t bring himself to say the man’s name.
So I expect Lambert will try to wind up City supporters before and during Sunday’s entertainment.
But, sorry Paul, I’m going to applaud you as a genuine expression of my profound gratitude for what you achieved at Norwich City. It was an utterly magnificent three years.
When you took over, we were level on points (one!) with Hartlepool and Stockport, Neither is now in the Football League. And it wasn’t written in stone that we’d travel in the opposite direction to them. You made sure we went upwards and not down again, by ensuring that no Norwich team you sent out ever took a backwards step or stopped trying to score.
But after I’ve clapped you I am going to cheer myself hoarse supporting Daniel Farke. No offence to your current employers, Paul, but in football you can’t live in the past.