Turn the clock back six months and most of us would have whipped off any hand that offered us the chance to give Paul Lambert a piece of our collective mind.
As it happened, when that opportunity did present itself – on 27 October – we were all grown up about it. Very little booing; hardly any vitriol; instead a dignified indifference as our former hero made that long walk along the Villa touchline. Any awkwardness displayed on that Saturday lunchtime came from the home fans, who were then still to properly clasp Glasgow’s ‘special one’ to their bosom.
I wrote afterwards of my pride in the travelling Yellow Army that day, and the magnificent way they roared on the players and displayed their new-found affection for Chris Hughton. It was a turning point; a day when the new broom did start sweeping clean. It was also one that will furthermore be known simply as ‘game two’, on our record-breaking (number yet to be determined) unbeaten run.
When the footballing gods did their best, and afforded a prematurely early return to Carrow Road for Team Lambert, there was still a vague, underlying sense of ‘now is our chance’. A feeling that the dignity on display at Villa Park could yet be replaced by a good old-fashioned tongue lashing – the type normally the preserve of the Snake Pit when confronted by a limbering-up Connor Wickham or Jonathan Walters.
But that was then.
Since the Capital One quarter-final draw was made – at the back-end of October – Hughton and his team have taken us on a journey unlike any seen in these parts since the early nineties. A run so stubbornly brilliant we have now shaken off the current champions, Manchester City – thanks to their derby defeat – and are now topping the ‘since a defeat’ form-guide.
Mick Dennis eloquently wrote on here, a few weeks ago, that ‘Lambert has moved on, with our thanks. But so have we’. And he was right… of course.
But as much as I believed those wise words, in truth, a small part of me still felt a tinge of pain whenever confronted by an image of that ruddy face, popping out of the top of an Aston Villa overcoat. Similarly when listening to those post-match, ‘the lads did really great’ interviews.
Not any more.
Such has been the stratospheric shift in our fortunes since that dreary day at Stamford Bridge, there can now only be a handful who still doubt the abilities of Hughton and his men. Equally, for most now, the Lambert factor is little more than a memory. A glorious one… but still just a memory.
The run will come to an end soon and, if those same meddling footballing deities that arranged the fixture in the first place have their way, it may well be on Tuesday night. But either way, the record books will forever tell the tale of the 2012 unbeaten run. Whilst he still has a way to go before he carves himself a Lambert-type niche in Canary folklore, Hughton has won his way into our hearts.
He hasn’t done so by making bold statements and gestures about the good times ahead; nor by reminding us how well he has done to turn around the basket case he inherited; or even by overtly currying favour with the Yellow Army with pseudo-lavish praise.
Instead he’s done so by quietly moulding a squad of good players into a well-drilled unit that knows how to defend, and by embedding a patient passing style of football that is not only pleasing on the eye, but makes it difficult for opponents to play against.
He’s done so by keeping calm when all around him were doing the polar opposite.
And he’s done so by retaining an unswerving faith in his footballing principles; those which have been honed over the years, starting in North London, via the Tyne and most recently in the Midlands. Principles that were borne of a Tottenham apprenticeship that saw him play the role of faithful lieutenant to a host of experienced managers, before going it alone.
Thanks to another smart piece of David McNally business, City are currently the beneficiaries of this roller-coaster ride, the product of which has been a well-rounded and gifted football manager. One that has, to-date, seen only a marginally few more ups than downs – but who is now on a steady, yet thrilling, upward trajectory.
In the unlikely event that Hughton was to read this column, he wouldn’t thank me for saying any of it – that’s not his style. He is clearly one to treat triumph and disaster the same, which is exactly how we like it. Over-reaction to both extremes is for us – the fans – and we’re past-masters at that.
So please let’s not give Lambert a really rough ride. Despite all the ills of a messy separation, ours was a three year romance that we should all look back upon fondly, and remember the good times… the very good times.
Would even a ripple of polite applause be out of the question?
But then once that whistle goes, we all know that anyone not in yellow and green is fair game.
Let’s not forget that a place in the last four is at stake (I almost had myself) and whichever XI Hughton picks is more than capable of claiming that place.
Chris Hughton’s Green and Yellow Army is well and truly on the march… let’s make sure everyone knows it.