Former City boss Paul Lambert has vowed to ‘keep his head down’ and just get on with tomorrow night’s Capital One Cup return to Norfolk – his first since his controversial summer exit from Carrow Road.
At the time, many saw the 43-year-old’s switch to Aston Villa as a natural parting of the ways; that in fairness to his achievements over the previous three seasons of back-to-back promotions and a first season in the top flight safely negotiated, the highly-ambitious Lambert deserved his chance to prove himself elsewhere.
Since then, however, news that the two parties were embroiled in a legal fight of sue and counter-sue over an alleged breach of contract – one that looks unlikely to be finally settled until the end of the season – has muddied the waters and made relations between ex-manager and City supporters ambiguous, at best.
For what might once have been billed as a hero’s return before battle was joined on the pitch is now something rather less – particularly given the fact that Lambert’s hopes of guiding a ‘bigger club’ back up the Premier League table have been confounded by results.
Under new City boss Chris Hughton, the Canaries are currently on the run of their Premier League lives whilst Villa are struggling to find either form or fortune.
Relations with former skipper and the club’s highest-paid player Darren Bent are also rather frosty – despite Lambert granting the one-time Ipswich youngster a first team return at the weekend. Not that he was about to discuss it at any length afterwards.
“I ain’t answering any more questions on it. I answered about 305 the other night,” said Lambert afterwards. The Villa Park faithful were rather more forthcoming with their feelings – handing the £24 million striker a standing ovation on his return from recent exile.
Defeat at the hands of his former employers could merely add to the doubts in the Midlands as Villa fail to put any clear blue water between themselves and the drop zone.
What awaits him reaction-wise tomorrow night he has no idea, he admitted to local reporters.
He was studiously ignored when Norwich went to Villa Park earlier this season; whether such indifference will be repeated in the heat of a cup quarter-final with yet another Carrow Road full house urging their heroes on into the last four is another matter.
It could prove to be a bear pit – though any baiting therein would demand the result favouring the home team.
“I think people will make more of it than I actually will,” he told the Birmingham Mail ahead of tomorrow night’s intriguing encounter.
Victory for Hughton’s men would make it 11 games unbeaten for the Norfolk side following their ninth, undefeated Premier League outing with that thrilling 4-3 away win at Swansea City at the weekend.
Villa, by contrast, had to settle for a sterile 0-0 home draw with Stoke City – Bent’s return, notwithstanding.
One strongly suspects that Lambert needed this particular cup draw as much as a hole in the head; the footballing fates, however, would have delighted in making such a pairing.
“I’ll just get on with it,” vowed Lambert. It’s another game for me. I know what I’m going to go into.
“Some managers do well and they leave and for some strange reason they go back and fans think they’re the worst thing since sliced bread. I really don’t know what to expect, but it’s not something I’m actually too fazed about,” he added.
“It’s a semi-final if you get through and this keeps that momentum going. We’re certainly playing well. I’ve got no worries about going down there and giving it a right good go.”
The big question for the ever-diplomatic Hughton is whether or not to ‘rotate’ one or two players out of his favoured Premier League starting line-up and hand the likes of Steve Morison, Simeon Jackson and Andrew Surman the chance to book Norwich’s place in the last four.
Alternatively, of course, he could give skipper Grant Holt – fresh from ending his own, barren scoring run of late – the chance to go out and cause his former managerial mentor a problem or two…