My first season covering Norwich City Football Club on a full-time basis for the Evening News was 1993-94.
Frighteningly, 21 years ago.
There is, therefore, a whole generation of Canary supporters for whom the deeds of Mike Walker and his men on the playing fields of Europe will be the stuff of legend. Handed down from father to son; mother to daughter.
It was an extraordinary period in the club’s history. To be sat in Walker’s office for hours on end either waiting for him to arrive and then, when he did, to stop talking and let you actually write his manager’s column for that night’s paper was – looking back – a privilege rarely afforded this generation of local football reporters.
It did also give you a certain insight into the thinking that saw Walker walk. To Everton – at pretty much the height of his managerial powers in Norfolk.
He figured that the grass was greener elsewhere. And, in his mind, Everton were a bigger club than Norwich. Many would share that viewpoint. As hard as it is for the locals to swallow.
Walker’s decision was made a whole lot easier by the cratering relationship he had with the club’s then chairman, Robert Chase.
Again, looking back, it was an experience and a half for a still green football reporter to be given a grandstand view of the way the Old Man worked. He was something else.
The two men – manager and chairman – were increasingly at odds over a new deal for the young tyro that had propelled City to such dizzying heights, Chris Sutton.
Walker wanted a new deal that would test the club’s wage ceiling and the chairman’s patience in equal measure.
When it became clear one was not to be forthcoming and Sutton would be spruced up for a summer at the sales, so Walker knew that the only way was down for the team that he, Dave Stringer, Dave Williams and Ken Brown had built and nurtured.
Chris Suttons don’t grow on trees, would be the gist.
As his luckless successor John Deehan would discover when, amongst others, he added Mike Sheron to the brew. As Sutty duly disappeared to Blackburn for a then record transfer fee.
Walker’s tenure on Merseyside didn’t pan out as well as everyone hoped. Or, indeed, maybe expected. There is no doubt that in that autumn – in Munich and Milan – Walker’s star was firmly in the ascendant. He had something. He had presence in front of the cameras; made friends in the media easily.
And, of course, the shock of white hair helped the image.
But it never happened. Not again. Not as it had in Norwich. The magic that Walker conjured up that season – and, indeed, to as great an extent the season before – refused to move with him. And a legend waned.
Why that was the case is, of course, very pertinent in the week that Paul Lambert and Aston Villa parted company.
The undercurrents are similar in terms of why the Scot walked. It was little secret that, by the end, relations between chairman and manager weren’t ideal. And in the midst of it you had a certain Grant Holt seeking an extension to his contract.
Grant Holts don’t grow on trees, either.
There are differences. Walker walked alone; his No2 John Deehan stayed and took over the reins. Hindsight, but both parties might have been better served had they stuck together; had Deehan not taken the Chase Shilling.
Before he knew it, the Old Man was flogging Efan Ekoku on an FA junket in Europe. His manager was one of the last to know – as any reporter up at the old training ground at Trowse that day will attest.
‘Team Lambert’ followed him up the A14. In theory, that piece of the chemistry should have stayed intact. In the event, it fell apart in distinctly poisonous fashion as Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa found themselves out of the door following disciplinary issues.
All for one and one for all. Not.
Of far more relevance, however, is the dressing room. Which is where the real magic happens.
Walker rode the tidal wave of a playing squad at the peak of its powers.
Not only did it have ability, it had big character after big character. Leaders in every department. The perfect mix of wise heads and young guns playing to a pattern that was perfect for the talents on offer.
In short, it managed itself. Each and every player knew their roles. And if they forgot for a moment what they were supposed to do, there was enough strong minds about the pitch to remind them what their job was in any given situation.
And much the same can be said of the team that Lambert built – and Bryan Gunn bought in the shape of G Holt.
Lambert never made friends as easily with the Press; the Midlands media corps swiftly surmised that he ‘got lucky’ for a couple of seasons. Particularly with the big lad up front.
For one season, Lambert found a replacement in the shape of Christian Benteke. But as his hunger appeared to wane and the goals and the entertainment dried up, so Villa Park looked a joyless outpost of the Premier League.
The odd coming and then going of Roy Keane as Lambert’s No2 merely deepened the suspicion that something wasn’t quite right at the heart of that club.
The point? Both men will, rightly, retain their place in Norwich’s managerial Hall of Fame for the foreseeable.
But as David Moyes likewise discovered, bigger clubs with deeper pockets aren’t always the answer when it comes to replicating your managerial success elsewhere.
You don’t always know what you’ve got till its gone. Or rather till you go.
It is why Jose Mourinho is, to my mind, a Special One.
Chelsea look odds on for the title now; he has come back and put them right back on top of the perch. His chemistry follows him. And the magic happens again.
Good managers both, Walker and Lambert. Great? No. You need to do it more than once to claim that title.