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.
Great article Rick. I particularly enjoyed the insights from the 90s – got any more where they came from?
Stewart Gillion says
Good article. Indeed MW coundn’t do it 2nd time around. Lambert? I hope that he never gets the chance as it would spoil the memories of a great manager that gave us 3 fantastic seasons!
Azores Canary says
Good article Rick. I reiterate your point that it’s the players that really make the difference. I don’t think they really play for their manager, unless it’s a truly inspirational leader of men like Mourinho.
In the case of Walker, we had strong leaders like Gunn, Crook, Culverhouse, Goss, Megson etc to name but a few. The team inspired itself regardless of who the manager was. It must also be remembered that the team of that era was the legacy of the great Dave Stringer.
In Lambert’s case, Norwich were on the ropes until the arrival of Grant Holt (recruited by Gunn). In my opinion, it was Holt’s leadership, both on and off the pitch, that took Norwich from near oblivion to established Prem status. A demoralised Holt (courtesy of managerial incompetence) left the club and the slide back to the Championship seemed inevitable.
But this article is about managers, and I was reminded of the film ‘The Damned United’. The Derby Chairman Sam Longson (Jim Broadbent) delivers a superb rollocking to Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) as follows:
‘The reality of football is this: The Chairman is the Boss, then the Directors, then the Fans, then the Players, and finally, last of all, bottom of the heap, lowest of the low, in the end comes the one we can all do without: the f!!!*!!! Manager!’
At Norwich, we have the Board, the Fans, and the Players. The final part of the jigsaw that Alex Neil needs to find is another on-field inspirational leader.
Dan R says
Excellent article, Rick. From afar a couple of points.
First, I recall thinking in early ’12, that wherever Lambo went post Canaries, he’d always look back at his time with us as a great period for him. Second, I don’t think many of us would consider the Villa move a mistake at the time. Whatever has happened since, we have to accept they ARE a ‘bigger’ Club than us – not better, just bigger.
Last, I don’t think we can compare GH and Benteke as similar ‘Big Men’. GH is a Norfolk legend, always will be, but Benteke is, potentially, a real star.
Cosmo Politan says
I’m not sure being media friendly and having nice hair are significant factors in making a good manager – Alex Ferguson was Mr. Grouchy and could mumble with the best on camera but clearly had no problem getting his message across behind the scenes. His hair wasn’t great either.
Walker may have delivered the ‘high points’ but in many ways was lucky to inherit a fine established squad (unlike Lambert) from Stringer and never had to (1st time) and wasn’t able to (2nd time) drag us up out of the lower tier – that’s the real test of a great manager in my book e.g. Clough, Shankly, Revie etc.
Even when we finished 3rd under Walker, we had a negative goal difference which speaks volumes. He soon got found out at Goodison.
I think the Ron Saunders-Lambert comparison is more valid although their experiences at Villa were very different. Lambert is made of stronger stuff than the Silver Fox was and will bounce back next season.
Sticky Toffee says
If ever you want to know how far Walker’s star fell at Goodison, have a read of Mark Ward’s biography, “From Right Wing to B-Wing..” (Ward ended up doing time for drugs possession).
He quickly fell out with Walker and amusingly recalls Walker’s tanned appearance and looking like he’d “stepped out of a Burton’s window.”!
Clearly Ward still harbours a major grudge in the Welshman’s direction – he also recounts how Walker left all the work to David Williams in training and got overly fussy about his parking space at the ground.
His time at Carrow Road was truly a fortunate one off.
Gary R says
For walker read David Williams stringer deehan
For Lambert read Culver house karsa now we know the brains behind both regimes
Neil N. Pray says
Before we even got out of League One I was saying that Lambert was a terrific manager who was going right to the top. That seems a long way off now. He’ll struggle to get another gig, at a decent level anyway, with the reputation as boss of a team that didn’t score in ELEVEN HOURS. What fan wants that?
Lambert’s biggest strength seemed to be instilling great belief in his players, making the team greater than the sum of its parts. That’s exactly what he needed to do at Villa, and he failed spectacularly. Strange really.
He could still have a great career. I wish him all the best.
Ultimately, certain managers are “a perfect fit” for certain clubs at certain times. Sometimes, they “get lucky” with the players they inherit, at other times, they get the most of what resources are available to them. There is no magic formula, or, no guarantee that they can replicate their magic at another club. That’s what makes football the great game it is.