March 15 2014 Latest news:
Monday, June 11, 2012
Now let me get this right. The bloke from Birmingham, whose manager went Aston Villa, is coming in to replace the bloke who’s gone to Villa because they didn’t like the first bloke from Birmingham.
Paul Lambert, Alex McLeish and Chris Hughton are, respectively, the bloke we all now don’t like as much as we used to; the bloke no one ever really liked anyway, and the bloke who is the greatest thing since sliced bread, even though Birmingham fans disagree.
We are fickle types, us football fans. Paul Lambert was number one world’s best person for three years at Norwich, but the minute he gives City the big elbow because he has a new love, we act like Jilted Johns. Hughton will leave on similar terms: he took Birmingham to the play-offs, but he’s been lured by the flaxen-haired beauty from the east and Blues fans will stamp their feet in a paddy and scream as only the lover scorned can scream.
McLeish was fortunate in a way: Blues fans aren’t bothered that he’s gone, only relieved.
So who’s got the best deal – Norwich or Villa? It’s not possible to include Birmingham in the list of possible answers because they, of course have yet to find a new manager. If they appoint Jose Mourinho then perhaps the argument is over. If they have to settle for one of the Usual Suspects, then I’ll reopen the case. For now, it’s between two.
It would be easy to have a dig at Lambert now that he’s gone - for example his media conferences contained more repeats than ITV4. But that aside, there is no axe to grind - there is certainly no repeat of the paring shots fired at Glenn Roeder. But how Lambert spoke to and dealt with the press is of little consequence to the supporters of Norwich City. His managerial record was what counted, and it was fantastic. No one denies that. Successive promotions and a 12th place finish in the top flight was magnificent. Which is why he is now Villa manager.
You do have to ask why he chose to leave City for Villa. Are they more attractive? They can conjure up more fans if they’re doing well, but judging by their fin al day appearance at Carrow Road, they can also produce thousands of dissenting voices when things go bad. History counts for nothing: a European Cup more than 30 years ago is irrelevant today. The stature of a club is, and Villa have that stature, although how you quantify it I have never worked out. Have Villa got a shedload of money to spend? Don’t think so - although Lambert has never really needed that much.
Have they got a massive fan base? Well, yes – they share Birmingham’s population of just over a million but last season’s average of 33,873 in a ground which holds 42,551 as a percentage was the third worst in the top flight. City were top. In 2011 it was 37,193, in 2010 it was 38,573 and in 2009 it was 39,811. Seems to me they’ve been losing fans year on year.
If Lambert can repeat his achievements they will come flooding back. It is a huge ask, but to be fair to him, he has answered just about every question asked of him to date.
And what of Hughton?
The only time I have seen him close up and personal was when he brought Newcastle to Carrow Road for a pre-season friendly two years ago. Newcastle, under his guidance, had just mullered everyone in sight to win the Championship. He was charming, polite and respectful.
He lost his job because Newcastle wanted a bigger name. It was pretty shameful and condemned all round, but Hughton retained his dignity and returned to the game a year ago with Birmingham, taking them into the group stages of the Europa League, the fifth round of the FA Cup (oh for a Cup run) and the play-off semi-finals.
There’s a comparison there - like Lambert, he has achieved results pretty quickly. At 53 years old he has more experience than Lambert at the sharper end of the pyramid - assistant at Spurs and Newcastle, manager at Newcastle and Birmingham. No disasters either.
He knows this end of things, whereas Lambert has more to learn. Was last season a flash in the pan for the Scot? Was he still riding that massive wave of momentum from League One and the Championship? And what if Lambert had stayed at Norwich: would second-season syndrome have taken him as well as the team?
Will a change of manager actually be a good thing? It may bring upheaval, but it may also fend off the view that City would be found out under Lambert second time around.
What if, eh? Easy to ask, tough to answer. But the truth is that while many mourned the departure of Paul Lambert, before some decided to take it personally, there was never ever any guarantee that year four would be as good as the previous three. Continuing the success would have been a massive ask and perhaps, with yellow and green tinted glasses on, it is better for City fans to wave goodbye to him now. To thank him now for the good times. And for him to leave on a high. It doesn’t happen very often. Usually it’s the fans who have the pointy elbows with which to shove aside a failing manager. This time it was Lambert’s call.
Lambert will always be a part of City’s history, but today’s man is Chris Hughton. A man who won’t be overawed at all by the task ahead of him. The fact that he has experience of the top flight, as a player, an assistant manager and as a manager, helps us all.
Optimism, sometimes misguided, has flown from my fingers every time I have written of a new manager - Nigel Worthington, Peter Grant, Glenn Roeder, Bryan Gunn, Paul Lambert and now Chris Hughton. Worthy did a grand job, Grant was the wrong choice, Roeder the wrong man. Gunn wasn’t qualified to try and turn around a club that was limping so badly it was close to being put down. Lambert was, I thought, a bit of a gamble. How wrong could one be? It was inspired.
I have a good feeling about Hughton. David McNally pulled off a masterstroke three years ago. Let’s hope the magic works again.