Two years that have transformed our football club
It came and went without much fanfare. Thursday, August 18 was the second anniversary of Paul Lambert's arrival as manager of Norwich City Football Club.
There was no bunting hanging from the gates at Carrow Road, no party (as far as we are aware), nothing.
No need, perhaps – he's had his parties. The ones that celebrated Norwich City's return to the Championship was a biggie, but nothing compared to the one that marked the return to the Premier League. In between were the minor events, in comparison – wins over Ipswich last season that took the breath away – it certainly winded our Suffolk neighbours – the 5-0 win at Colchester, the awesome display at Leicester last March, the home win over Derby the following month which made you suddenly realise that the Premier League wasn't as far away as we might have thought.
It seems like it's been that way since Lambert arrived...
Lambert first stepped on to the Carrow Road pitch on that momentous day on August 8, 2009, when he engineered a scoreline that no one will ever forget. Norwich City 1, Colchester United 7. It was a game that spelled the beginning of the end for Bryan Gunn as manager. City were humiliated in front of their own fans, two of whom ran on to the pitch, headed for the home technical area and tried to throw their season tickets at the beleagured City manager. They were prevented in doing so because they couldn't get past the Colchester coaching team – Lambert, Ian Culverhouse and Co.
They say hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if only they knew what was coming. They weren't alone: not many would have forecast the events of the following 10 days.
Gunn took City to Yeovil for a Carling Cup tie the following week, which City won 4-0, and was sacked two days later. T wo games, one massive home defeat, one good away win, and he was gone. Assistant Ian Butterworth was in charge for the Saturday game at Exeter, which ended in a 1-1 draw, but for those looking for tell-tale signs it was all too clear: the warm-up was a joke, the warm-down even less funny. City lacked discipline.
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Three days later, the local media tramped down to Carrow Road for a press conference. The search for a manager was over. Who would be the new man?
Aidy Boothroyd, Gordon Strachan, Lawrie Sanchez all had some sort of link with the club or chief executive David McNally, as did Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, whose name interrupted an otherwise uneventful train journey to Exeter. The media love a bit of speculation, but we hardly had time to draw up a decent list. On August 18, 2009, Lambert walked into the press room and answered the question.
McNally knew of him from Celtic, where Lambert was a player, McNally the sales and marketing director – both working alongside manager Martin O'Neill.
But this was no old boys' act. There was no reunion of past heroes, brought in to transform the fortunes of a club they declared their ever-lasting love for. Former City full-back Ian Culverhouse was part of the team that followed him from Colchester, having met up with him at Wycombe Wanderers. Culverhouse's City links were pure coincidence. This was business, pure and simple.
A few hours after his unveiling, Lambert sat in the stands at Griffin Park, watching City lose to Brentford. Maybe it wasn't difficult to see what was wrong. The hard part was how to end it.
Perhaps one story epitomises the Lambert school of thought. While he was watching his new players on the Colney training fields, one lad caught his eye. Young Korey Smith was giving it everything he had. Lambert was impressed enough to put him in his team for his first game, at home to Wycombe. Smith became a feature, because he was the embodiment of what Lambert demanded: hungry players who run through brick walls.
The sands began to shift; there were the inevitable departures and arrivals. Some Lambert knew first hand – Russell Martin was with him at Wycombe, David Fox and, much later, Marc Tierney, from Colchester. Out went the hopeless cases – Jon Otsemobor, Goran Maric, Michael Theoklitos.
And every time Lambert has signed a player he has used the same words: they have to be able to play the game, but they have to want to play the game. Hunger and desire. That's what it's all about. Which is why someone like Martin, or the excellent Andrew Crofts, have proved to be excellent signings. One former manager once said that signing players was the hardest part of his job. Lambert has made it into an art form. Few have failed, and those that do have perhaps been victims of City's success, which is why they were brought in in the first place. Oli Johnson hasn't got a squad number, but he was bought for League One and the Championship. Ditto Anthony McNamee.
Some had to fight to convince the manager – Wes Hoolahan looked to be on the sidelines, but fought his way back to be a major player. Gary Doherty was in the same position, but was allowed to leave; Darel Russell was replaced before he could change his mind about a new contact offer. There is room for opportunity, but little room for sentiment or waste. It's been business.
And what have the business results achieved? Successive promotions and some awesome memories.
The football club is a different animal nowadays, on and off the pitch. The financial ship has been steadied, while Lambert has ensured the team is successful. Fans no longer think of little old Norwich: two years of almost constant success, of a permanent upward curve, has left the yellow and green army with a confident optimism. No longer do City and the fans go into the Premier League hoping to enjoy the scenery; they go in with genuine confidence that they will be there next season as well.
Why? Because that's what we have become used to. That it will be hard isn't a case for argument. We're not stupid. We know that. But the talk isn't about if City go down, it's about if they stay up. There's a subtle bottle-half-full difference.
We are not prepared for the worst, we are prepared for the best of what the Premier League can throw. Because not since Lambert and Co walked in to the place has a Norwich City team been humiliated. There hasn't been a Fulham away, a Charlton away, a Colchester at home.
No one will run on to the pitch tomorrow afternoon and try and throw their season ticket at the manager. That's not how it happens nowadays.