Take a look behind the pomp and Sky Sports-infused ceremony of Tim Sherwood’s recent appointment at Aston Villa and you’ll find a once-lauded young manager struggling to pick up the pieces of a crumbling career.
Appointed as manager of the Villains in 2012, Paul Lambert arrived at Villa Park riding high on the back of three extremely successful spells at Wycombe Wanderers, Colchester and Norwich City, respectively. With Wycombe, he managed the impressive feat of leading a fourth tier club to a League Cup Semi Final, eventually losing out to Chelsea.
Similar success followed at Colchester, in what turned out to be a brief stint at the club. He produced a team playing entertaining and exciting football. It was at Colchester that Lambert’s stock really started to rise and where he would go on to bow out in the most emphatic of style, defeating Norwich City 7-1. Somewhat ironically, he would go on to replace Brian Gunn as manager of the Canaries immediately following that victory. His success continued, gaining two successive promotions for Norwich in the following seasons, reaching the Premier League in the summer of 2011.
So, with success like that, how can a manager with the apparent potential of Paul Lambert have come to be in the position he’s in now? He, himself, is no stranger to what world-class management looks like, having played under some of football’s most notable gaffers. Ottmar Hitzfeld, Nevio Scala, Kenny Dalglish and Martin O’Neill, to name but a few.
Key to the issue, possibly, is the fact that in each of his previous successful posts, Lambert left ‘at the top’. He left Wycombe following a Playoff defeat, Colchester following a mammoth league victory, and Norwich safe and secure in the bosom of the Premier League. Before his appointment at Villa, Lambert had none of the stigma attached to most managers. No relegation. No prolonged and painful drop in form. No major fallouts with players, chairmen or fans.
But that all changed at Villa. Aside from a few notable victories, including a 4-0 defeat of Arsenal at the Emirates, Lambert did nothing really exciting during his tenure in the Midlands. His teams became known for their negative and stifling style of play, far removed from the teams he oversaw in more prosperous times as a manager. Perhaps most damning of all, the former Champions League winner came within mere minutes of earning Villa the unwelcome record of being the club to go longest without scoring a goal in Premier League history.
The reason for this turn in style of play and in fortunes is hard to understand. Player quality? A lack of funding from an increasingly miserly owner in Randy Lerner? Or, perhaps, Lambert simply stayed in the same place too long. He was at Villa for six months longer than any of his previous three posts.
What’s certain is that the manner of the sacking has done Lambert’s reputation considerable damage. Appointed a young, up and coming manager indulging in an exciting brand of football, he left with a reputation, in some quarters, as being a manager unable to set up a team to score goals. There are a number of additional events during his tenure that will, no doubt, have given the Lambert PR team a headache, not least the appointment of a high profile and controversial figure in Roy Keane as assistant manager. A strong and opinionated character in the sphere of the Premier League, Keane’s profile somewhat overshadowed that of Lambert’s – something that should never happen between an assistant and the main man. There’s no doubt, either, that some were led to further question Lambert’s ability to manage Keane himself, with the former Republic of Ireland and Manchester United star seemingly being more interested in promoting his second autobiography than contributing to team affairs during his time at Villa.
Lambert, however, is not alone in suffering a sacking that left his reputation in tatters. While there are numerous managers who seem to ride the merry-go-round of sackings and appointments without much damage to their character (step forward, Bruce and Hughes), there are cases where some have been forced to piece together what’s left of their careers after unceremonious dismissals. We don’t need to look too far back to see it. David Moyes, the ‘Chosen One’ who replaced compatriot Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Manchester United, suffered the indignity of sacking-by-media after leading the Red Devils most of the way to their worst finish of the Premier League era. Steve McLaren, another exciting prospect who landed a high profile post, was sacked as manager of England after his most notable contributions during his two year tenure were to effectively end David Beckham’s international career and then fail to qualify for Euro 2008. Such failings led the media to dub him ‘the wally with the brolly’, in reference to his frequent use of an umbrella to shield himself from the rain during England matches.
So, it seems that, as in the cases of Moyes and McLaren, Lambert may have a long way to go to repair some of the damage inflicted. But how? He could follow in the footsteps of these two particular managers and look to go abroad to rebuild his reputation. While Moyes is currently in the process of attempting this, after recently taking the helm at La Liga outfit Real Sociedad, the move proved a fruitful one for McLaren as he led FC Twente to the first Eredivisie title in their history in 2010. Alex McLeish, once touted as the next big thing in British management after a successful spell at Glasgow Rangers, is also following this format. After poor showings as manager of Villa and Nottingham Forest, he left these shores to regroup and rebuild and is currently managing Genk in the Belgian Pro League.
This does seem a viable option for Lambert. He has experience in Europe as a player, being a vital part of the Champions League winning Borussia Dortmund side of 1997. He even completed a significant portion of his coaching badges in Germany. Perhaps, though, he could look to his successor for a key lesson in how to remain wanted in the managerial game. Tim Sherwood, an apparent expert at delivering soundbites to the media and quotes that write their own headlines, has proved himself to be quite the spin doctor when dealing with journalists. Indeed, he managed to turn an unremarkable six month stint in charge of Tottenham Hotspur into the basis for which he (allegedly) turned down a number of jobs at Premier League clubs before his appointment to replace Lambert.
There’s no doubt that Paul Lambert’s managerial ability has shown better promise that it does currently. Whatever his next move is, his reputation in the European game, be it as a player or a manager, remains of high enough stock that opportunities will definitely come his way. Maybe he just needs Tim to re-write his CV for him.