LONG READ | Paul Lambert: Unappreciated in His Time?

Tuesday night’s trip to Portman Road will see the former Chairboys boss in the opposite dugout, in charge of his seventh team since leaving Adams Park. Over a decade on from his departure, is it time to let go of any lingering beef? Phil Slatter (@phil_slatter) takes a look back.

It is August 2009. Wycombe Wanderers have picked up just one point from their opening three games, but defeats against Charlton Athletic and Leeds United are hardly a concern for manager Peter Taylor. Yet the next opponent is a wounded giant. Norwich City, recently relegated from the Championship, were humiliated 7-1 at home against Paul Lambert’s Colchester United on the opening day. Manager Bryan Gunn has been sacked and it is Lambert who has been brought in to get the Canaries’ season back on track, a task that will begin against the club which he managed between August 2006 and May 2008. As he is announced to the crowd, members of the 755 travelling faithful boo. A chorus of “Stand up, if you hate Lambert!” briefly reverberates around. The Scot has the last laugh, overseeing a 5-2 win against Taylor’s ineffective side before leading Norwich not just back into the Championship but the Premier League as well.

Present day. Wycombe are now riding high in League One and come up against their former gaffer, now in charge of Ipswich Town after his managerial career has taken him to Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Wolves and Stoke before ending up in charge at Portman Road.

Lambert is less likely to receive such a hostile reception from the Chairboys faithful this time around, although it’s equally unlikely that his name will be sung from the away stand. Time has healed most ill-feelings between Wycombe fans and Lambert, but what’s perhaps odd is that there were any to begin with.

In each of his two seasons in charge at Adams Park, Lambert came up short in a semi-final. The 2006-07 run to the last four of The League Cup was historical, record-breaking and memorable, while the final chapter – a 4-0 defeat to José Mourinho’s champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – was perfectly forgivable. The following year it was Stockport County in the play-offs that put paid to a trip to Wembley – and with it a shot at promotion against Rochdale – that proved to be the final curtain. Lambert quit the club three days later and nobody really minded.

He was initially appointed after John Gorman departed the club following the sad passing of his wife Myra. Gorman was a hugely popular figure and one of the nicest men you could meet, not just in football but in life. His brand of football was breathtaking and frustrating in equal measure. Goals rained in at both ends: a 2-0 deficit was nothing, a 3-0 lead was nervy. Off-field tragedies had a big effect on a team that seemed to be promotion-bound, while doubts did arise as to whether Gorman was a manager or a coach with his lack of emphasis on defending often costing the team dear.

Lambert came in with a more practical approach. The 2006-07 season started with seven wins and a draw from nine games, lifting the side to the top of the table with only four goals conceded in that time. It was a style that the fans welcomed at first, and on a warm September evening in London, the League Two leaders knocked Fulham out of the League Cup in their own back yard to make it into Round Three for the first team ever. Wycombe led 2-0 at half-time and a resolute defensive display culminated in a 2-1 win. Contrast this with Gorman’s Wycombe who, exactly one year earlier, led Aston Villa 3-1 at half-time at the same stage of the same competition. Wycombe continued to attack in the second half and shipped seven goals to lose 8-3. Lambert seemed to have the balance that Gorman often lacked.

The league form continued to be solid and the League Cup continued to inspire – a memorable win against Charlton Athletic in the quarter-finals six days before Christmas remains an all-time highlight for fans who were there. Yet after the semi-final defeat to Chelsea, things started to go south. Wycombe would win just three of the remaining 17 league games and none of the last 11. The football was narrow and uninspiring. Loan signings came and went at a remarkable rate. Over six consecutive hours of football was played without a Wanderers goal to cheer. Winning effectively was all well and good, but losing miserably was something the fans weren’t exactly enamoured with. A low point came at home against struggling and depleted Boston United side who could only name three substitutes. Wycombe were terrible in a dire 0-0 draw and Lambert was then involved in a bizarre post-match interview with a Bucks Free Press reporter which was riddled with anger, frustration, contradictions and some bizarre answers.

Rumours started circulating that Lambert wasn’t that much of a hands-on manager. In fact, it came out that he still lived in Scotland and travelled to games and the occasional training session, with Steve Brown and Terry Evans often taking charge. Lambert’s attitude was that a manager should be somewhat aloof from the players and that there had to be a distance. He was absolutely right. We all saw how Gareth Ainsworth worked hard to become ‘Gaffer’ after his move from player to player-manager to manager, while Gorman’s personable nature and joviality with the players was arguably at times a weakness. Yet Lambert’s seeming lack of commitment sat uneasily with the fan base and there certainly appeared to be a lack of control behind the team’s shambolic performances as the season died out, culminating in what was then Wycombe’s lowest Football League finish.

Steve Hayes stuck by Lambert, though, and Brown and Keith Ryan departed in the summer with Evans following soon after. It was time for Wycombe to deliver on the ultimate goal of promotion back to League One. The budget was a good one, aided by the rent from tenants London Wasps and the aforementioned cup run.

The 2007-08 season hardly started with much gusto, yielding just one win from the opening four games. Results slowly started picking up in September even if the performances weren’t that inspiring. Wins were low-scoring and there was a distinctive lack of a plan B. Lambert had not won a single game after going behind as boss, even against MK Dons after the visitors had to play most of the second-half with nine men. November was barren; having been knocked out of the FA Cup by Swindon and with only three goals scored in five games in all competitions, the writing looked on the wall as December commenced. A two-goal lead was squandered at home to fellow promotion-chasers Hereford United before Stockport County hit Wycombe for six on a rain-sodden day at Edgeley Park. Tenth in the table, no cup games to distract and a horrible run of form. Yet Lambert ended the year with a manager of the month nomination – four wins in a row followed the loss at County, including winning from behind against Macclesfield and a memorable 3-1 win at Brentford on Boxing Day.

A corner had been turned and the latter half of the season saw a return to the more effective brand of football. The occasional single-goal defeat could be forgiven amongst recurring victories as the automatic promotion places were chased down. It was always going to be tough with big-spending MK Dons and Peterborough leading the pack, and the top three eluded Lambert’s side, yet hope was strong going in to the play-offs. The 2-1 aggregate defeat was a slender margin and the tie could so easily have gone the other way, but as Wycombe pressed for an equaliser at Edgeley Park, four strikers were thrown on the pitch to little avail.

Despite having decent financial resources and despite two years in charge, Lambert ultimately failed to deliver that with which he was tasked: promotion to League One. That, alongside his frosty relationship with the fans at times, his somewhat narrow and negative football, the lack of a plan B and his apparent part-time approach to the role contributed to his cool reception at Carrow Road a little over a year after his departure.

His replacement, Peter Taylor, employed a similar brand of defensive-minded football, but he was an individual to whom the fans warmed a lot more. An 18-game unbeaten run at the start of the 2008-09 season helped, as did his more personable nature, and he did take Wycombe back up to the third tier. His somewhat harsh and slightly premature sacking was met with a touch of disappointment, but after Gary Waddock implemented a more entertaining style and a more memorable promotion in 2011, Taylor’s time in charge is not looked back upon with too many fond memories.

In his time, he was appreciated whereas Lambert was not, at least after the first six months. Should we with hindsight be more appreciative of what the latter did achieve? He went on to prove himself as a decent manager – and continues to do so. His achievements at Norwich were remarkable and Ipswich are looking good for an immediate return to the Championship, whilst the two men that followed him in the Wycombe hot seat are not currently in the management game.

How would we have fared had that fabled promotion been achieved? We’ll never know, but it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to say that under Lambert’s guidance, we’d have fared better than either of Waddock’s two spells in charge in this league, even if the football wouldn’t have been as aesthetically pleasing. There was a report of an unflattering chant about Lambert at the recent league game at Tranmere and such songs may re-surface should Wycombe and Ipswich maintain their current form and go toe to toe for the League One title.

Some will boo him just because, but in truth, Lambert is one of Wycombe’s better managers since O’Neill. And those nights against Fulham, Charlton and the first leg against Chelsea will live long in the memories of all who were privileged to witness them even if the negative football, questionable management style and failure to get promotion may just be too much for some to appreciate how good he was – and potentially could have been.

Photo: Ben Sutherland via Flickr. Cropped to fit. Used under license.
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