There were many replies under the tweet announcing Paul Lambert’s arrival as Stoke City manager. Quite a few contained the cry-laughing emoji, more than one offered season tickets for sale at a knockdown price and a single definitive statement declared “that literally might be the worst managerial appointment I’ve ever seen”. There were other examples, but you get the general gist.
Social media being what it is, the Stoke hierarchy are unlikely to have to turned to Twitter expecting bouquets and acclaim. But Lambert’s appointment as successor to Mark Hughes has certainly not been met with universal praise. This is not least because the Scot was at best fourth in the club’s list of preferred candidates, Stoke having been previously unsuccessful in approaches to Gary Rowett, Martin O’Neill and Quique Sánchez Flores.
Also in the debit column for the Glaswegian is a win record of 26.6 percent as a Premier League manager, the discord his style of play created among supporters during the latter stages of his tenure at Aston Villa and, perhaps a degree less importantly, the perception that he is dour in his post-match press conferences. That he “greatly impressed” the Stoke board during the interview process, meanwhile, does not appear to have cut much ice.
January, it seems, is as difficult a time to recruit managers as it is players. But not everything about the Lambert appointment – with the 48-year-old signing a two-and-a-half year contract – rings alarm bells. The former Scotland, Celtic and Borussia Dortmund midfielder has never been relegated from the Premier League after all. That win percentage may be underwhelming but it was achieved over four seasons with clubs in straitened circumstances.
Lambert was last in the top flight with Villa, sacked halfway through his third season with the club in dire form. He had, however, suffered the misfortune to take the hotseat at a big club after the party had come to a stop. Randy Lerner’s largesse while Martin O’Neill was in charge had ended. The stars of that side – from Ashley Young to James Milner to Stewart Downing – had departed and replacements were drawn from the lower divisions and less celebrated foreign leagues. Lambert’s recruitment was undoubtedly patchy – for every Christian Benteke there was a Libor Kozak (or maybe two) – but risk is higher when transfer budgets are smaller.
What ended up as attritional hoofball at Villa did not begin that way. During Lambert’s first season in Birmingham the attacking trio of Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor often thrilled. Come January of his second term Villa had cracked the top 10, only to fall away to a final 15th.
That January of 2014 was a source of frustration for Lambert having failed to complete the signing of his former charge Wes Hoolahan from Norwich City. The Irishman had been a revelation during Lambert’s time at Carrow Road, the undoubted highpoint of his managerial career to date. Hoolahan, alongside long-time lower league journeyman Grant Holt, had been the stars as Norwich won back-to-back promotions to reach the top flight. They did so with a style of aggressive, buccaneering play very different from that later adopted at Villa. For a time Lambert was the coming man of management and while Villa fans may not remember him fondly, he remains a legend in certain parts of East Anglia.
Lambert has managed five other clubs and only one spell was a failure. He left his first job at Livingston after winning only two matches but then took Wycombe Wanderers to the semi-finals of the League Cup. He needed less than a year to make Colchester League One promotion candidates before he was then poached by Norwich. More recently he kept a distressed Blackburn Rovers in the Championship and steadied a rocky Wolves in the same division, knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup in the process. He departed Molineux in the summer after the club’s new owners opted to embrace fully the Jorge Mendes method.
In other words Lambert’s track record is not as bad as the response to his appointment at Stoke might suggest. He is also a manager with something to prove and someone used to having to get the best out of the resources at his disposal. Skepticism, even a spot of mockery, has been a common response to the appointment of experienced British managers in struggling Premier League jobs this season. David Moyes and Roy Hodgson got that treatment, yet their respective clubs are currently stationed in mid-table. It is not beyond possibility that Lambert might do the same for Stoke City.
The Guardian Sport