Intervew: Canary Paul Lambert wonders if it’s Neil Lennon’s time to fly south
TWO old Celtic team-mates found themselves at Hampden this week: Paul Lambert there for a coaching seminar, Neil Lennon for a disciplinary hearing. Once the midfield engine of Martin O’Neill’s lauded Parkhead side, the two managers are now very different travellers in the game.
Lambert is burnishing his reputation in establishing Norwich City in the English Premier League unfussily, while Lennon is burned by a climate in which he has faced bombs, bullets and intimidation on an unprecedented scale, and possesses a burning rage that makes barneys with officialdom seemingly periodic.
The phlegmatic Lambert has no interest in managing in Scotland and living the life his friend must as Celtic manager. Equally, though, it is difficult right now to see Lennon in charge of a provincial English club, even one excelling in the English top flight. Lambert believes that will change, however. The English top flight is where it is at, the 42-year-old says, and in future it will be where Lennon wants to be.
Yet, the Irishman’s Celtic job, which he tweeted was the “best in the world” only a month ago, seems like a vocation, a destiny. For all the crap it brings, it certainly isn’t one he feels the need to leave at his door. A matter of hours after marching on to the Hampden pitch to demand answers from referee Euan Norris in the wake of his team’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat last Sunday, Lennon was having his say on the events on Twitter. He somehow feeds off the public scrutiny engendered by a position that can also satisfy a thirst for tangible success and status. His title triumph allowed him to join an exclusive nine-man club of Celtic league-winning managers. None of those from the past 30-odd years elected to stay in post more than five years. Lambert believes, with the Scottish game increasingly a diminished domain when set against its monied neighbour, Lennon’s tenure will take the same form.
“How long has he been at Celtic, a couple of years? He has won the league. I have never spoken to him about it, I ask him how he is and all that, but I think it is something he would probably look at and think ‘yes, I want to try that’. If he can manage Celtic he can manage anywhere,” the Norwich manager says. “I think [English Premier League chairman will take note of him] because managing Celtic must be an incredible stress level. It was an incredible stress level when you played. And I think he has managed it the best way he could. The stuff that has gone on off the field, that’s not football. What he has done, what he has achieved, the turnaround has been incredible. Forget the ten points [Rangers were deducted for going in to administration], that doesn’t matter.”
It will matter to Lennon eventually, Lambert is sure, that the Scottish Premier League doesn’t have enough to continually challenge him. Yet the reinvention of the former Scotland captain as one of the brightest managerial prospects in England happened not through choice but necessity. It can seem difficult to square the Lambert who has safely ensconced the East Anglia club in the English top flight – following back-to-back promotions – with the first-time manager who quit Livingston in 2006 only nine months after being appointed. Yet, he sees what happened then as setting him on the path that allowed him to relaunch his coaching career at League Two Wycombe Wanderers, before his work one tier up with Colchester United earned him the Norwich job in 2009.
“When I finished with Livingston I thought that was me finished with Scotland,” he says. “But it was a great experience. The players gave me everything, I never once thought they threw in the towel on the pitch. They kept going for us. But we just couldn’t win games. I left because I thought the club might still be able to stay in the SPL, but they didn’t. It never knocked my self-belief but I just felt it would never happen for me in Scotland. I just thought then that no-one in Scotland would hire me. I wasn’t naive enough to think another team would ask me to join them after what had happened at Livingston. So, I had to look elsewhere. I’ve since said I’ll never come back to work in Scotland and I’m still of that opinion. Once you’ve worked in England it’s just a brilliant place to be. I don’t think Scotland can compete with it. You look at the level of clubs in League One and you see Charlton, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday – all huge football clubs. The Championship is also an incredible league. Tough to get out of. You then go a league above that and it’s incredible.”
Norwich have done incredibly well with a squad of players who had no Premier League experience because of the sounding board he has in assistant Ian Culverhouse – a man at his side since Wycombe – he offers modestly. Lambert doesn’t think his team are safe but equally has no worries about the possibility of a difficult second season when that is confirmed. He will continue to seek out “hungry” players on a relatively miniscule budget for the set up and hope for the sort of night he enjoyed at White Hart Lane the other week – the 2-1 win his highpoint of the season – and accept there might be the odd afternoon such as the one his team suffered in losing 6-1 at home to Manchester City last weekend.
“It is demanding, because the media attention is severe, and the games are severe and the tempo of the games. The biggest thing in that league is you have to be right on it with everything you do. That is why I am glad Ian Culverhouse is there. We bounce off each other well and prepare very well. You have to rely on your backroom staff. It is great when you win – it is a massive relief – because when you get beaten by Manchester City you try to analyse it. If you try to dissect the Manchester City defeat it would kill you, because they can do that to you. For 70 odd minutes in that game we were very good, but they showed they could win 6-1 at Old Trafford and those two lads up front, Aguero and Tevez, were on fire. Then you have Silva and Nasri behind them, and bringing Yaya Toure off the bench. That is the league we have earned the right to be in, but it is great.”
The Scottish league he left behind, meanwhile, will continue to decline because of the mushrooming financial disparities with other nations. He doesn’t hold out much hope of Lennon being sustained at Celtic by making an impression in Europe, as elevated the Glasgow club in Lambert’s eight years there from 1997, which followed his Champions League winning spell with Borussia Dortmund. A situation that will become all the more bleak if Rangers, as they currently exist, are obliterated
“I think Scottish football needs them. Jesus. A club that size going the way it is then there must be something wrong. If Rangers go bust I don’t know what would happen. I think you need the rivalry between the two of them. Everybody loves playing in Old Firm matches but it is a hard one to talk about because if they go bust you are never quite sure what happens from there.” Lambert will be relived it is not something with which he, unlike Lennon, will ever have to concern himself.
n Paul Lambert was speaking at the Scottish FA’s Continuous Professional Development seminar at Hampden Park. CPD is a mandatory requirement of 15 hours’ additional coach education for all UEFA licence holders.
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