It is a great ‘what might have been’ to consider how Scotland possibly would have fared during their European Championship play-offs against England in November 1999 had Lambert been available to play. He wasn’t because the weekend prior to the Saturday first leg at Hampden on 13 November Lambert slid in to block Jorg Albertz at Ibrox and had the German’s knee crunch into his cheek as the Rangers player was toppled. The incident led to the Celtic midfielder both conceding a penalty and being carted off in a stretcher, dazed and a few teeth lighter.
Lambert is not much one for sentiment or recollecting ruefully. But he does allow himself to recall what Scotland manager Craig Brown said about his loss for the last visit to Glasgow’s southside by an English national team – which brought two goals breaking from midfield for Paul Scholes, pictured inset, that settled the play-off, despite Scotland winning the Wembley return 1-0 four days later.
“It wasn’t losing my teeth that was the problem – it was the concussion I suffered which ruled me out; otherwise, I’d have played. I don’t have any regrets in my career but that was a disappointment,” Lambert said.
“The doctors were right to stop me from playing – I was experiencing drowsiness and I knew the laws of the game. But I wouldn’t have liked anyone to think I missed two matches against England just because I’d had my teeth knocked out; I’m not that soft.
“I came to the game at Hampden and Craig Brown gave me one of my biggest compliments when he said that, if I’d played at Hampden, Paul Scholes wouldn’t have scored those two goals because I’d have spotted his runs. Then again, he might have got a hat-trick…
“My job was to stop those runs happening and, in the Rangers game, I made a challenge that I thought was the right thing to do. That was the only opportunity I had to play against England because I hadn’t done it at youth level but I never look back; these things happen for a reason.”
There is a reason those play-offs are as close as Scotland have come to competing in a major finals in nearly two decades. The calibre of player an under-pressure Gordon Strachan has to work with is nowhere near the level that Lambert had alongside him when France 98 brought the country’s last World Cup appearance.
“When I was playing with the national team there were a lot of guys at Celtic and Rangers who were playing in the Champions League, had big game experience and had won things at the highest level. I was playing in Europe, John Collins was in Europe as well, so it was easy for us to play in the national team.
“We had some relative success in going to the World Cup and holding our own, and even when we went away to places like Belarus and Latvia we would win, because we had a good core of lads there.
“The national game now is where it is at the moment, but to be fair we have one or two still playing in the Premier League and they are good players. Some lads are playing with Celtic as well, so they are used to big games.
“It’s difficult to compare different eras, but these guys are giving everything they’ve got, and that’s why I would never criticise anybody because we are where we are at the minute. They’ve got a manager who was a great player in his day, has been over the course and is a good manager. He knows the game inside out. I don’t think he’ll be one of those guys who will think he is under pressure, I think he’ll try everything he can to make the country win.”