Following Norwich City as I have for over forty years has not been without its ups and downs. The highest point perhaps was the away win against Bayern Munich in October 1993 or maybe finishing third earlier that year in the inaugural Premier League season. The low point has to be the 7-1 home defeat by Colchester in August 2009 as the club made the worst imaginable start to its first campaign in domestic football’s third tier since 1960.
As the season draws to its close with their Premier League status secure for next year and without cataloguing details of the miraculous turnaround engineered by Paul Lambert and his staff one wonders if, quite simply, in the 21st century English football world this is as good as it gets as far as Norwich City are concerned.
It is unlikely that the club can ever entertain hopes of repeating their achievements of 1993. Similarly other clubs whose history might even include First Division titles (Portsmouth, Burnley, Ipswich, Derby) but which can never aspire to the financial clout of the ‘big boys’ must realistically come to terms with limited ambition. It is in no way a negative criticism of the club I love to ask just how far is it possible to go?
That is not to say, of course, that there cannot be occasional victories over the game’s giants, as Norwich so admirably showed with their Easter Monday win at White Hart Lane. But with finance so dominant in the game it is difficult to imagine that a Swansea or a Norwich City could mount a realistic challenge for the title.
Paul Lambert has proved that he can take players from lower levels and make them better. He can inspire and motivate them to punch above their weight, to draw on every iota of their capability to produce their best. He and his staff have put together a squad of honest, industrious and skilful characters, raised their fitness levels and instilled in them a magnificent team spirit. Thanks to Lambert’s tactical nous (and that of his assistants) Norwich City can today count themselves amongst the top fifteen football teams in the country. Thirty, or perhaps even twenty, years ago it would have been possible, if unlikely, that he could have pushed for the top prize with his current employers.
In all that he has achieved at Norwich Lambert has proved that he has what it takes to have a crack at managing at the top. However, whereas the young Bill Shankly could in 1959 secure the manager’s position at Liverpool, albeit at a lowish point in the club’s history, and the still quite inexperienced Brian Clough went to Derby in 1967 and within five years took them from Division Two to the League Championship it appears that such aspirations are no longer realistic. Indeed one has to question whether the great managers of yesteryear would have been able to achieve such magnificent success had they been around today when not only are there just five or six clubs financially capable of the top prize but also those after the manager’s position in those clubs come not only from Britain but across the globe.
So what next for Lambert and his assistants, Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa? What more can they achieve before ambition causes them to look elsewhere? Sadly establishing East Anglia’s finest as a Premier League fixture with crowds above the 30,000 mark (allowing for a bit of stadium expansion) really will mean a ceiling has been reached. It’s possible, of course, that there could be a Europa League adventure somewhere along the way but the fact remains that if Lambert is to prove himself one of the very best of British managers he will have to leave Norwich, either for a bigger domestic concern or perhaps a continental outfit. Only by handling a big budget and dealing with the world’s greatest players in a Champions’ League environment will he be able to write his name alongside those of Shankly, Clough, Busby and the like.
I am sure that all Canaries’ fans will feel like I do that when the time comes, as it inevitably will, that Lambert moves on, we will forever be grateful to him for his remarkable work here. He has rebuilt our team, rekindled our enthusiasm and restored our pride. I am sure we all hope that it will be some time yet before that happens and perhaps our biggest fear is that we will lose him not to one of the game’s giants but to a club outside the top echelon but perceived to be bigger than Norwich City; I could understand him going to Liverpool or Manchester United but would hate to see him at Aston Villa!
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