For those engulfed up in a Premier League bubble, the last memory of Paul Lambert is one of Aston Villa hoofball, thousand-yard stares, furrowed brows and the dourest press conferences in English football history.
But the Scotsman has changed a little since then, enough to make him worth a second chance. Stoke City, who appointed him on Monday, are getting a fresh Paul Lambert, one whose glasses are gone, whose face has remembered how to smile and whose latest trick is steering clubs away from relegation.
Following his sacking by Aston Villa in February of 2015, the former Scotland captain spent some time in Europe, mostly Germany, watching top-level clubs. From Bayern Munich to Bayer Leverkusen to former club Borussia Dortmund, he watched training sessions, talked football with interesting people and took in a different style of the game.
Then, after a nine-month break, he received a phone call from Blackburn Rovers, with the club in 16th place in the Championship and anxiously looking over their shoulder. By April, Lambert had steadied the ship enough to have secured survival, with the team ultimately finishing 15th. At that point, he decided to step down and to walk away from the club, citing differences with the owners, before embarking on a similar Championship survival job in November of 2016, taking over 19th-placed Wolves and once again earning a 15th-placed finish. In addition, his side reached the fifth round – knocking Liverpool out en route – of the FA Cup, a tournament Lambert had previously dismissed as unimportant.
The Portuguese revolution at Molineux saw the coach and the club part ways at the end of the 2016/17 season, but Lambert had bolstered his tattered reputation once again, becoming known as something of a relegation Mr Wolf. While he may never match former Stoke boss Tony Pulis’ status as a survival expert, Lambert has never been relegated in his managerial career, making his appointment at the Bet365 Stadium a logical one – even if the two-and-a-half-year contract might not make as much sense.
What Stoke – who now find themselves in the relegation zone – need is someone to come in and to pull them out of trouble between now and May and, with the Pulis card obviously off the table, Lambert makes a lot of sense, perhaps even more than Quique Sánchez Flores, Martin O’Neill or Gary Rowett would have. A few years ago this would not have been the case, as his early managerial experience was with teams on the up, with the likes of Wycombe, Colchester United and Norwich City pushing for promotions. Even when The Canaries were in the top division the threat of relegation wasn’t really felt, as they were comfortably in mid-table throughout the campaign.
Then came Aston Villa and it was clear that Lambert was unsure of how to scrap and scrape for points at the wrong end of the table, abandoning his forward-thinking footballing philosophy to try out his get-it-up-to-the-big-man plan B. It didn’t work and, in his third season in Birmingham, the club decided enough was enough.
But what Lambert has done since proves that he does now know how to win a relegation battle. Of course, the Premier League is a different battlefield from the Championship, but Lambert can combine his top-flight know-how with his experience in saving Blackburn and Wolves.
He is certainly not the sexiest managerial appointment Stoke City fans could have hoped for, and the football won’t be thrilling, but 2018 Paul Lambert is not 2015 Paul Lambert. The glasses-less Paul Lambert is a man worth backing.