Canaries' motivator in hot pursuit of mentor O'Neill

Paul Lambert takes high-flying Norwich to Sunderland for a fascinating reunion. By Simon Hart

It was summer 2006 and Ivor Beeks was considering the credentials of a youthful candidate for the position of Wycombe Wanderers manager when he decided to call an old friend. The feedback was positive and, with that box ticked, Paul Lambert followed in the footsteps of Martin O'Neill, the Wycombe chairman's sounding board, by taking the reins at Adams Park.

Lambert was then 36, just a year younger than O'Neill had been when Beeks appointed the Northern Irishman as Wycombe manager in 1990. Such has been his progress since, he was 12 months ahead of O'Neill – 42 to the latter's 43 – when managing his first Premier League match in August and tonight will face his former Celtic boss for the first time in an opposition dugout as his buoyant Norwich City side visit Sunderland.

Beeks, for one, is not surprised by Lambert's success in steering Norwich from League One into the top half of the Premier League and sees certain similarities with O'Neill, under whom the Scot won seven trophies at Celtic.

Lambert's two years at Adams Park – featuring runs to the Carling Cup and League Two play-off semi-finals – offered evidence of the O'Neill-style motivational powers which are bringing the best out of an unsung Norwich squad. "You don't get that sort of spirit by just walking into a dressing room and dishing out tactics. Individual players need individual attention," added Beeks.

Buckinghamshire offered a first glimpse of Lambert's managerial qualities at work, following a short-lived stint as Livingston's player-manager, but it was in the Bundesliga, a decade earlier, that he was already "thinking, acting, behaving like a manager" according to Ottmar Hitzfeld, his coach at Borussia Dortmund. Hitzfeld signed Lambert from Motherwell in 1996 and the Glaswegian returned home in late 1997 with a European Cup winner's medal.

O'Neill, who looks forward to the match against Norwich, recalls discussing Lambert's ambitions during the twilight of his Celtic career. "He did ask if he could take his badges in Germany because he had a great affinity with Dortmund, so I said yes, absolutely go and do it." If that was good advice, so were the words he shared with Ivor Beeks at Wycombe six years ago. "I said I thought he might be worth a little look at, and he did very well indeed." Didn't he just.