Taking his first steps in management: Wanderer embarks on fresh journey

A Champions' League winner with Borussia Dortmund, Paul Lambert is putting his vast experience to use at the helm of Wycombe. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

Paul Lambert once shackled Zinedine Zidane and has the Champions' League winner's medal to prove it. Or at least he thinks he has. "It's in the house somewhere," says the Scot, who helped Borussia Dortmund overcome Juventus in the final nine years ago, "but I've no idea where."

Lambert, 37, has quite a collection, from the Scottish Cup winner's medal he earned as a teenager with St Mirren to the eight he amassed while captain of Celtic. He also won 40 caps for Scotland, yet the only memorabilia on display in the family home comprises two framed photos.

One shows him raising the European Cup, the other a duel with Zidane; reminders of a life-changing year that fired a belief that he could flourish in exalted company. The conviction was renewed by working under Martin O'Neill, in whose footsteps Lambert is following as manager of Wycombe Wanderers.

As O'Neill savours an unbeaten start on his return to the Premiership - "Aston Villa's gain is England's loss," maintains the man widely known as "Lambo" - Wycombe sit third in the League Two promotion zone. A run of six successive wins ended in defeat by Lincoln City on Saturday, but last week they won at Fulham in the Carling Cup and tonight Adams Park stages an early six-pointer against fourth-placed Swindon.

Before Wycombe began their club-record winning charge, many observers assumed that a job in the basement division would represent a sad anti-climax for one who experienced as a player the clamour and the glamour that will grip the continent from Madrid to Moscow this week. Lambert's work ethic, however, was forged by grafting his way up through the game.

"I was 17 when I won the Cup with St Mirren and I thought it was going to be like that all the time," he says. "Then you get into a rut and start blaming everyone but yourself. I wasn't producing and that was down to me."

A move to Motherwell offered a fresh stimulus and the Scotland manager Craig Brown spotted his disciplined marking and disinclination to relinquish possession. Yet it was the luck of the Uefa Cup draw which proved the making of Lambert.

Motherwell drew Dortmund and he remembers being staggered by the Westfalenstadion's steep stands and vast crowds. "When we were warming up I said to Billy Davies [then a midfield colleague, now manager of Derby]: 'Imagine playing in front of this every week'."

The fantasy would soon become fact. Dortmund needed to replace the injured Steffen Freund and invited Lambert for a trial. After his first training session, he recalls thinking, "You'll need to play out of your skin to get a game here."

At the same time he resolved to "learn the game as the Germans played it " and immersed himself in the culture of the Bundesliga. At Motherwell, staying in the top division had been the priority. Dortmund were expected to win trophies.

They were sufficiently impressed with Lambert to add him to a squad that included Andreas Moller, Matthias Sammer and Paulo Sousa. Then began the pursuit of club football's greatest prize. In the semi-finals they beat Manchester United, Eric Cantona et al, home and away to earn a meeting with Juventus and an even more accomplished Frenchman. "They were probably the side in Europe at the time, with Alen Boksic, Didier Deschamps and Alessandro Del Piero, as well as Zidane. I'd never realised how tall and broad and strong he was. My brief was to stick close to him and it worked out well."

With hindsight, Lambert says that triumph in Munich seems a "nonsense story". The fairy tale had a sad ending when pneumonia and febrile convulsions afflicted his young son, persuading him and his wife to return to their families in Scotland, where Celtic snapped him up. " I came back a different player," he says. "I realised that I'd never played proper football until I went to Germany."

O'Neill's arrival in Glasgow opened another exciting chapter, taking in the Uefa Cup final defeat by Porto in 2003, though Lambert stresses that it was the way the Northern Irishman dovetailed with his No 2, John Robertson, and coach, Steve Walford, that made him "sensational" to work for.

"Robbo and Wally did the day-to-day stuff, brilliantly, while Martin kept a low profile. So when he did appear on the touchline at training, a desire to perform for him - almost a fear - swept through everyone. We all went up a gear.

"Not being there shouting all the time also meant that, when he did speak, it carried greater authority. When I got the Wycombe job he gave me two pieces of advice. One was 'just win games'. The other was to be aware your players hear enough of you on Saturdays."

Lambert did, of course, have another manager during his latter spell in Scotland. Four years after appearing in the World Cup finals - "If you're not going to win it," he says of France 98, "what better than to play Brazil in Paris in the opening game?" - he was lured out of international retirement and made captain by Berti Vogts.

At half-time in their first competitive outing, they trailed the Faroe Islands 2-0. Lambert felt compelled to rally the side personally. "I had this vision of going back to Scotland with my face on a donkey on the back page of The Sun. I scored and we got back to 2-2, but Berti took massive criticism. It was always tough for him after that."

Becoming a manager himself last year, Lambert claims he had neither the resources nor the staff to succeed at Livingston. Was he worried he might not get another opportunity? "If I'd thought the boys hadn't tried for me, I'd have walked away and found another career. But I felt I had them on my side. The fact that they were upset when I got sacked confirmed it for me. "

He filled in the jobless days by taking up invitations to observe training at Manchester United and Fulham, which, while fascinating, did not satisfy his craving. "People told me I'd enjoy a break from the game. But after about three seconds it was doing my head in. I wanted to get back in."

The chance came at Wycombe. O'Neill told him he would find a "terrific club and great people", and, though Lambert would like a bigger squad, he has made an instant impact. Jermaine Easter already has nine goals in partnership with the veteran Tommy Mooney after scoring two in 17 games last season. "The lads have been terrific, so you can't be too hard on them," Lambert said, reflecting on the loss to Lincoln which cost Wycombe the leadership. "We've got to take our medicine and go again against Swindon."

Helping him do that, à la Robertson and Walford, are three O'Neill stalwarts, Steve Brown, Keith "Rhino" Ryan and Terry Evans. " I'd have been a fool if I thought I could breeze in, not knowing about the division or the club. Their knowledge lets me take a step back, like Martin, to study the bigger picture.

"I've been able to lean on them," says Lambert, laughing as he demonstrates how quickly he is learning. "All the good ideas are mine. All the mistakes are theirs."