Paul Lambert admits Aston Villa's season is on a knife edge
Friday 26 October 2012
Rather a lot has happened in the life of Paul Lambert since 13 May. That was the day of last season's Premier League finale, when the disgruntled Aston Villa supporters in the away end at Carrow Road began singing the Scot's name as they saw their team go down 2-0 to his Norwich City side.
Those Villa fans got their wish when Lambert replaced the unpopular Alex McLeish at the beginning of June but almost five months on the 43-year-old faces a reunion with his old club at Villa Park today that comes loaded with anxiety.
Few would have envisaged that Villa would be looking up at Norwich in the Premier League table, following their worst start since they were relegated in 1986-87. If that makes this a match that Villa really must win, the tension will not be limited to the field of play either after Lambert's admission yesterday that he would shake the hand of only "some of the people" he worked with during a highly successful period in Norfolk in which he oversaw two successive promotions.
"There's some good people there, really good people – some," he said pointedly, and it is assumed that number does not include the Norwich chairman, Alan Bowkett, whom Lambert claimed yesterday he had not spoken to for two years. It was Bowkett who discussed the legal battle between Lambert and his former club at a recent fans' forum – they are suing each other for breach of contract over his departure for Villa, a matter to be decided in the new year by a Premier League Managers' Arbitration Panel.
As a former Celtic player, Lambert is used to the stick that may come his way from the Norwich supporters – "I come from a city [Glasgow] where half the city doesn't like you" – but there was a hint of dismay at the thought the ongoing row might tarnish his achievements. "Myself, Ian [Culverhouse] and Gary [Karsa] had three fantastic years at the football club. I think what probably bothers me the most is the fans' perception of it, that's what hurts the most," he said.
Ultimately, though, that is a mere sideshow; what matters is his increasingly challenging job of reviving Villa's fortunes. So far Lambert has been unable to halt the downward slide that began with Martin O'Neill's departure in 2010 and owner Randy Lerner's tightening of the purse strings. Whatever the excitement of the 4-2 League Cup victory at Manchester City, Villa have won one of his eight league fixtures in charge and scored only six goals.
Lambert admits they must generate some momentum somehow. That might have come in the recent 2-0 reverse at Tottenham where his promising but raw Belgium striker Christian Benteke – whose starting role has ruffled the feathers of Darren Bent – missed a free header at 0-0. "If that goes in it's a different game. Football's a fine line but I'm not too despondent with the way we're playing," reflected Lambert, who also saw Benteke squander an opportunity to equalise at in the 1-0 defeat at Fulham last weekend.
In one sense he has been here before: he began his first managerial role at Livingston in 2005-06 with a near-identical record: two league draws and six defeats, together with two League Cup wins. "They were a young side as well and they gave us absolutely everything they had," Lambert remembered. "I think we're playing well enough to win games [but] you have to get a little bit of momentum going. At Livingston we couldn't get that."
At Livingston, he was also sacked in the February of that first season, but at Villa, they appear to be looking at the long term given Lambert's template is for young, ambitious players. Dave Woodhall, editor of the Heroes and Villains fanzine, says there is an acceptance that Lambert needs time. "It's a case of realising it is going to be a long haul, it's been a strange couple of seasons with lots going wrong, it is not going to be fixed overnight.
"They could muddle around buying experienced journeymen, permanently finishing mid-table not doing anything and eventually getting relegated when it's their turn or they can do what they're doing now and hopefully build a side from there."
"We're Aston Villa, we're passing the ball" was one chant heard in August by Villa fans enthused by the change in style under Lambert but while summer arrivals Matthew Lowton and Brett Holman have caught the eye, one widely held view is Villa are struggling for a lack of experience – a situation not helped by the absence of Stiliyan Petrov and Richard Dunne. At Fulham their entire back four had 35 Premier League outings between them. This helps explain their inconsistency during games as only once – the 3-1 home defeat to Everton – does Lambert think they simply have not performed.
"This league is unforgiving, that's the big difference," he said, comparing his task at Villa with that of restoring Norwich's fortunes. "In League One you could play badly and still win games. This is a totally different animal." One, he hopes, that will not come back to bite him today.
Villa: Season starts
After eight games under McLeish
W2 D5 L1
After eight games under Lambert
W1 D2 L5
After eight games in 1986-87
W1 D1 L6
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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