France '98: Lambert the lion

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The Independent Online
Simon Turnbull says the engine of Scotland's midfield

is a player who benefited from a fine-tuning in Germany

IN THE summer of 1996, Paul Lambert was surplus to requirements in Scottish football. His contract with Motherwell had passed its end- by date. "No one in Scotland wanted me," he recalled. It is rather different now.

The lad from Linwood carries the hopes of Caledonia with him into the World Cup opener against Brazil in the Stade de France on Wednesday. In two years, Lambert has been transformed from the player Scottish football didn't want into the linchpin Scotland could not do without. Take him out of midfield and, even with John Collins left to pull the strings, Craig Brown's team would be in serious danger of falling apart.

When the Brazilian spies left Giants Stadium after Scotland's 2-2 draw with Colombia a fortnight ago, the name of Scotland's number 14 was underlined in red ink on their team-sheets. Lambert, it seems, is not the same player who slipped unnoticed into the Fir Park dressing-rooms after his final game in the Motherwell No 7 shirt, a 1-1 draw against Hearts, in May 1996. He is now the veteran of a successful European Cup campaign, as well as a cornerstone of the national side. He has also made an international name for himself. Last season, Franz Beckenbauer described him as "the best signing in Europe".

The tribute from Beckenbauer meant a lot to Lambert. He may play with the Celtic shamrock and the lion rampant on his work shirts these days but he might as well have "made in Germany" stamped on his chest too. It was the 16 months he spent in Dortmund that made Lambert, at 28, the player he is today.

There, in the Ruhrgebeit, Germany's industrial heartland, the raw midfield product of Linwood Rangers, St Mirren and Motherwell became the finished article. Lambert only joined Borussia Dortmund as a squad player after impressing the coach Ottmar Hitzfeld in a four-match trial. But he got his chance in the Champions' League and made the most of it.

An unknown when he arrived at the Westfalenstadion, Lambert became a key figure in Dortmund's European Cup conquest. He partnered Andreas Moller and Paulo Sousa in central midfield the night the German champions beat Juventus 3-1 in the Munich final. The Scottish cast-off was, in fact, the only outfield ever-present in Dortmund's 11 Champions' League matches.

He has since, of course, moved back to the land of his fathers. Deemed a saleable asset by Nevio Scala, Hitzfeld's replacement, he joined Celtic for pounds 2m in November. But the influence of Lambert's Dortmund days remains conspicuously evident in his polished play. "I learned so much in Germany," he said. "I played with some great players - Andy Moller, Jurgen Kohler, Paulo Sousa - and they taught me a lot. My game came on in leaps and bounds with their help. I used to chase after everything in my days at St Mirren and Motherwell. But now I leave that to the guys who have that job.

"I have a German mentality now. They grind out a season by only thinking about the next game. There is no inquest if you have not played well and won. The result is all that matters. It doesn't matter if people say Celtic won the title in a poor season. We won it and that's all that counts. In the same way, it doesn't matter if people are saying we have no chance against Brazil. It's the result that counts."

Such tunnel vision is sure to be invaluable to the Caledonian cause on Wednesday. So is Lambert's Champions' League experience. Having overcome the odds against Juventus in Munich last year, he is unlikely to be daunted by the prospect of facing Brazil in the showpiece World Cup opener. Neither, for that matter, is his scheming accomplice, the equally assured Collins, a European Cup semi-finalist with Monaco this season.

Collins, of course, never got the chance to play in Europe's premier club competition for his beloved Bhoys. Lambert will next season, having played his part in bringing the Scottish Premier Division trophy back to Celtic Park. But the Dortmund old boy is already looking beyond his playing days. Lambert has been preparing for the ultimate challenge of football management. "When I was at Dortmund," he said, "I wrote down everything we did in training each day. If I become a manager those are the techniques I'll use."

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