In Lambert I trust

Posted by Kevin Hughes

I've kept a low profile for the past couple of weeks. I haven't been on holiday, I haven't been totally obsessed and engrossed with Euro 2012 - although I am enjoying it - and I haven't forgotten about the Villa.

But here's the thing: I haven't forgotten about Villa, but I have stopped worrying about them.

For the time being, anyway. In stark contrast to last summer, when I went into near meltdown at the appointment of Alex McLeish, predicted and expected doom, and watched, betwixt horrified fingers, as everything I had anticipated fell into place. I took no satisfaction in that. I certainly wasn't alone in fearing the worst, and the feeling of angst plagued me all season.

The angst has gone. I feel positive, and relaxed. Villa haven't signed any new players, as yet - save for the Australian Brett Holman, who was confirmed several months ago. So, in essence, the current squad remains weak in key areas, and the same question marks of 12 months ago still exist over the same players. The crucial difference is the manager Villa now have at the helm.

Paul Lambert; perhaps the best candidate we could have appointed, given our situation, and given our resources. Actually, maybe a better candidate than we could have hoped for. His was the first name that sprang to mind when McLeish was sacked; indeed, Villa fans had sung his name during the final match of last season, when Lambert's Norwich side beat us, all too comfortably, 2-0 at Carrow Road. I hadn't expected us to be successful in recruiting him, however. After all, Villa had been required to conduct two managerial searches in the previous two years, and both had concluded with controversial decisions; McLeish, who I have discussed at length throughout this blog, and Gerard Houllier, who was somewhat of a leftfield choice. As such, I barely dared entertain the notion that we could appoint Lambert, a manager I am convinced possesses all the tools required to drive Villa out of the doldrums and back towards the top half, and the top six.

This isn't a revisionist opinion, by the way. Very early in January of this year, I attended an FA coaching course. At the beginning of the first session, the tutor made all of us delegates do that rather embarrassing exercise that all tutors, of all courses, seem to absolutely love: turn to the person next to you, and tell them a few things about yourself. Among the things we had to disclose to our partner was a coach we admired. When it was time to 'share' to the 20-odd strong group, the names varied. There were one or two Cloughs (quite an age range at this course), a couple of Mourinhos, at least one O'Neill, a Redknapp, a few Fergusons and Wengers.

Mine was Paul Lambert, and I explained why I admired him. Because he was a player of decent quality (a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund, remember, who beat a star-studded Juventus, much to my dismay at the time, in 1997) who didn't just retire and walk into a good job off the back of his reputation. He studied for, and earned, his qualifications. He started with Wycombe, got them into a play-off final, moved to Colchester, then famously switched to Norwich not long after his Colchester side had humiliated the Canaries 7-1 on the opening day of the League One season. His work as Norwich manager was exemplary, successive promotions, and almost seamless transition to the Premier League.

Lambert has demonstrated the ability to bring a team together, to get them playing effectively, and to recruit players who fit into his plans - and he's done this, so far at least, on limited budgets and by being shrewd in the extreme. He's been used to operating outside the Premier League for his transfers; I recall his capture of the Leeds midfielder Jonny Howson in January for £500,000. Pennies, really, by PL standards. Howson adapted neatly. In fact, the majority of the Norwich squad looked as if they'd been playing top-flight football for most of their careers, when in fact the opposite was true. It was a level completely new to most of them.

Isn't this what Villa really need? A manager who can quickly invigorate a squad, bind them together, find what works for a group of players and make it happen? Without the kind of large budget afforded to the manager during the first few years of Randy Lerner's ownership, Lambert will no doubt have to make his decisions and selections carefully, and I'm sure he'll still be required to manage players' wages, ensure the playing squad remains a reasonable size, and does not bulk out the reserves with frustrated first teamers on sizeable salaries. I doubt Lambert is daunted by this prospect, and nor will he be by the task ahead.

While it's become fashionable, of late, for managers and media pundits to label the Villa job as 'one of the toughest in football' - it's really not; Villa fans are, on the whole, a reasonable and realistic bunch who are not demanding Champions League football, but a place in the top eight and some progressive, entertaining football - Lambert has already acknowledged that the club needs to be achieving more than in recent seasons, and that he won't shy away from the challenge. It's the challenge which has brought him to Villa Park. Which is a far cry from his predecessor, who seemed to be of the opinion that Villa didn't deserve to share the same pitch as many of our Premier League opponents.

The next month will be interesting. There is work to do with the Villa squad, and I'm intrigued to see who Lambert will bring in. The links so far have been predictable: Holt, Ruddy and Naughton, all of whom played under Lambert at Norwich last season. I'd say Naughton is a possibility, but not the other two. Other than that, I think Villa fans will see a bit of much-needed unpredictability about their signings this summer, and I sense an air of long-awaited optimism among the club's following.

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