x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Paul Lambert's awkward reunion with Norwich City

The Scottish manager comes up against the team he left in the summer at Villa Park.

Paul Lambert has endured a difficult start at Aston Villa.
Paul Lambert has endured a difficult start at Aston Villa.

Parting is supposed to be such sweet sorrow. Not where Paul Lambert is concerned, however. While Carrow Road recently united in tribute to the late John Bond, the architect of Norwich City's success in the 1970s, their finest manager of recent times inspires rather less affection among many of those who used to worship him.

Aston Villa against Norwich pits Lambert's present against his past. "It only has spice because I left," he said.

It promises to be a rancorous reunion nonetheless. While the Scot insisted he bears no animosity towards the club where he made his reputation, he nonetheless conceded he is not on speaking terms with the Norwich chairman Alan Bowkett. "I've never spoken to the chairman for about three years," he said. "Seriously, a bit of an exaggeration: maybe two [years]."

The fact remains that Norwich are suing him for breach of contract. Lambert, in turn, is counter-suing, claiming £2 million (Dh11.8m) in damages. A Premier League tribunal will determine the amount of compensation Villa must pay for taking Norwich's manager. This is about writs, rights and wrongs.

What can be said without fear of contradiction is that Lambert, now 43, did a superb job in Norfolk. Three seasons of almost unrivalled progress took Norwich up 54 places in the football firmament, bringing back-to-back promotions followed by a mid-table finish in the Premier League.

Yet the swiftness with which Lambert walked out of Norwich irritated. The sense is that, though he had turned survival into a cruise, he was willing to hop on the nearest lifeboat before Norwich became a sinking ship.

He had overachieved, taking a group of players with a grounding in League One into a position of safety in the top flight. Perhaps Lambert feared the laws of footballing gravity would apply and what had gone up would go down; perhaps he merely recognised that, with their history, supporter base and financial muscle, Villa are the bigger club.

"I've got nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I've got nothing to hide."

Yet any feelings of treachery the City faithful harbour are understandable. Lambert left for a club that finished four places below them last season and who are now two rungs down the ladder. Five months after his exit, the reality is that no one has benefited yet. Villa and Norwich have a solitary league win apiece. Both have endured difficult starts to the season.

Lambert always anticipated a major rebuilding job in the Midlands, but it is probably bigger than he envisaged. Norwich have already been thrashed three times; the spirit and attacking verve that carried them so far last season no longer seems sufficient. The one consolation is that the post-Lambert era finally gained some traction last Saturday with the 1-0 victory of Arsenal.

A victory of that magnitude, and with two of new manager Chris Hughton's signings, Sebastian Bassong and Alex Tettey, playing pivotal parts, was the first indication that this is his team. But crucial roles were played, too, by the most influential players of Lambert's reign, Wes Hoolahan and goalscorer Grant Holt. Hughton's task is to blend the old and new.

He is an evolutionary, while Lambert is rather more revolutionary at Villa Park. He is unafraid of antagonising, as he showed by leaving Norwich. Then, just as it was when Lambert left Colchester for Carrow Road, parting was a sign of vaunting ambition, rather than sweet sorrow.

The author of that famous phrase, five centuries ago, came from what is now Villa country. William Shakespeare's home town of Stratford is in nearby Warwickshire. But, for those in Norfolk, as Shakespearean plays go, Lambert and Norwich is less Romeo and Juliet than Macbeth, a tale of betrayal they hope will culminate in revenge.