Paul Lambert revels in Norwich 'miracle'
At Fratton Park
As Norwich manager Paul Lambert tried to get to grips with his team's promotion to the Premier League at Portsmouth on a windswept Bank Holiday Monday, he repeated one word over and over again.
"It is a miracle," said the 41-year-old after his team's 1-0 victory secured second place in the Championship. "An absolute miracle."
I have rarely seen Lambert look overawed but he did seem a little stunned, perhaps even a touch perplexed, as he tried to absorb what had happened since the start of the 2009-10 season.
Little wonder, when you consider that 632 days previously he had been in charge of a Colchester team that inflicted a 7-1 thrashing on Norwich at Carrow Road on the opening day of the 2009-10 campaign.
Ten days after that defeat manager Bryan Gunn had left and Norwich had persuaded Lambert to quit Colchester for Carrow Road, starting a sequence of events that would conclude with Norwich becoming the first team since Manchester City 11 years ago to complete back-to-back promotions to the Premier League.
Lambert inherited a team second from bottom in the table, and one that he thought was short of fitness and lacking steel. It did not take the former Livingston and Wycombe boss long to remedy the problem and Norwich finished last season as League One champions, nine points clear of Leeds.
He strengthened his squad extensively in the summer, bringing in the likes of goalkeeper John Ruddy, defender Elliott Ward, midfield duo Andrew Surman and David Fox and striker Simeon Jackson. However, very few envisaged at the start of the season that another promotion was attainable.
Russell Martin (left) has been impressed by the job done by manager, Paul Lambert. Photo: Getty images
"We all had a belief that we could cope in this division," defender Russell Martin told me as he walked off the pitch at Fratton Park on Monday. "But I do not think that any of us envisaged what has happened."
Even after his team's good start, Lambert took every opportunity to dampen expectations and, as late as mid-December, with Norwich lodged firmly in the play-off places, he was telling anyone who would listen to him that survival remained his over-riding target for the season.
But while other sides such as Burnley and Leeds have faded, and Cardiff have fallen short yet again after Monday's crushing 3-0 home defeat against Middlesbrough, the Canaries have shown incredible staying power.
They have not lost back-to-back games under Lambert and have tasted defeat in just one of their last 15 matches.
Incredibly, Norwich have scored 13 league goals after the 89th minute of a match.
"The number of late goals is down to fitness and belief, it is as simple as that," added Martin, who joined Norwich last season and has played every minute of the current campaign. "Our manager is a winner who never gives up and he has instilled that into us."
Lambert himself is keen to deflect all the plaudits on to his players, insisting: "It is incredible what they have done. They are the ones who have gone out and won games."
But Lambert must take huge credit for Norwich's rise, particularly this season. He has moulded a squad with relatively little Championship experience but with the hunger to prove they are good enough to succeed in the second tier of English football.
Fox and Marc Tierney arrived from Colchester, Martin from Peterborough, Andrew Crofts from Brighton and Simeon Jackson from Gillingham - all were brought in by Lambert and have performed with a zeal that is a reflection of their manager's own mentality.
Canadian striker Jackson endured a 20-game period without a goal but scored the winner at Pompey, his ninth goal in his last seven games, playing a key role in his team's promotion.
"There is no big secret, it is about having good players," added Lambert. "They would not have been able to win promotion if they were not good, they can handle the ball and that is the main thing."
But Martin told me that Lambert has worked extremely hard on the training pitch to help his squad realise their potential.
"He has really stamped his authority on the squad and the lads know exactly what he wants," said Martin, who has played under Lambert at Wycombe and Norwich. "He has not changed his methods from when I was at Wycombe and his preparation remains excellent.
"Everyone has improved, even the lads who do not play very often, and the standard at training has gone through the roof. His players would do anything for him."
As a player, Lambert won the Champions League with Borussia Dortmund, marking Zinedine Zidane out of the final in 1997, claimed four league titles at Celtic, and was captain of the Bhoys side that reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final, as well as winning 40 caps for Scotland.
He believes there is little comparison between what he achieved as a player and now as a manager.
"The magnitude of this promotion is up there with anything in my career but in a totally different way from being a player because now I have got to get a group of lads to go to the well every week," added Lambert.
Regarded as a gifted and stylish midfielder, Lambert has his Norwich side unsurprisingly play with a blend of effort and skill. The full-backs are not afraid to press forward, while Wes Hoolahan often plays at the tip of a diamond behind a front two of Holt and Jackson. Fox, who sits in a deeper midfield role, is excellent at crosses and set-pieces, as he showed with the teasing ball into the box at Pompey that led to Jackson's goal.
Lambert, who was linked with Celtic last summer and Burnley in January, is not a man who suffers fools. A stupid or unwanted question is met with an icy stare. Upon his return to Colchester last season, I saw Lambert face down several U's supporters dishing out some heavy-duty abuse towards their former manager as he conducted interviews on the pitch after the game.
His answers are intelligent but economical, as though he has better things to do with his time, but there is a dry humour to them as well. I imagine he would make very good company, provided you stayed on the right side of him.
"He has got both authority and respect," said Martin, who was stripped of his kit by a pitch invasion after Monday's final whistle and spent several minutes celebrating in nothing but a modest pair of black briefs.
"But he also knows when to have a laugh and a joke and there is a very human side to him. You can approach him about anything but at the same time we all know where the line is."
Barring managerial changes elsewhere, Lambert will become the seventh Glaswegian manager in the Premier League next season and I think it will be more interesting for his team's involvement.
The yellow and green Canaries will certainly add a splash of colour to the top flight as they return to it after a six-year absence. QPR ended a 15-year exile when they won promotion last Saturday, and with Cardiff, Swansea, Reading and Nottingham Forest likely to contest the play-offs, there will be no familiar faces going up this season.
"It is the best league in Europe," said Lambert. "It will be great and I am going to enjoy it.
"If we play Manchester United one weekend and Arsenal the following Tuesday I might just give you a different answer, but it definitely sounds good."
I doubt whether any Norwich fans would disagree with him.