Norwich City's Paul Lambert: 'I Never Think I'm Safe'

Paul Lambert only does things the hard way and there is every chance that his disdain for ridiculous odds is rooted in his background.

Paul Lambert: 'The past is the past. I never think I'm safe' As the newest member of the Premier League's Glaswegian management cartel puts it, "You aren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you know what I mean? You aren't given things. You had to go out and earn them."

The Norwich City manager's playing career looked to have stalled as he approached his 27th birthday, when he was out of contract at Motherwell and he had no offers in the British Isles. So he pushed for a trial at Borussia Dortmund, won a contract and, at the end of the 1996-97 season, he had won the European Cup, becoming the first British player at a non-British club to triumph in the competition. He successfully man-marked the Juventus playmaker Zinedine Zidane in the final.

Spool forward to management. Having cut his teeth in England at Wycombe Wanderers and Colchester United, he took over at Norwich with the club at the foot of League One and close to going into administration. It was August 2009. On Saturday, he will send his team out at Wigan Athletic in the top flight, after back-to-back promotions and back‑to‑back manager of the year awards.

Lambert's story feels as though it could be repackaged by Hollywood. The boy from Glasgow's East End has certainly done good and his next trick promises further gripping plot-lines. Lambert has made seven summer signings at a cost of around £9m, and six of them are aged between 22 and 24. Steve Morison, the £2.8m striker from Millwall, is the veteran of the group at 27.

Apart from James Vaughan, from Everton, they have next to no Premier League experience and Lambert's existing players are not exactly steeped in it, either. The other new boys are the on-loan defenders Ritchie De Laet from Manchester United and Kyle Naughton from Tottenham Hotspur; the defensive midfielder Bradley Johnson from Leeds United; and the wingers Anthony Pilkington from Huddersfield Town and Elliott Bennett from Brighton & Hove Albion.

What they have in common is the burning desire to seize their opportunity and prove themselves at the highest level. Lambert intends to attack the Premier League with vim and vigour.

"We wanted to go for lads who want to go from here to here and not from there to there," Lambert says, plotting an upward curve with his hand followed by a downward one. "The problem you do get is that people are money orientated, but I wasn't and I'm certainly not going to bring people here who I think just want the money. I want people who are hungry and want to be successful."

The signings suggest that Lambert is primed to overhaul his starting line-up once again. The team that conjured what he described as the "absolute miracle" of automatic promotion from the Championship last season was virtually unrecognisable to the one that took the League One title in 2009-10. Lambert has had to be ruthless but necessity always outweighs the sentiment.

"You have to be single-minded … you have to be ruthless, but in a good way and not a nasty way," he says. "You have to make decisions that you think are right for the club. I also think that, in the dressing room, there should only ever be one voice and it's got to be the manager's. I played under Martin O'Neill at Celtic for five years, and he was a fantastic manager to learn off, and Mr [Ottmar] Hitzfeld was the same at Dortmund.

"I don't think you can allow players to cross the line. People have got to go with what you say and what you think. Whether it's the right or the wrong decision, people have to respect the decision. But I don't pay much attention to outside influences. People can say what they want. I always try to focus on my own environment."

Lambert was born in Duke Street, Glasgow, "a stone's throw from Parkhead," and his family moved, when he was a little boy, to Linwood, "a 20 minute drive" to the west of the city. Sport was in his genes. His father, a roof tiler, was on the Celtic groundstaff in his younger days while his mother was a netball player.

Lambert's competitive fires were stoked by the street football he played in Linwood and, at 12, he began to train with St Mirren; he would win the Scottish Cup with them as a 17-year-old. His transfer to Motherwell came six years later, in 1993, where he played under Alex McLeish, who is now one of the Premier League's seven Glaswegian managers. Lambert played under another of them, Kenny Dalglish, at Celtic in 2000. Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, Owen Coyle and Steve Kean complete the number.

It is not difficult to discern shared character traits and one of them is self-belief, which, for Lambert, was forged during his unforgettable year in Dortmund. Although McLeish and Motherwell had not offered him fresh terms, they felt he would come back to them before the new season, tail between his legs, eager to sign any sort of deal. He never did. With the help of a Dutch agent, he had a trial at Dick Advocaat's PSV Eindhoven and then Dortmund, and it mattered not that the former did not work out. Despite feeling "unbelievable self-doubt" at the German club, he impressed sufficiently in pre-season matches to secure a contract.

"After those games, I was back at the training ground and all of the German internationals who had just won Euro 96 were returning after an extended summer break," Lambert says. "There was Jürgen Kohler, Steffen Freund, Andreas Möller, Stefan Reuter and Matthias Sammer. I remember thinking: 'No. You can't handle that company. You're coming on a free from Motherwell.' I was worth a bottle of Coke.

"But I signed on the Thursday before the season started, I played, I did well and it just snowballed. All of a sudden, the crowd took to me and I became a mainstay. It changed my whole career."

Lambert still marvels at the German mentality and the toughness of his own was reinforced by the eight years he spent at Celtic, where he cleaned up on domestic honours. He believes the period will prepare him well for his Premier League baptism. "Criticism comes with Celtic," Lambert says. "If you take it on board, it can make you ill, but if you think: 'No problem', it makes you really thick-skinned."

When Lambert arrived at Norwich, he found that a dark cloud covered more than just the club. "The whole city was very down," he says. "Because there's only one team in the county, it affects a lot of people."

But Lambert's fighting spirit, man-management and high-tempo football has underpinned the revival. In the absence of big-name players, he is usually credited as the talisman and the sense of anticipation is tangible. The 41-year-old has eyes only for the challenge ahead and he talks on several occasions of the need to ignore "outside influences", which seems to be his buzz phrase.

He knows that the team are widely tipped to make an immediate return to the Championship, yet it barely registers. He is more interested in how his signings will permit him greater tactical flexibility, allowing him to deviate from his trusted 4-4-2 diamond midfield shape.

Lambert says that survival would be "monumental" and guiding him towards it is a principle from Glasgow's streets. "You've got to be frightened to lose," he says. "That's what drives me on, being frightened to fail. The past is in the past. I never think I'm safe."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by David Hytner, for guardian.co.uk on Saturday 6th August 2011 20.00 Europe/London

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