New Carrow Road double act claims first round in battle to win over fans
PUBLISHED: 12:30 14 September 2009 | UPDATED: 12:05 06 July 2010
"Can I come and watch you work?" It was a question asked with a broad smile and with the timing of a man who knows a thing or two about split second perfection.
"Can I come and watch you work?"
It was a question asked with a broad smile and with the timing of a man who knows a thing or two about split second perfection. And it elicited laughs of approval from members of the Norwich City Independent Supporters' Association (NCISA) as they eased Paul Lambert through his first public meeting with some of the club's followers.
It was a far cry from, "I must have missed your tenure as England manager", which Glenn Roeder famously uttered at a club AGM in November, 2008. Hardly seems five minutes ago, but at least Roeder had an AGM: Bryan Gunn didn't even make it that far at a club where managers seem to come and go almost as often as the postman.
Each of those particular predecessors did, at times, bring some relief for fans, a little chink at the end of a very long and dark tunnel. Roeder had his 13 games unbeaten, before putting us all through the mill on the way to a narrow escape from relegation which went to the penultimate game. Gunn, too, toyed with success before City led him on the path of abject failure.
So what's different about Lambert, if anything? Less than a month in the job is nowhere near long enough for an arm's length observer from the media to make a definitive call, but the gathering of clues has begun.
First off, he's not exactly media friendly, although it may be taking a little while to warm up. You won't find Paul Lambert hanging around waiting to talk to journalists unless he's obliged to. He's not rude, or at least he hasn't been yet, he's just one of those managers who perhaps finds the media a necessary evil. His way of conversing with the fee-paying public is by producing results and performances on a patch of grass, not talking about them on a piece of paper. Fair enough at any time, but more so after the results Norwich had before his arrival.
City supporters know well enough there is a time and a place to begin to salute new heroes: there hasn't been a song thought up for Lambert yet, the terraces haven't rocked to the chanting of his name. Even on the back of three games without conceding a goal and without losing. Perhaps everyone is simply too stunned.
Lambert has kept his perfectly coiffured head below the radar, emerging only to direct operations from the technical areas of Carrow Road and Victoria Park, Hartlepool.
He wasn't due to make an appearance at NCISA's AGM on Thursday evening, but their chairman, John Tilson, received a call from chief executive David McNally. "Would you mind if I bring the manager along?" he asked. "Absolutely not," said Tilson, perhaps only a little frustrated that he hadn't had a couple of days' notice to get a few more bums on seats.
McNally and Lambert, it seems, are a double act - something that was quite apparent throughout. They speak each and every day; there's a 24/7 hotline between the two which, when you're working on a limited budget and looking for players, is always nice to know. Their performance in front of a small audience was top quality: some nice inter-play between the two included some excellent passing of the microphone and some good supporting words. Reading from the same script came to mind.
NCISA meetings within the confines of Carrow Road - this was one in The Business in the Jarrold Stand - are not usually rumbustious affairs, unlike their St Andrew's Hall gatherings which usually coincide with some crisis or another, be it Nigel Worthington's final few days or the Great Season Ticket Rebate Debate.
So what did they have to deal with? Seven points in his three games in charge took Lambert out of the firing line, but McNally was right in it: he is, after all, the man who sacked a legend.
The questioning over the Gunn affair began mildly enough with an explanation we'd all heard before - although it did improve later when that prolific email writer and star turn of many an AGM, David Batley, made his traditional verbal appearance.
His effort wasn't exactly of Peter Grant proportions - just a minute or two pontificating on the end of a small, but significant, era in the club's history, the crux of his question being, 'did you or did you not, Mr McNally, treat Gunn shabbily? Was he made to find his own way back from Exeter, with no shoulder to cry on but that of the stranger next to him on the train?'
McNally was ready and waiting and carefully explained how and why - although Gunn's return journey from Devon was never mentioned. Presumably if McNally wasn't there he wouldn't know.
That was as tough as it got for either man. McNally spoke about the need for a chief scout to replace John Deehan; he touched on finances - "90pc of my work is dealing with finances" - although it's a shame no one thought to mention recently-reported interest in the club by the Birmingham Two, the Davids Sullivan and Gold. A shame because it's true, you see.
Then there was: how do you manage the manager? Why did you allow Gunn to sign 12 players in the summer? What about Colchester's claim for compensation for Lambert? How much of the season ticket rebate cash has been wasted? Communication with fans? They were all launched at him and all were defended with the inert power of a Jens Berthel Askou header, perhaps never to be seen again.
Lambert watched and admired. No real tough questions for him, but those he did get were treated with respect and humour - and far more words than the media are usually privileged to hear at his press conferences.
Perhaps that's because he was among his own. The most important people at a football club, he says, are the players and the supporters.
His specialist subjects for the night were perhaps not as varied: his first impressions, player fitness, Wes Hoolahan, player recruitment, the role of football operations manager Gary Karsa (Tilson isn't the only still not quite certain what the answer was); why he keeps players at arm's length; the key to League One success.
Then there was the following, paraphrased, exchange:
Q: "Why can fans only attend training on Fridays?"
Lambert: "What's your job?"
Lambert: "Do you work outside or in an office?"
Lambert: "Can I come and watch you work?"
Q: "Point taken."
All said in good humour and smiles all round, although Lambert has an accent that makes Kenny Dalglish sounds like a BBC news reader, so that's a bit of a stab in the dark as far as topics covered is concerned, but it's close. Quite what one or two of his jokes were about it was hard to tell, although the finger-pointing at the two media people present followed by more roars of laughter suggests we were the butt of a joke or there's something nasty going on that's really going to surprise us any time soon. Or both.
At least Lambert admitted the accent was a tough one to grasp without a bit of practice, but there was clearly no antagonism towards him or vice versa. Roeder made that an art form and even the affable Gunn was riled by some angry supporters' at the end-of-season open day forum in May.
Perhaps it's because Lambert has a personal Domesday scenario - "lose nine games in a row and the chief executive will be saying goodbye".
It was an honest admission that acknowledged that if he wasn't doing the job he would expect to be booted out.
So how do they mark out of 10?
Anyone who can keep David Batley quiet for that long should be congratulated. Not many smiles, but you can hardly ask the chief executioner to tap dance on someone's grave, can you? Firm and fair, not to be messed with.
Didn't look like he lacked experience at this level. Kept a grip on proceedings, timed his laughs perfectly. Smooth customer - definitely looks the part.
Let's hope so this time.