The difficulties of following in Paul Lambert’s footsteps

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October 1, 2012 by seancole1875

With Norwich having slipped into the relegation zone following a 5-2 loss at home to Liverpool, which leaves them winless in the league and with just three points from six games, the ‘Hughton out’ campaign has already begun in earnest. After three years of seemingly unstoppable ascent expectations are high at Carrow Road, with fans beginning to question whether Chris Hughton can ever compete with Paul Lambert’s legacy.

In many ways this is a tale of two managers who jumped ship at just the right time, albeit they made contrasting decisions on their future destinations. Barring the impossible there was little chance that either Lambert’s stock at Norwich or Hughton’s at Birmingham could rise any higher given the resources at their disposal. Both had brought hope and entertaining football to clubs more accustomed to grinding predictability in recent years.

Yet while Lambert chose to take over at Aston Villa, and thus attempt to resurrect another moribund side with more potential than they’d been showing, Hughton made the mistake of joining Norwich at what is arguably the peak of their upward trajectory. From the start he never stood a chance of bettering Lambert’s record of successive promotions and a 12th place finish in the Premier League.

Man, Myth, Legend: Leading goal scorer for the last three years Grant Holt

However, the early signs were promising, Hughton convincing club legend Grant Holt to stay before making some cute moves in the transfer market. Following his predecessor’s template of plucking talent from the lower leagues, Championship stars Jacob Butterfield and Robert Snodgrass arrived to lessen the creative burden on Wes Hoolahan. His attempts to remedy a leaky defence, which kept only three clean sheets and conceded 66 goals in the league last season, look somewhat less inspired.

An insipid 5-0 loss to Fulham on the opening day saw Chris Hughton compromise attacking ambitions for the sake of defensive discipline. In the next four matches Norwich let in just three goals but found the net only twice themselves. When the shackles were finally loosened for the visit of Liverpool Luis Suarez ran riot against a cumbersome central defensive pairing of Leon Barnett and Michael Turner, which looked horrifically out of its depth.

The £1.5 million signing from Sunderland, who was easily dispossessed and then nutmegged by Suarez on the way to his second of the game, is regarded as an extreme liability by supporters and a major error of judgement on the manager’s part. Other defensive reinforcements Sebastian Bassong and Javier Garrido have had a rather more favourable reception but the Norwich squad still has a distinctly Championship feel about it.

Chris Hughton in a reflective mood: “Did I really consider Michael Turner to be the answer to our defensive shortcomings?”

Over the last three years the Canaries have succeeded through a combination of canny management, a team spirit that made them more than the sum of their parts, and a fearlessness when confronting ostensibly superior opponents. But as Phil Brown’s Hull and Steve Coppell’s Reading amongst others found, there is only so long that you can spend over-achieving in this manner before a significant injection of quality is required to take it to the next level.

There is a real sense that Lambert knew this to be the case and got out before his reputation could be tarnished by a difficult second season. Hughton, on a similar high, albeit on a smaller scale after reinvigorating Birmingham, left for the decidedly difficult job of following on from one of the most successful managers in Norwich’s history. They face Chelsea and Arsenal in the next two fixtures before a first reunion with Lambert at Villa Park, and, as premature as it sounds, many are wondering if Hughton will still be around for a meeting with the man whose shadow he struggles to escape.

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