By Ed Lord
Five years is an impressive time to last as a manager in the Premier League these days. In fact, you would be forgiven for never expecting Mark Hughes to last as long as he did at Stoke but, unfortunately, all dreams must come to an end – even if that dream is finishing ninth more or less every year whilst somehow overachieving and underachieving at the same time.
Alas, it seemed that this season’s disappointment was too much for the Stoke City board, as Sparky eventually got the sack on 6th January 2018 following a 2-1 loss at League Two’s Coventry City. Confidence was at an all-time low for the injury-plagued side and a 3-0 loss at Manchester United saw them fall into the relegation zone for the first time since the opening day of the season. They needed a saviour – someone who could transform their leaky defence into a solid machine, someone who could bring Stoke back to the heights of the top half and, most importantly, someone who could actually get Saido Berahino to score a goal.
Up stepped Paul Lambert.
His managerial career in England began brightly as he helped Norwich City to back-to-back promotions from League One to the Premier League across 2009-2011. He then finished 15th in the Premier League with the youngest ever starting XI at Aston Villa in 2013 – the season where he introduced this country to the glory that is Christian Benteke. However, it is based on his latest managerial performances that doubts over his recent appointment at Stoke have stemmed.
Lambert lost his job at Villa in February of the 2014-15 season as his team had only managed to score 12 goals in 25 league games – the lowest in Premier League history. He had a brief stint at Blackburn Rovers, ‘successfully’ guiding them from 16th to 15th in the Championship table before activating a release clause in his contract that allowed him to leave. His most recent job was one season at Wolves in the Championship, where they finished 15th. Yes, the very same Wolves that are currently nine points clear at the top of the table under new manager Nuno Espírito Santo, just to add some context.
Having seen Lambert’s recent CV, you can understand why his appointment was met with surprise and disappointment by Stoke and Premier League fans alike. Does a man whose most recent achievement was beating Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield in the FA Cup fifth-round with Wolves deserve a Premier League job?
Before this season, I would have been able to answer “no” with strong conviction. However, this is the season where Roy Hodgson, David Moyes and Sam Allardyce have all arrived at struggling clubs and done fantastic jobs. Heck, even West Brom have been slightly better under Alan Pardew! If these examples prove anything it is that in the Premier League, any appointment can be a successful one.
Although he was not the Potters’ first-choice target (with Martin O’Neill, Quique Sánchez Flores and Gary Rowett all rejecting Stoke), this does not mean that Lambert cannot be successful at the bet365 Stadium. He has already enjoyed a winning start in his first game in charge, with a 2-0 win against relegation contenders Huddersfield Town. This game saw the return of club captain Ryan Shawcross as well as veteran Erik Pieters to the Stoke defence – no doubt a major factor in the club keeping their first clean sheet since 28th October. With these key players returning and a win under Lambert’s belt, the atmosphere amongst fans has already improved and this is something the new manager needs to capitalise on.
We cannot make the mistake of writing Lambert off the same way as Hodgson and co earlier in the season. His previous tenures in the Premier League have seen him manage struggling Norwich and Aston Villa – two teams that lacked real quality (no disrespect intended towards Alan Hutton). This Stoke team has that quality in the form of Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and most definitely in Xherdan Shaqiri.
Lambert has proved before that he has the capabilities to be a good manager, and now Stoke have given him the chance to show his worth at a team with some really talented players. This is a chance he must take, or he risks being replaced with another old British manager with an average Premier League record in five months’ time such as Alex McLeish – a thought I and all other Premier League followers shudder at.
Photograph: Ben Sutherland via Flickr