Lambert to the Slaughter

Stoke City have dismissed their second manager in less than six months as Paul Lambert left the club following its relegation to the Championship. Paul was tasked with hauling the mess of a squad, left by Mark Hughes, over the line to retain Stoke’s Premier League status. With just two wins in the fifteen games available – his first and last in charge – he failed and has now paid the price. It’s not all bad for Lambert though: he surely leaves the club with his head held high. He got another shot in the Premier League, turned the morale of an abhorrent dressing room on its head and would have saved Stoke had fate been a little on his side.

Following Mark Hughes’ removal early into the new year, Stoke chased a host of candidates to replace him. Gary Rowett decided that Derby would give him the best shot at being a Premier League manager come the start of next season (unlucky Gaz). Quique Sanches Flores decided to stick with Espanyol as Stoke refused to meet his tall demands (he’s now unemployed). Martin O’Neill was disappointed not to be first choice as Hughes’ replacement and rebuffed their approaches to stick with the Irish national team. With the pool of preferential candidates depleting and time running short, Stoke’s top brass decided to ensure they had a manager in place and took the unpopular decision of hiring Lambert.

Lambert had little success prior to his appointment, with his promotion at Norwich City and keeping Aston Villa afloat being his only really notable achievements. It wasn’t surprising that his announcement as Stoke manager was greeted with disappointment, verging on outrage for some of the Potters’ faithful. Stoke needed a manager to save us from the drop, for that we needed points, and for that a manager that knows what it takes to win games. Considering the profiles of the candidates that Stoke had initially contacted, an underwhelming undertone infected the Potteries upon the Scots confirmation. 

Key to Lamberts appointment was “his knowledge of (the Stoke) squad and had a clear plan of how he would improve (Stoke’s) results”, according to Peter Coates. He wasn’t wrong: Lambert’s initial interview was filled with encouraging statements regarding Stoke’s problems and possible ways of fixing them. He also oozed humility and gratitude. He was clearly grateful for another shot at the big time and it was clear all of his efforts would be on the task at hand. He had a huge job to do but he relished it.

His Stoke career got off to a promising start with a win in a crucial game against Huddersfield. It was one of the most convincing wins of the season too as Stoke were simply too powerful and technical for the newly promoted team. His focus on relentless pressing led to flourishing counter-attacking football and a wave of optimism flooded the bet365 Stadium. Yes, it was Huddersfield; but surely repeating those performances would see Stoke pick up enough points to see them safe?

Those performances were not repeated and Stoke went on a period of thirteen Premier League games without a win. Very rarely did Stoke lose heavily and very frequently did Stoke come close to securing more points than they arguably deserved. But misfortune in front of goal and the pressing system taking it’s toll on the players in the dying minutes meant late heartbreak was a recurring theme throughout the remainder of the campaign. A slight change in fortune may have seen Stoke pick up the four extra points they needed to survive. Ultimately though, Lambert’s biggest mistake was trying to implement a system which required intensity. Considering that he was handed an extremely unfit squad, which he then slashed due to disciplinary reasons, the players were simply not there to execute his plan.

Stoke and Lambert did have the option of increasing the numbers in their ranks during the January transfer window. Much needed cover at fullback was recruited with Moritz Bauer and Kostas Stafylidis (the latter being injured for the majority of his loan spell). A dynamic midfielder in Badou Ndiaye was also recruited. But Stoke lacked depth, particularly in the striking role with only two senior strikers available once Said0 Berahino had been exiled from the first team. It meant choosing either a 37 year old beanpole or a confidence-bereft workhorse up front for the remainder of the season. Stoke didn’t score enough goals to stay in the league and this crisis could have been averted if Lambert insisted that a striker was brought into the football club, at any cost.

There’s no doubt that Lambert was dealt a bad hand when joining Stoke. Players were either apathetic about football, lacked in confidence and/or ability or were already dreaming of moves to pastures new. The squad was unfit and playing poorly; it’s also now clear that the dressing room was in tatters in terms of synergy. Lambert obviously improved that toxic atmosphere and got players fit and playing for him. Those who didn’t care were abandoned; those that did were showed the attention and respect they deserved. Having said that, Lambert’s style of football didn’t work with the players at his disposal. He didn’t really get the absolute best out of any player during his tenure. He didn’t have a Plan B. He wasn’t destined to fail from the minute he walked through the door. There was a reason why fans didn’t want to see his appointment.

There’s a stark contrast between the way that Lambert and his predecessor left Stoke City. Mark Hughes left the club in tatters after building something so wonderful. His arrogance and ignorance got the better of him and it’s seeped into the stages beyond his tenure. His unsightly end has left fans not being able to care the sight of him; particularly after seeing him get all the credit for saving Southampton with very little input or skill. Lambert will leave Stoke City and to the untrained eye he failed to keep a team in the Premier League and perhaps will be viewed as a poor manager. Yet he deserves so much more than that. He worked tirelessly and had the unwavering belief that he could achieve the impossible. He went into every game wanting to win and fans bought into that, chanting his name every single game. He’ll not leave Stoke as a legend, but he’ll leave respected and liked, which is more that can be said for a man that granted us some of our best Premier League memories.

Whatever fans, neutrals or rivals think of Lambert; nothing will change the fact that he has gone. With respects paid, Stoke must now look to the future and their ultimate priority must be returning to the Premier League. Lots of work must be done to achieve that magnificent feat though. Stoke are likely to see an exodus regarding their playing staff and hard work must be dedicated to replacing those that depart. Those that come in need to reignite that working class spirit which has deserted Stoke in recent seasons; but also need to be of enough quality to compete in one of the most challenging teams in the world. The managerial candidates and what they need to do to revive Stoke City is a discussion for another time. For now, we should look back on a miniature tenure of a man whose personality is exemplary for what this club his about, even if that came with little success and a disastrous outcome.

Paul Lambert’s Red and White Army has lost it’s commander. It’s time for a new reign.

Written by Ben Rowley

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