Paul Lambert: The Forgotten Leader Of The Brit Abroad Pack
Breaking barriers is nothing more than standard procedure for any individual striving for greatness. Whether that is Quentin Tarantino taking Hollywood by storm through his pastiche style of filmmaking or Kanye West emerging as the first ‘backpack rapper’, wearing pink polo shirts in an era where 50 Cent’s bulletproof vest could best paint the picture of the state of hip-hop. Just as such masters of their crafts forged a lane for themselves and for the world to take notes from, a certain Jadon Sancho has opened doors for any young player that feels a need to be set free and move for greener pastures. While the everyday British footballer’s attitude in terms of kicking ball abroad is quite a convoluted one, it’s safe to say that change has arrived and is here to stay.
With players such as Rabbi Matondo and even the 29-year old Kieran Trippier taking a leaf from Sancho’s book and finding new homes away from home, one must tip their hat to the Englishman for inspiring people to dare to dream. However, the foundation for the ‘Brit Abroad’ movement to finally cement had been laid more than two decades ago by a man that never quite received his due credit- Paul Lambert.
Coincidentally, Borussia Dortmund was the destination that gave Lambert the license to frame the blueprint for British footballers to set foot to undiscovered lands and ink their own legacy. A familiar face for his time as gaffer, managing the likes of Norwich City and Aston Villa, in particular in the Premier League, Lambert’s time on the pitch is often forgotten without reason as his career as a player was certainly one to write home about.
Turning the clocks back to a simpler time, much before his travels to West Germany manifested, Lambert was just another wee lad that lived, ate and breathed the beautiful game in a football-obsessed Scotland.
A Glaswegian by birth, Lambert moved west of the capital to Linwood in Renfrewshire and as fortune would have it, donned the colors of the local team Linwood Rangers Boys’ Club. Dreams suddenly turned into reality as St. Mirren came calling in 1985 for the prodigious midfielder’s signature and they were successful. As any of Lambert’s then-mates would say, he had officially ‘gone pro’.
The Saints would offer their fair share of thrills and spills to the young Scotsman that showed him the highs and lows that football brings in abundance. At its most glorious, the game can propel a 17-year old Lambert to lift the Scottish Cup after a pulsating final against Dundee United that was ultimately decided by a winner in the 110th minute by Ian Ferguson. On the flipside, its harshest was far from an easy pill to swallow for him as St. Mirren were relegated after Lambert’s 8-year stint at the club.
Despite this, a footballer aiming for the stars can never look back and keeping this in mind, a £250,000 move to Motherwell came to fruition in 1993.
Successive 3rd and 2nd places finishes meant smooth sailing for Lambert and qualification for the UEFA Cup after his sophomore season drew to an end. As Motherwell would put Faroe’s HB Tórshavn to the sword, a date with Borussia Dortmund was set for Lambert to rub shoulders against one of the continent’s most feared outfits. Apart from the watchful eye of Ottmar Hitzfeld, not a soul would have even the slightest hunch that this would prove to be a precursor to the love affair that stands to this day between the player and the club.
While the two-legged contest saw favorites Dortmund fight to gain a narrow 2-1 victory, the result was not the only thing on Hitzfeld’s mind as Lambert’s dogged and aggressive way of going about things in the middle of the park was the missing piece to the puzzle that the German tactician craved.
With his contract expiring at Motherwell, Lambert had 2 offers on the table; one being joining hands with Hitzfeld’s Die Borussen side or to try his hand at Dutch giants, PSV Eindhoven. The choice became relatively easier for the Scot after he was fielded in an unfamiliar right-midfield role in a trial match. While Lambert did come away with goals to his name, the grass seemed greener in Germany.
Keen to impress, Lambert was put to the test in a 4-team tournament where he was solid, if not spectacular against Lübeck and Hamburg. In a final acid test against bitter rivals, Schalke, the midfielder was in the midst of the heat of the battle as the Black and Yellows were vanquished 3-1. To make matters worse, Lambert injured himself in the first-half against Borussia Mönchengladbach in what was the final trial tie.
While an anxious Lambert was convinced that he had been found out and he simply was out of his depth, the coaches saw something in the Scottish midfielder and next thing you know, pen was put to paper.
The acquisition of Portuguese star, Paulo Sousa from Juventus in 1996 was the real blockbuster signing in midfield and the former St. Mirren man was well aware that he would merely warm the bench if he wasn’t top drawer from day dot.
However, Lambert’s rollercoaster start to German football haunted him once again on his debut as he was at fault for the first 2 goals, struggling to halt an onsong Paulo Sérgio as Bayer Leverkusen ran out 4-2 winners. While the debutant did get his name on the scoresheet, to say it was a mixed bag of a first runout for his new club was being modest as the Scotsman was brought in to provide a steely core.
Lambert put in a much more assured performance in his 2nd outing against Fortuna Düsseldorf, however the Paulo Sousa-shaped cloud rained over his short-lived parade as Hitzfeld flat out admitted that the big-money signing was above him in the pecking order for the next match. Fortune, however had other plans as it favored the brave Lambert as it turned out, the unlucky Sousa was injured.
Over time, the Glasgow-born midfielder became central to Hitzfeld’s vision of a team built on defensive excellence. Operating as a No.6 that took no prisoners, Lambert was unconquerable at times saved his best against the best of Europe in the Champions League.
While Dortmund swatted away Auxerre in the quarter-finals 4-1 on aggregate, people started to sit up and start to take notice of Hitzfeld’s side as serious competitors as they toppled Manchester United.
Boasting of the rarest gems in bonafide superstars such as Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona, nobody gave Dortmund a chance before the clash. As the German giants proved, miracles can happen more than once as they came away with 2 wins on the trot, each by a goal to nil to roar their way to the finals. Moreover, labelling it as a miracle is not only slightly insulting, but also far from the truth as the well-oiled machine that was Hitzfeld’s Dortmund were head and shoulders the superior side. Lambert stood out as he was the centerpiece behind the masterplan that proved decisive in a tie that was more of a lesson in defensive durability.
However, the match that changed Dortmund history and Paul Lambert forever is the Champions League final against Juventus. While Paulo Sousa reuniting against his former employers in a match of such magnitude was the storyline in the background, the foreground was the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enter the history books.
Much like the semi-final, Dortmund went into the encounter as unfancied and to no one’s surprise as Turin’s finest were stacked with the upper echelon of footballing talent. However, as the cliché reads, “football is not played on paper.”
As it turned out, this was the very case as all of Hitzfeld’s plan were executed to a tee. Firstly, Lambert’s role in the midfield was as pivotal as it could be as he was faced by possibly the most gifted player the game has ever witnessed in Zinedine Zidane. No pressure, right?
Lambert stood tall to the task and pocketed Zizou who cut a rattled and stifled figure the entire evening. The Frenchman was the best player on the pitch on even his off days, however, the final saw a new sheriff in town as the Scotsman put in a Man of the Match display.
To top things off, he assisted Karl-Heinz Riegle’s opener with a ball into the box that the striker finished from close quarters. The German forward doubled his and Dortmund’s lead and despite a cheeky goal from substitute Alessandro Del Piero in the 64th minute, an audacious chipped finish won the Black and Yellows the elusive competition.
Paul Lambert was the symbol of Dortmund’s underdog story and typified that courage, self-belief and heart always triumph, regardless of the battlefield.
While Lambert returned to his motherland, playing for both Celtic and Livingston, he will always be cherished as British’s football first hero to not only take the step, but come, see and conquer while he’s at it.