‘There had to be some things said... some will respond, some won’t like it’ – Lambert on his summer of tough love
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town’s new League One season starts on Sunday with a televised lunchtime game against Wigan at Portman Road. STUART WATSON spoke exclusively to manager Paul Lambert about a summer of ‘tough love’ and getting back to the system he’s always wanted to play.
Paul Lambert set the tone with his very first Zoom meeting with the squad ahead of their return to pre-season training.
There were, by all accounts, a few bluntly-put home truths told by the Ipswich Town boss, following several months to simmer on last season’s collapse.
The ‘tough love’ approached continued after the players returned to training.
A young quintet of players on the fringes of the first team were left out of the squad photo shoot and told, by assistant boss Stuart Taylor, that they needed to ‘earn the right’.
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Key players have been given similar cold treatment. Publicly, the Blues boss said that Luke Woolfenden ‘had to get going and start to perform’, Flynn Downes needed to ‘clear his head’ after handing in a transfer request and that James Norwood ‘needs to show me what he can do to get back in the team’.
Privately, the words have been stronger. Standards expected in training have been high.
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‘PR Paul’, as he had been dubbed following a concerted charm offensive with fans, has reverted to his default mould of angry Glaswegian.
“I think you have to do that,” said Lambert. “If you’re at a club with high expectancy levels then finishing 11th in League One was nowhere good enough – that’s for everyone, myself, the staff, the players. Everyone.
“I had to get that message across. Listen, some will respond to it and some won’t like it.
“But if I had gone in there and said ‘welcome back, it’s great to see you, well done on last season’, well that’s not going to help anybody. And that wouldn’t have been me being me. There had to be some things said.”
Lambert had a reputation at previous clubs for being ruthless. It wasn’t uncommon for him to make senior players train with the kids if he’d decided their face no longer fitted.
“I’m never frightened to make really big calls,” he says. “That’s the job. If you’re appointed as the leader then you have to lead.
“You might have to make decisions and say things people don’t like, but you do it with integrity and with the club’s benefit in mind.
“The squad is big. Some guys might not be happy, but my message to all of them is simple ‘get in the team and stay in the team’.
“They all have different personalities. Some react positively to criticism and pressure, some don’t like it. Just because somebody doesn’t like criticism though, it doesn’t mean you have to avoid giving it out. That would be wrong. That’s something they’re going to need to handle to play for a club the size of Ipswich Town.”
Lambert has gone from insisting senior men potentially playing 60 games is dangerous – ‘they could be dead by Christmas’ – to now saying he has no fears about ditching squad rotation for a truncated campaign because players will become ‘robust’.
He’s also gone from scoffing at formation talk – ‘get it out of your brain... players win games, not systems’ – to making tactical consistency the complete focus.
Those are quite the political u-turns. A sign that he’s humble enough to admit mistakes from last season, or purely a product of pressure from above? Owner Marcus Evans has certainly made it patently clear that the team must try and play attractive football and that youth must be trusted over the coming months.
Either way, the dynamic, possession-based 4-3-3 system that the team has been working on over recent weeks has looked encouraging.
Lambert is quick to point out that his side played this way on their way to relegation in the Championship. He’s right. It’s why there was such a perverse feelgood factor about the club as they slipped into League One. You could see a plan developing before your eyes.
All of which begs the question... Why did that plan get abandoned last season?
“I’ll tell you what it was,” he says. “We went to Germany, worked with the guys and both Kayden Jackson and James Norwood were firing on all cylinders. They were scoring goals left, right and centre, were really on a hot streak, so that’s why I went with two up front for the first game.
“Then obviously we started really well and it becomes hard to change. In truth though, we just weren’t playing the type of football that I wanted to see us playing, even when we were getting results from it.
“You’re right about some of the football we played in the Championship. As I’ve said before, if we’d have had that potent goalscorer then I think we’d have stayed up. Remember the game up at West Brom? We were excellent. The Bristol City game too. We were great. Everyone recognised we were playing a really good brand of football.
“During lockdown I decided we had to get back to that. I’ve always wanted to play that way.
“We’ve really drilled it into them since we’ve come back. There’s been a lot of repetition, sometimes it can be boring for them, but it’s important we drum it in and drum it in.
“Sometimes they’d much rather be playing small-sided games, but I need to see that the movements we want from them, on and off the ball, have become ingrained.”
Town first team coach Matt Gill has spoken about how the team needs to be ‘purposeful’ with their play. How does Lambert describe the key qualities he’s been asking for?
“The speed the ball is moved is important,” he said. “I want us to be able to get in behind people at the right time.
“I want to see players rotating, disorientating the opposition, allowing us to switch the play into spaces that have been created.
“I want the players to run forwards and pass forwards whenever they can. Do you remember that pass over the top from Andre (Dozzell) in the first half on Saturday (against Bristol Rovers)? Oh, that was absolutely brilliant. That’s what I want.
“Not moving the ball quick enough was an area where we fell short last season.
“I thought Saturday was one of our best performances since I’ve been here. Our movement, our speed with the ball... it was really, really good. Now we’ve got to maintain that.”
There’s another elephant in the room. If Norwood and Jackson’s form is what tempted him to go with two up top for most of last season, one of them is now going to have to miss out.
“James Norwood is a goalscorer, Kayden Jackson, everyone knows about his speed, Oli Hawkins has come in and been a breath of fresh air, he gives us another option, while Aaron Drinan has really taken a chance that he perhaps didn’t expect to get,” said Lambert, assessing his forward options.
“James and Kayden are both lads who have done well, but they both know that only one striker can play now. It’s a case of the best man gets the jersey.
“They might think ‘I don’t want to be here if I’m not going to play’, and I can’t stop anyone wanting to leave, but players will only leave the club on our terms.”
Obvious follow-up question time. Have either actually asked to leave? There’s certainly been plenty of speculation surrounding the pair.
“I haven’t heard anything,” said Lambert. “I would hope that they’ll be thinking ‘I’m going to fight for my place’ and will thrive on the competition. Hopefully those guys are up for the fight. If that happens, it will be healthy.”
We’re back to the theme of tough love again. I ask whether the fact he signed a new five-year contract back in January has empowered him to take this approach.
“I know what you’re saying,” he says, laughing. “But I don’t think it matters if you’ve got a five, 10 or 15 year contract, you’re still never quite sure which way things will go.
“I just take it game by game and try to keep making the football club better on and off the pitch.
“I know the fans haven’t had a lot to shout about over the last 18/19 years, or whatever. Everyone at this football club understands that. I understand that.
“That’s why I’m stressing that standards and expectations have to be higher.
“Do I personally have to improve on last season? Without a shadow of a doubt. Do the players have to improve? A million per cent.
“I think Saturday’s performance showed the players have taken what I’ve said the right way and are up for the fight.”