Unity, false dawns, fast starts and fractures - assessing Lambert’s 100 games as Ipswich boss
- Credit: Archant
Paul Lambert marked his 100th game in charge of Ipswich Town with a win at Plymouth on Saturday. ANDY WARREN looks at the Scot’s time in charge.
Paul Lambert has now completed a century of Ipswich Town games.
He’s won 32 of them, drawn 25 and lost the other 43. His teams have scored 114 goals and conceded 129.
His win percentage of 32% is lower than his career average of 37.3% and his time at Norwich (49.3%). It’s higher than his spells at Stoke (13.3%) and Aston Villa (29.6)
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Town have failed to score in 32 of Lambert’s 100 matches and kept clean sheets in 26. Ipswich have scored more than once in 28 of those matches.
The biggest win came last August as the Blues claimed a 5-0 victory at Bolton, while the biggest defeat came 4-0 at Preston in the wake of relegation being confirmed in April 2019.
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The Scot’s used 69 players, signing 21 himself. Only Kane Vincent-Young, at £500,000, cost a transfer fee of any note. Ten have been loans.
A total of 24 players have scored goals for Lambert, with four (Kayden Jackson, James Norwood, Freddie Sears and Gwion Edwards) reaching double figures. A further two (Will Keane and Jon Nolan) have both scored nine, with the tally of six own goals the only other contributor on more than four. Jackson is his top scorer with 14 ahead of Norwood on 12.
He’s finished 24th in the Championship, 11th in League One and is currently third in the third tier. But, due to arriving midway through the 2018/19 campaign and last season being curtailed early due to the coronavirus crisis, he has oddly reached this milestone without completing a full league campaign as Ipswich manager.
Town’s home game with Doncaster on February 27 is currently scheduled to be Lambert’s 116th match in charge of Ipswich and, if he’s still in the role, that will mean his spell in Suffolk will be second only to his time with Norwich in terms of length of service at a single club.
Paul Lambert was right when he described Portman Road as being ‘like a morgue’ when he first took the reins at Portman Road.
The warm glow of Paul Hurst’s ‘new era’ had well-and-truly burned out before owner Marcus Evans made the call to the former Norwich boss, who was then charged with lifting the gloom and rescuing the Blues’ season.
The early signs were good. The draws with Preston and Reading were packed with energy and drive as the Ipswich players impressed their new boss before a heroic defensive effort ultimately secured his first win against Wigan in game seven.
By this point Lambert had lifted the club, said the right things and had the support of the fans, even if results on the pitch weren’t improving rapidly enough. There was talk of community, spirit, giving Portman Road a facelift, promises of ‘rock & roll football’ and engagement with the club’s legends.
‘Paul Lambert is a Blue, he hates Norwich’ supporters sung as the atmosphere inside Portman Road improved as the weeks went on. It seems a long time ago now, but it would be revisionist to not mention just how good a spirit Lambert had been able to foster, helped of course as he bought drinks for supporters, was sent off for his role in a brawl at Carrow Road and paid for travel for fans who followed the team to Blackburn.
All that meant, as the ever-inevitable relegation became reality, the club went down to League One as one, with a real hope that they would quickly return to the Championship in a better state than they left. The scenes after relegation was confirmed at home to Birmingham were widely discussed in the football world.
The fastest of fast starts in the third tier blew away all concerns as Town jumped to the top of the table and chased club records last autumn, leading to a ‘Lambo’ banner last August as Blue Action mocked the Town boss up as Sylvester Stallone’s movie action hero ‘Rambo’.
“I like to think we’ve given the fans their club back,” Lambert said after that game. This was surely the peak of his popularity, with Ipswich scoring goals, Norwood and Vincent-Young hitting the ground running and attendances increasing.
Of course, the promotion charge fell away but, after being at the helm during the coronavirus lockdown period when all players and staff were kept away from work, he oversaw another fast start with a new, pointed identity and a fresh mindset. To his credit, Lambert has given Ipswich a platform to build on at the start of both of his seasons in charge.
Youth is at the core of what Evans has asked Lambert to do, with the Scot helping Flynn Downes and Luke Woolfenden move into deserved central roles in the side while also finding a perfect role for Andre Dozzell. He has also given debuts to 15 players from the club’s academy in various competitions, including Armando Dobra, Idris El Mizouni and Brett McGavin.
While Lambert’s arrival in the Championship did bring signs of life from an Ipswich side already slipping towards relegation, they did ultimately fall through the trap door with a whimper.
Sadly, the dawns proved to be false, with two particular moments summing up the campaign and bringing a realisation that Ipswich simply weren’t going to be able to dig themselves out of the hole they were in when Lambert arrived.
The first saw Ipswich lead twice at home to Bristol City before imploding and losing 3-2, a night when many came to the conclusion relegation would soon follow. Many more joined that train of through once they lost by the same scoreline to Millwall on the first day of 2019, despite Jack Lankester giving the hosts the lead after just two minutes.
An inability to score goals on a consistent basis heaped pressure on an Ipswich defence which, though performing well at times, was pushed to breaking point on too many occasions.
There was a similar struggle in the second half of last season as things collapsed, with Town only scoring more than one goal five times during the final 29 matches of the campaign, as the Blues crashed down the table before the wreckage of a promotion push ultimately landed in 11th.
The plummet down the table came during a spell where Lambert regularly changed four or five members of his starting line-up between games and seemingly switched systems on a weekly basis in desperate search of traction.
Sadly, it never came and a once-so-promising campaign ended in mid-table obscurity when the season was curtailed, with meek home losses to Fleetwood and Coventry the final games before the big shutdown. The damage had already been done by then thanks to, among others, the 5-3 defeat at Lincoln and losses by a single goal to Sunderland, Rotherham, Blackpool, Oxford and Blackpool.
The worst of the lot, though, was a 4-1 home defeat to Peterborough which highlighted just how far away Ipswich were from those they were looking to challenge.
The season finished with just two wins in the 18 games against last season’s top 10. This time around it’s a win and six losses against similar opponents.
And it’s the continuation of that trend that’s perhaps the biggest concern as Ipswich look to avoid the mistakes of last season, as well as continued struggles in front of goal. Town have failed to score or only netted once in 72 of Lambert’s 100 matches in charge.
Off the pitch
There have been struggles on the pitch and a few off it, as well, due in part to communication issues.
Lambert called his own future into doubt following the 2-0 home loss to Hull in March 2019, when he refused to confirm he would remain at the club following relegation despite at that stage having repaired a fractious relationship between the club and its fans.
He did the same on Boxing Day last year following a 0-0 draw with Gillingham, when he suggested he may be close to leaving the club during a bizarre post-match assessment. He signed a new five-year deal just five days later.
This season has included contradictory statements regarding treatment of the club’s young players, among other confusing answers, as well as hitting out at the media for ‘absolute nonsense criticism’.
The ‘Lambo’ mural which marked the peak of the Town boss’s popularity has now been turned on its head, with Blue Action recently leaving a banner reading ‘Cheers for the beers but it’s time at the bar’ tied to the training ground gates last month.
In response to the growing criticism Lamber dangled “I know what needs to be changed. But I’ll keep those thoughts to myself,” when asked about how he can reverse the negative tide after Saturday’s win at Plymouth.
The current state of play
So here we are at the present day, where the Town boss himself has admitted even victory at Home Park at the weekend wasn’t going to be enough to change the opinion of many Town fans.
His Blues are third in the League One table despite having a squad ravaged by injury, five points behind leaders Hull City having played a game more. That, on the face of things and certainly for outsiders looking in, is a pretty decent return from the opening 16 games.
Lambert’s been publicly backed by owner Marcus Evans and general manager Lee O’Neill, with the former in particular making it clear he will not be pushed into making a change, regardless of supporters’ opinions.
But there’s one key question Lambert and his side couldn’t answer correctly last season and are failing to do so again during their League One resit. They can’t beat the best teams in the division.
Portsmouth (4th) and Peterborough (5th) are Town’s opponents in two of their next three games.
Games like these are where Lambert’s second century begins and will surely determine just how far the Scot will get on the road to 200. a