Stuart Watson's Sunday Verdict: Never mind blood out of a stone, Lambert is turning water into wine
PUBLISHED: 09:00 23 December 2018 | UPDATED: 13:32 23 December 2018
© Copyright Stephen Waller
Ipswich Town drew 1-1 with promotion-chasing Sheffield United at Portman Road yesterday to move to within four points of Championship safety. STUART WATSON gives his verdict.
Never mind getting blood out of a stone, Paul Lambert is seemingly turning water into wine.
Just a few weeks ago this group of kids and lower league recruits, as a collective, appeared badly out of their depth. The five-point gap to safety looked a chasm. It may as well have been 50.
There was no way Town were going to dig themselves out of this hole. The damage was done. Third-tier football for the first time since 1957 was a sad inevitability.
No-one admitted it publicly at the time, but that was the mood inside the camp as well as out. Keeper Dean Gerken let that slip last week.
Then along comes Lambert.
Phase one: Get the fans onside. Mission quickly accomplished.
All talk of his Norwich past was quickly quashed thanks to him immediately immersing himself in the history and culture of the club. Within days, having humbly sought out the opinions of fans, long-serving staff, club legends and media, he had a deep understanding of just what’s led us to this point.
‘Sometimes you can sleepwalk into situations’.
‘There are ways to lose games’.
Yep, this man just gets it. We’re in safe hands here.
Phase two: Make players believe in themselves.
Mick McCarthy’s ultra-pragmatism had seeped deeply into the sub-conscious of the players. A few of them started saying things like ‘we’re not Barcelona’ in the face of criticism over style of play. Familiarity had bred both comfort and contempt.
Then along come Paul Hurst and Chris Doig. Their remit was to shake things up a bit at a club where things had got rather stale. The constant demand for higher standards is a dangerous game though when you don’t have a big reputation or budget behind you.
To say it was ‘bad cop, bad cop’ is overplaying it, but by their own admittance they both have glass half-empty outlooks. And when you’re repeatedly told you’re not good enough then you begin to believe it.
Maybe it’s a generational, society thing. Maybe young people, not just footballers, don’t handle criticism as well these days.
One thing is for sure, player power is strong. If you lose hearts and minds then you’re soon gone as a manager. Just look at Jose Mourinho.
It’s no coincidence that, by contrast, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino offer far more light than shade.
And so Lambert, very acutely, adopts a relentlessly positive demeanour. The fear factor is replaced by a fun factor. Old dogs have learnt new tricks. Lower league recruits are beginning to find their feet.
Phase three: Build an identity.
No target men, so forget going direct and pass out the back. Midfielders must play on the turn. The front three must bring energy and dynamism.
Stick to the game plan no matter who the opposition. Entertain the crowd, blow away the apathy and make them truly believe that ‘this could be our day’ each and every time they walk into the stadium.
The gap to safety is only one point smaller than when Lambert first arrived. Somehow though that does now feel, as he keeps insisting, ‘nothing’.
It’s madness really when you consider the Blues have claimed what, on paper, is a pretty underwhelming six points from eight games under their new boss.
From losing limply to lowly sides, to drawing with Preston and Reading and then getting a gritty win against Wigan. That’s progress.
From being outclassed by promotion chasers, to giving West Brom and Nottingham Forest tests, to genuinely going toe-to-toe with Stoke and Sheffield United. That’s progress.
The next three games will truly show just how far the Blues have come in such a short space of time.
Defeats to QPR, Middlesbrough and Millwall were major low points. All three will certainly be facing a far different Ipswich Town this time around.
Are there concerns about whether the required reinforcements will be landed at the start of the new year? Yes, absolutely. With or without new faces though, the Blues are right in this fight.