Paul Lambert: The Brit who broke the mould

The history of British footballers abroad is littered mainly with sub-par performances, language difficulties and moaning about not being able to buy Corn Flakes or watch EastEnders. But every so often you find a success story.

Paul Lambert, whose once promising managerial career is beginning to lose its luster (but let’s not dwell on the present), was one such example. The Scot spent more than year on the books of Borussia Dortmund back in his playing days, during which time he became a vital cog in their 1997 Champions League winning side.

It seems like an unusual career step – to move from Motherwell, where Lambert had spent three years after joining from childhood team St Mirren, to one of the Bundesliga’s biggest clubs – and it’s one that we are unlikely to see repeated any time soon.

Mainly, it’s theorised that the move – a free transfer – came about because Lambert impressed his future employers during a UEFA Cup in which Motherwell played Dortmund the season prior – but it’s not as though he was an unknown quantity before that. The tough-tackling midfielder had not long before made his international bow, and was surely not far off a move to one of Scotland’s big two.

Under Ottmar Hitzfield, Lambert became less a box-to-box dynamo and more a sitting midfielder tasked with shielding the defence. This was a position that was yet to be widely introduced to the British game, which still largely favoured the conventional 4-4-2, but one that Lambert – adaptable and tactically astute – could easily step into.

“I remember thinking: ‘No. You’re never going to do it.’ There was unbelievable self-doubt, that I couldn’t handle that company because when I saw the players … He’d won Serie A, someone had won the World Cup, someone had won the European Championship, the Bundesliga titles … and I’m coming from Motherwell on a free transfer. I was worth a bottle of Coke. Jesus!”

Paul Lambert, speaking to The Guardian

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Reflecting on his time in Germany, the future Wolves manager recalled being riddled with insecurity: a player who had spent his career in Scotland – which, even during the slightly more glamorous nineties was a few tiers below Europe’s top leagues – joining up with seasoned internationals.

If anything, this outlook probably worked in the Scot’s favour. Instead of trying to make a name for himself, Lambert found his role as a tireless and selfless team member, doing more than his share of legwork alongside Paulo Sousa at the heart of Hitzfield’s functional 3-5-2.

In the semi finals of Dortmund’s successful 1996-97 Champions League, the Germans dispensed with Ferguson’s Manchester United; a game in which Lambert held his own against Roy Keane (and the team which would lift the trophy itself two years later). Then, in the final in Munich, he was tasked with shutting out Juventus’ talisman Zinedine Zidane – which he did to great effect as his team ran out 3-1 winners on the night.

In turn, Lambert became the first British player to lift the European Cup since it was re-branded as the Champions League, and one of only a handful (alongside Keegan, Hargreaves and McManaman) to win it with a side from outside the UK.

He returned to Scotland a few months later when he joined Celtic in late 1997, but it wasn’t a case of being turfed out because of poor form or a failure to adjust to life abroad (as is so often the case when British players make a go of things overseas). He had done what he went to Dortmund to do: establish himself on the biggest stage, experience German football (which served him well for his future managerial exploits) and win Europe’s most cherished prize.

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