Paul Lambert’s arrival at Stoke City was quickly hailed as yet another desperate ploy from a lower-tier club to scrape Premier League survival – but the reality may be far worse for Potters fans.
Or, maybe better? Nobody can really say for sure – a common thread throughout most of Lambert’s career in the spotlight.
The bulk of his top-flight experience has consisted of a near-three-year spell with Aston Villa, characterised by inconsistencies so glaring that Villa fans had no idea what to expect from week-to-week.
In his first season in charge, the former Scottish international midfielder oversaw ten incoming transfers to the squad and 13 outgoings.
This is understandable in context as the Villains had been dire the previous season under Alex McLeish’s stewardship and Lambert had an entire summer to work with before his first league game as Villa boss – which they lost 1-0 to a newly-promoted West Ham side.
But, rather than attempt to build around his fresh faces, Lambert seemed to desire a new squad every pre-season.
Nine new faces came into the camp in the summer of 2013, five more the following summer, and last-ditch spending on Carles Gil and Scott Sinclair came in January 2015 before Lambert was sacked the following month.
Instability is not the hallmarks of most of the appointments at the lower end of the Premier League.
The likes of Roy Hodgson and David Moyes, the solid, dependable, “will do a job” type managers have been favoured, save for the eternally enigmatic Alan Pardew (who, as it happens, is comfortably faring the worst of this season’s batch of hit the panic button recruits) and the untested-at-this-level Carlos Carvalhal.
Lambert’s appointment seems to point to another of the Hodgson/Moyes ilk, at least judging by the reaction on social media, tasked with the basic checklist of uninspiring football and a 13th place league finish.
But as we’ve seen Lambert has not always been known for stability – and nor for the functional and insipid.
Hauling Norwich City into the Premier League in 2011 in spectacular fashion, his Canaries seemed to abandon all semblance of defending and adopt a quick-breaking, sledgehammer-like approach – a stunning 4-3 early-season win against Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Leicester City and a 5-1 thrashing of local rivals Ipswich Town the highlights.
Grant Holt was the second top scorer in the division and things seemed to be looking up when they comfortably survived their first season in the top-flight, finishing 12th.
Lambert made his move to Villa that summer and, perhaps learning from the 6-1 thrashing Norwich received at the hands of Manchester City towards the end of the previous campaign, adopted a more solid, stifling, counter-attacking approach.
It didn’t quite work, so Lambert cleared the squad out and tried to play a more possession-orientated style.
It didn’t work at all, Villa regularly lacking the creativity to create chances and oftentimes passing both the opposition, themselves and the fans into submission before conceding.
So what did Lambert do next?
He tried a strange mish-mashing of the two styles that brought out some of the dullest football ever seen in the Premier League.
When Tim Sherwood walked into the salvage operation in February 2015, the new life he breathed into the club was akin to the second coming – Lambert long having become a parody of a top-flight boss, spouting endless meaningless phrases like “can’t fault the lads” and “we go again” so often you began to wonder how his players could be inspired by such a drab character.
Lambert’s personality, or lack thereof, does seem to contribute to the stereotyping.
“He was dour to the point of tedious” was the opinion of the Birmingham Mail’s Mat Kendrick – but should we let Lambert’s personality cloud the judgement on his jobs done, both pre and post-Villa?
He was famously hired by Norwich after smashing them 7-1 with his Colchester United side, and led them to two promotions.
He comfortably kept up a Blackburn Rovers side in dire financial straits, and, interestingly and, perhaps, not coincidentally, both Rovers and Villa suffered relegation the year after Lambert left.
At Wolves last season, his style better reflected stodgy end-of-Villa tenure Lambert than exciting Norwich Lambert, and they did need a heavy reliance on form players like Helder Costa and Dave Edwards to keep them up, but they stayed up, ultimately quite comfortably.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom at Villa either, as the likes of Ron Vlaar, Ashley Westwood, and Matt Lowton all proved astute purchases for the club under Lambert.
Fabian Delph played his best football before this current campaign for him, and he introduced the Premier League to Christian Benteke, a deadline day signing in 2012 who would have more than a significant say in Villa’s subsequent survival.
And, as Lambert’s reputation has been altered throughout the years, decreasing in worth, mirroring his team’s play somewhat, Stoke seem to be matching their new man in charge in their constant identity crisis.
Trying to move away from the Tony Pulis-era, the signings of players such as Xherdan Shaqiri, Marko Arnautovic, and Jesé were all seen as a calculated approach by the club to present a fresher-faced, more likeable Stoke.
But Mark Hughes was not the man to fully lead the transition away from Pulis.
Despite inching the club slightly further up the table, the shadow of that baseball cap never fully went away, the style never did arrive to match the substance, and Stoke now sit in the relegation zone after the inevitable slump without really having an identity to call their own.
Even when they made 13th place their home, Stoke had a style, an identity, an edge, and an atmosphere unique to any other Premier League club.
But in trying to move away from that, they haven’t fully moved to anything else and are now part of the endless stream of interchangeable mid-table fodder circling the drop zone.
The same crisis of conservatism has befallen Swansea City, no longer Swansealona for sure, and the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley, and Huddersfield could be on their way to tedium should they lose sight of their own creative visions soon.
Lambert, then, enters a club caught at a similar stylistic crossroads to himself.
Muddled thinking has led them both to this point, with Stoke smashing the panic button and Lambert’s reputation teetering on the edge.
If he can guide them through this season, Lambert is in the perfect position to grasp a golden opportunity to play his best football since Norwich – after all, on paper, there is no shortage of talent at Stoke.
But whether or not Lambert will have the bravery, or if Stoke can match it if he does, is the real issue at heart.
This could finally be Stoke’s chance to firmly put the “cold wet Tuesday” stereotype firmly in the rear-view mirror, and Paul Lambert’s Premier League redemption.
It just all depends on which Paul Lambert, and which Stoke City, shows up.
Alex Dunne, Pundit Arena