One of the most startling periods of under-performance in Premier League history is over. Five months ago Paul Lambert was signing a new contract at Villa Park, but on Wednesday night was forced to clear his desk. Half of the Premier League’s bottom ten have now changed their manager in the last 50 days.
“We have a long-term vision for Villa,” said chief executive Tom Fox upon the announcement of that new deal in September. “Paul is completely integrated into our plan to manage the club carefully and ambitiously back to a position in the Premier League appropriate to our history and collective expectations.” Clubs are criticised for their impatience, but rewarding mediocrity should be just as open to censure. Honouring Lambert’s achievements four matches into a season always felt strange.
It is clear that Villa did not want to sack Lambert, despite the dissenters growing in volume and anger. “When things aren’t going well, fans bay for that type of blood,” Fox said as recently as January 28. “That’s not the way that I or the owner are going to make a decision. Our focus for the last couple of months has been on making sure we support Paul to make us as successful as possible, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Unfortunately, there was only one direction Villa were heading under Lambert. The announcement of the new television deal and its eye-watering figures make Premier League survival crucially important to owner Randy Lerner. The American has made no secret of his desire to sell the club, and his asset will reduce markedly in value if it drops to the second tier. It is no coincidence that Lambert’s sacking came the day after Villa fell into the bottom three for the first time.
Hundreds of away supporters protested against Lambert’s continued employment after Tuesday’s limp defeat at Hull, joined on Wednesday by the local newspaper. ‘Lambert Must Go’ was the Birmingham Mail’s simple headline. The vultures were circling, but in truth they’d been waiting for months to pick on the carcas. This has been coming.
The statistics are extraordinary. Since Lambert signed his contract extension, Villa have taken 12 points (no club has fewer) and scored eight goals in 21 matches, a rate of one goal every 236 minutes. They’ve managed an average of just four shots on target per match. This is a team without invention, excitement or any other indicator of life, flat-lining their way to relegation. Lambert’s management forced the entire club into coma.
This was not simply a short-term issue, either. Villa have scored more than two goals in a match in any competition on two occasions in the last year. Over the entire length of Lambert’s reign his side have failed to score in 43% of their league matches, scoring at a rate of less than one goal a game for two-and-a-half years. They have taken 101 points from 101 league matches. The cliché is that it’s hard to stand still in the Premier League, but Villa have frozen to the spot. Owner Lerner appeared unmoved, epitomising a club that has fallen into hibernation, embracing mediocrity.
It’s hard to be too harsh on Lambert, for I’m sure that he desperately wanted Villa to be successful. Lambert comes across as a manager without arrogance or chip on shoulder, increasingly rare and increasingly refreshing. Villa supporters will be relieved to bid farewell, but would wish Lambert nothing but the best. The manager remained dignified throughout this bizarre collapse.
“I probably can’t describe how low we’re feeling right now,” Lambert said after the loss at Hull. “As a group we’re down. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve got to pick yourself up and you’ve got to go again.”
Unfortunately, things had already gone too far. “I try to do my best,” Lambert’s final insistence on Tuesday evening. Sorry Paul, but your best just wasn’t good enough.