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Paul Lambert: Exclusive interview with the Celtic and Dortmund icon

Paul Lambert’s career saw him conquer Europe on the continent, breaking new ground as the first British footballer to win the Champions League with a foreign club.

Part of Borussia Dortmund’s triumphant team in 1997, he remains a popular figure at the Westfalenstadion and a fan favourite at Celtic, following eight decorated seasons and four Scottish Premier League titles at Parkhead.

Post-playing, Lambert moved into management with success and won back-to-back promotions at Norwich City, taking the Canaries from League One to the Premier League in successive seasons.

 

Lambert’s career on the pitch and in the dugout was a fascinating watch and The Football Faithful sat down with the former Scotland international this week, at an event hosted by BoyleSports.

Paul Lambert: Exclusive interview with the Celtic and Dortmund icon:

Q: You made history as the first British player to win the Champions League at Borussia Dortmund, earning praise for your performances in the semi-final and final, up against Roy Keane (Manchester United) and Zinedine Zidane (Juventus). What are your memories from that run and those match ups?

“I think the team I played with in Dortmund, they were world-class. Some of them had won the World Cup in 1990, a lot had won Euro ’96, and some of them had won Bundesliga and Serie A titles, so I was in a dressing room full of winners. They made it really easy for me to fit in, really easy.

“What I did become was an integral part. They needed someone like me to play that particular role. Playing against Zidane, I was used to that type. I’d played against Thomas Häßler, Stefan Effenberg, Mehmet Scholl, (Gheorghe) Hagi, and Rivaldo, I’d played against unbelievable number tens so I knew the role that Ottmar (Hitzfeld) was going to give me. That was normal for me.

“Did it faze me? No. Did it faze me playing against Roy? No, it never. Roy and I got on very well, he was doing his job and I was doing mine. When the game was finished, that was it. I never had any mindset of ‘oh, it’s Manchester United’ or anything like that, I was never overawed. It was just another game for me because I was playing with a brilliant team.

“When you play with a brilliant team and brilliant players, the surroundings don’t really matter, what you’re up against. Playing against them guys, it was just another game for me I guess.”

Q: Your time at Dortmund lasted just one season. Do you have any regret that your spell in Germany ended soon?

“I try not to have regrets. The only regret I have in football is losing the UEFA Cup final with Celtic in 2003.

“After the Champions League final I could have signed for anybody in Europe. Everybody wanted to take me. I was really happy in Dortmund, it’s a club I’m still fond of and I regularly still go over and watch them. The reason I came back was that my son wasn’t keeping too well, or else I’d never have come back.

“Celtic asked me a few times to come and I said the same as I said to everybody else, I didn’t want to come, I didn’t want to leave what in my view was the best club in Europe at that time. The best supporters in Europe. I had my reasons for coming back, with my son, and the time I had there was unbelievable. You couldn’t have wished for a better time.

“To make that sort of an impact in a short space of time. When I go back over there, it’s really nice. If you play there then you realise what type of club it is.”

 

Q: Jude Bellingham is another Brit who has had success at Dortmund. What have you made of his rise?

“Brilliant. I met him a few years ago at Dortmund and I thought then if you can keep your feet on the ground you’re going to be one of the best. I saw him play and I knew exactly what he was capable of. He’s progressed into this unbelievable footballer, an all-round midfielder. He’s got every attribute.

“I think he’s got a good family around him, I think he’s well-educated which is important with the level of stardom he’s getting. If he can keep his feet on the ground, which I’m sure he will, then he can be anything he wants. He’s a proper player but, more importantly, I think he’s a proper kid.”

Q: Jadon Sancho recently returned to Dortmund. Why do you think it failed to work out for him at Manchester United and is re-signing for Dortmund the right move?

“He was brilliant in Dortmund the first time. He was fantastic and obviously got his move to United. For whatever reason it’s not happened there. When you get into a dressing room you need people who are really good people there.

“Nobody knows the ins and outs at Manchester United apart from the people in there and the manager, I think, has handled things really well there. I think he’s had a hard gig and he’s handled it well.

“Jadon, for whatever reason, it’s not happened and he’s gone back to Dortmund and all of a sudden that club suits him. He plays in front of 83,000 every week, he plays a high standard of football, maybe Dortmund just suits him better than Manchester United does.

“He might move from Dortmund and go somewhere else and it clicks again, it’s just finding the right teammates, at the right club, at the right moment. Timing is everything in football and I think going back to Dortmund is a really healthy move for him.”

 

Q: You mentioned the 2003 UEFA Cup final with Celtic earlier, what was that run like?

“The run was brilliant, knocking out Liverpool and Blackburn when everyone thought Celtic would get knocked out. That Celtic team was a great side. It was powerful, it could match anything and it was a really good era at that time.

“We had a real belief in ourselves that we could go and win games, that’s what we had, a great belief. People ask me what the difference is between the Celtic team I played in and Dortmund. The Dortmund team was a special, special team and the Celtic team was a great team. That Celtic team could handle anything. When we went away from home or at home, we could handle it.

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“We had big characters and big players who knew how to win games. We were nasty when we had to be, but all great teams have a nasty streak in them. We came up against Porto, who a year later went on to win the Champions League. They were a top team with Jose (Mourinho) coming through at that time. Even then, Porto were hanging on at the death and we were down to 10 men.

“I will say the stadium was never big enough to hold Celtic fans. It wasn’t big enough, it was too small. It wasn’t the greatest of stadiums to host a UEFA final. Did Porto deserve it? They probably did. We just fell short but that run was great. The Liverpool games were great, the Blackburn games were great. The Stuttgart games were great when nobody gave us a chance. That Celtic team was a very, very good side.

Q: Henrik Larsson had a big role in that campaign with 44 goals, what was he like to play with?

“You always felt with Henrik when you had a chance it was a goal. Very rarely would he miss. His movement, the work rate, people don’t see that. The work rate closing people down was brilliant. He knew where the goal was. For me, he was up there with the best strikers I played with but, more importantly, he was a top guy.”

Q: One of the best in Europe?

“He was definitely one of the best in Europe. It didn’t matter where he was playing, whether with Sweden or with Celtic in the Scottish League, he was performing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the goals are the same size in Scotland as they are in Europe, the ball’s the same shape, it doesn’t matter people’s perceptions and what they think. He could score goals at any level.

“I played with Karl Heinz-Riedle, Stéphane Chapuisat, Lars Ricken, and people like that. All top, top players, and Henrik was up there.

Q: You moved into management post-playing, what has been your best achievement in the dugout?

“One of the biggest achievements was keeping Aston Villa in the Premier League because we had absolutely no resources with it. The back-to-back with Norwich, the Norwich lads were great they were the ones that did it. Going back-to-back to the Premier League and securing it pretty comfortably was a great achievement, but the hardest one was the Villa one.

“Stoke was great, Blackburn was great, I loved that, and Wolves was great. I loved all the clubs I was at. I went to a few clubs with 14/15 games to go to try and save them and there’s not a lot of games to turn it around.

“I understand it when Thomas Tuchel says don’t go into a job mid-season, because you inherit someone else’s problems. I get that. I’ve been asked to go back in a few times and said no. I enjoy what I’m doing at the moment, doing the Dortmund stuff and playing the legends games, travelling the world. Will I go back in? I really don’t know.”

Q: What have you made of one of your former clubs, Aston Villa, this season?

“What a season they’re having. I think the manager’s gone in there, the ownership from the top looks stable and strong. The manager’s gone in and been a revelation and they’ve bought really well.

“I think one of the catalysts has been John McGinn. I said a few years ago that his enthusiasm can rub off on people. They’ve had a great season and, hopefully, they can maintain it. It’s a great club Aston Villa. In my time, it needed money and finances to run it and the club was getting sold at that time. If it’s done right it can be a huge, huge football club.”

 

Q: Do you think the performances of McGinn and the increasing numbers of Scottish players at top clubs is benefitting the national team?

“100%. That’s the important thing. If the national team is doing well you tend to find there’s a lot of good players in there. That’s what’s happening at the minute and it’s taken a long time to break that cycle.

“Andy (Robertson) is down at Liverpool, Kieran Tierney at Sociedad now, and John McGinn, (Stuart) Armstong at Southampton. It’s important that they keep carrying the can for it because those lads have all done great. That’s the pleasing thing about Scottish football at the minute.

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“We’ve got a hard group in the Euros. The first game is a brilliant game. You’re opening up against the hosts. It will be great, the Tartan Army will go over in their thousands and absolutely milk it, win, lose or draw.

“Stevie (Clarke) and the lads will want to qualify, which is important, and Scotland won’t go over there to be the whipping boys. They’ll give it a go and will want to go through. Hopefully, they can. They deserve the moment to go toe-to-toe with Germany. The first game’s really unpredictable. Can they beat them? Yeah, they probably can. They’ll give it a go, that’s for sure.”

Q: There’s been talk of English-born players earning a call-up, with Harvey Barnes and Anthony Gordon linked. What have you made of that?

“I think it’s been like that for a while. If you’ve got a great-grandmother or an uncle who has the ancestry. If you can, why not? Everybody else does it. If that’s the rule, then that’s the rule.

“Would it be ideal to have everybody Scottish? Yeah, probably, but that’s not the rule. The rule is you can be picked if your mum, dad or grandparents are Scottish, so the secret is to get the best players you can playing for your country.”

 

Q: Brendan Rodgers has come under a bit of recent pressure at another of your former sides, Celtic…

“At Celtic, when you lose, even if you draw a game people want to hound you because that’s the pressure that comes. I think he’s handled everything up there, he’s done it before and he’ll do it again. This is a team that’s sitting top of the league up there. It’s strange.

“It makes me laugh because I know how it works up there, I played there for nine years. You’re only one bad pass away from a crisis and if you can’t handle the heat then it’s not a gig for you. Brendan will have absolutely no problem up there.”

Q: Are Celtic’s struggles in Europe the issue?

“The bottom line is they haven’t got the same finances as a lot of teams. Can they probably compete better with teams on a similar budget? Yeah, probably. I was at the Lazio game at the Stadio Olimpico and there wasn’t much in it. I was at the Atletico Madrid game and up until the sending off you didn’t know where the game was going. They obviously flexed their muscles and ran out comfortably in the end. I was at the Shakhtar game. They’re not far from it, it’s just that little bit of quality.

“Should they be doing better than one or two points? Yeah, with the size of the club. But the facts are they don’t have the money that an Atletico or a Lazio gets, and can’t pay those figures. What I would say is that if you gave Celtic the same finances as everybody else, especially in England, then you would see an unbelievable superpower because it’s that big.”

 

Q: Whats the difference between the current Celtic and the team you played in, who had success in Europe?

“I think when Martin (O’Neill) came he inherited a lot of us and we could all play the game. He inherited me, Henrik, Alan Stubbs, and (Jackie) McNamara. He inherited some really top players and added to that. Lenny (Neil Lennon), (Chris) Sutton, (John) Hartson, (Alan) Thompson and guys like that and they were brilliant for us.

“When you go into a club what you inherit is important and then you can add to that. You need the balance of good guys and good people, which the majority of us were. Martin bought Sutty I think for £5m or £6m, you look at that in modern terms and that doesn’t even get you a League One player.

“At that time it was looked upon as big money but when you’re competing with other teams at that time, it wasn’t big money. Times move and finances move, and if you gave Celtic the money of English clubs, you give them a few years to find their feet and then they’d be strong.”

Q: Ange Postecoglou has earned lots of praise since swapping Celtic for Spurs, despite some initial reservations after his appointment. Were you confident that he could transfer his football to the Premier League?

“He did brilliantly for Celtic. He has his way of playing and he doesn’t change for anybody. I think the ignorance comes from people who don’t know Celtic and what it stands for. If you talk to anybody who has played there, and I’m talking great players, they will tell you exactly what it is like.

“I think that (reservations) came from a bit of ignorance. I knew Ange would do a good job wherever he went because of the way he was as a person and the way his mindset was in handling Celtic. I’m pretty sure if you can handle Celtic, you can handle most clubs anywhere in the world.

“He’s got this way of playing and he won’t change, he says that. If we score 11 and they score nine, it’s fine, we win the game. That’s the way he plays, there’s no fear factor and everybody knows the quick attacking football, the full-backs come in. It’s the sort of thing he did at Celtic. He looks like he’s got good guys there with him, he’s bought really well.

“The Spurs fans have taken to him. Whether they’re going to be good enough to win the league, I’m not so sure. I think City, Liverpool and Arsenal look like the ones to challenge, but they’re having a great season.”

Read – Noughties Nines: Henrik Larsson – Celtic’s King of Kings

See more – Six British players who shone in the Bundesliga

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