Bring it on!

By: League Managers Association

Paul Lambert has never shied away from a challenge, and has sought out every opportunity to expand his horizons. Here he explains how his coaching career has been shaped in Germany and Britain…

“Moving to Germany as a player broadened my thinking”

When I moved from Motherwell to join Borussia Dortmund, I was aware it was a big club, but it was only when I arrived that I realised the full scale of the set up. As soon as I signed for them I knew it was going to be an incredible learning opportunity, both on and off the pitch, and I threw myself into it fully.

The team I joined was full of world-class players, like Karl-Heinz Riedle and Stefan Klos, and I was working under a fantastic manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld. I learnt a lot from him and it influenced much of what I try to do as a manager.

“I had to grow up quickly”

Moving to a new country meant I developed not only as a football player, but also as a person. I had to learn to speak German, adapt to a new culture and make lifestyle changes, like driving on the other side of the road – all the little things that you take for granted. It helped that the team made me feel welcome right from the start and went out of their way to help me settle in and adapt.

I loved living in Germany, and while it was obviously a big change I think you have to embrace an experience like that or go under. I embraced it with open arms and it’s a country to which I still return very regularly.

My experience of playing abroad also means that as a manager I’m better able to help players from other countries settle in, because I can put myself in their shoes.

“Learning a language is key”

The best advice I can give to any player or manager moving to another country is to learn the language as quickly as possible. It’s so important, not just in terms of your work with the football club, but in enabling you to integrate and to develop your new life. Without the ability to communicate, life can feel very isolated and difficult.

At first, learning a language can feel intimidating and you don’t want to be seen to be making mistakes, but when people see that you’re trying they tend to be very helpful. Where I lived as a player, my neighbours didn’t speak a word of English, so we had to find ways to communicate with each other. Gradually their English improved and so did my German and to this day we are still friends.

“I took my Pro Licence in Germany – in German”

It is probably one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever studied for.

I was in my mid 30s and the last exams I’d taken were back at school. These ones were all in German, so it was tough, but I like a challenge and I enjoyed it. Jurgen Klopp was among the other students on my course and it was great to see him go on to be so successful with Borussia Dortmund and now to be making such a massive impact with Liverpool.

I was still playing in Scotland for Celtic at the time, but I knew I would be retiring at the end of the season and wanted to take my Pro Licence. I used to leave Glasgow for Germany each Sunday evening and arrive back for training on Friday morning. It was a big commitment and I couldn’t have done it without the fantastic support of my manager at the time, Martin O’Neill.

“Nothing compares with experience”

My first steps in management came at Scottish club Livingston, before moving south of the border and working at Wycombe, Colchester and Norwich City, where I earned back-to-back promotions.

Working my way up through the English leagues gave me a solid grounding in management and meant I was prepared when the opportunity came to manage in the Premier League at Aston Villa.

As well as developing technically as a manager, it’s really important to be able to develop resilience so you’re equipped to deal with all the challenges that the job presents.

You can never be fully prepared for management. Nothing can prepare you to stand in the dugout, 4-0 down, and to have to think clearly and know what to change. It can be a lonely and difficult job and sometimes it feels like you’ve got the world on your shoulders, but it’s also an incredible job and I thrive on the challenges it presents.

“My ongoing connection with Germany still helps me learn”

When you’re in between jobs you have the chance to recharge your batteries, but also an opportunity to learn and improve before you move onto your next role. Before joining Stoke I returned to Germany, met with other managers, shared ideas, and observed different types of training and technical approaches.

I’m fortunate that, because of my time with Dortmund, people know who I am, so it’s easier for me to pick up the phone and arrange such visits. Watching different coaches at work in different countries certainly expands your thinking and prevents you from getting tunnel vision.

I do feel part German in my approach to football and a lot of my thinking is influenced by my ongoing relationship with German football. I am definitely mentally tough from playing in Germany – the people I played with and the club made me that way.

The success that I experienced with Borussia Dortmund probably contributed to me being able to handle pressure and nobody I played against ever fazed me. I’ve carried that ability to handle pressure and expectation throughout my playing and management career.

“I’m keen to learn from other managers”

Ottmar Hitzfeld managed at the highest level with Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, so I was keen to find out how he dealt with things like managing people and bouncing back from defeat. I met with him in Germany and he shared his experience with me, which was invaluable and changed my own approach to managing.

I remember one of the best pieces of advice he gave me. He said that when you’ve made a decision, you should stick with it and not have any regrets. I’ve always tried to follow that advice.

I also spent an interesting time with Jurgen Klopp when he welcomed me into his training ground at Borussia Dortmund; and with former Bayer Leverkusen manager Roger Schmidt, with Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, and also Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid. It’s so insightful to see how other managers work at the very highest level.

If I could go back and give myself advice when I was starting out it would probably be to not be so single minded. Most people when they’re young think they know better and don’t listen to the voice of experience. Often it’s years later that you realise how valuable that advice really was.

“Media work has been great”

As well as the study visits, I did some work for the Bundesliga and German TV before joining Stoke. I enjoyed it and it’s great to keep improving on my German. I had a tutor to ensure that whenever I returned to Germany my language would be up to scratch.

Doing this kind of TV work between jobs has really helped me to see the other side of the coin and to have a better appreciation of what broadcasters are looking for from managers. I’ve also seen how much preparation and research the production teams, presenters and commentators do. I now approach my relationship with the media differently and try to be as open and as relaxed as I can be during press conferences.

“I focus on the positives”

When you join a new club you don’t have time to dwell too much on the negatives. As Ottmar Hitzfeld used to say to me, you should analyse something for 24 hours and then let it go. Otherwise, it can eat away at you, and then in turn the players and everyone at the club. It was brilliant advice.