For any footballer at a mid-ranking club, bereft of the sort of the perceived talent and reputation that attract admiring clubs like moths to a light, and a defunct contract, there’s an obvious fork in the road. To the right lies the safe path. Your club wants to offer you a new deal. It’s safe. It’s guaranteed. It means you can still provide for your family. The other road – the one leading to all sorts of left field possibilities – is solely reserved for the brave, or the foolhardy. It leads to, well that’s the whole point. You simply don’t know where it leads, and if your briefly itinerant excursion into the exploration of the unknown is a dead end, there’s no guarantee that you can retrace your steps and opt for the other road afterwards.
Such a choice faced Motherwell’s Scottish midfielder Paul Lambert, at the end of the 1995-96 season. Lambert chose left path, having “…always wanted to try to play abroad.” As he later remarked, “I had nothing to lose at the time and never knew how things were going to pan out.” Sometimes the right path is the wrong path. Lambert chose left and twelve months later with a Champions League winner’s medal in his pocket after a Man of the Match performance negating the talents of Zinedine Zidane, no-one was questioning his sense of direction.
Lambert had joined Motherwell in September 1993 and when the club finished as runners-up in the league, they earned qualification for the 1994-95 UEFA Cup. It would be a brief foray into continental competition but, prove long enough for Lambert to make a particularly important impression on an opposition manager. A 7-1 Preliminary Round canter past Havnar Boltfelag of the Faroe Islands saw the Fir Park club paired with Borussia Dortmund in the First Round in September 1994. Although defeated both home and away, by Ottmar Hitzfeld’s charges, Lambert had impressed the man in the opposing dugout and, whilst Motherwell went back to domestic action, Hitzfeld had made a note of the Scot’s performance.
Lambert’s contract with Motherwell expired at the end of the 1995-96 season and, despite being offered new terms by the club, he had resolved to leave in pursuit of a fresh challenge. At the time, the deal to re-sign with the club was on the table, but that wouldn’t last for ever. After speaking with a Dutch agent, a ten-day window was agreed for him to find a new club. On the tenth day, the agent got back to him with a couple of potential offers. Lambert recalls that, “I thought he was going to say somewhere like Azerbaijan or Liechtenstein because I had nowhere to go; nowhere in England, nowhere in Scotland, nothing. But he said PSV Eindhoven and Borussia Dortmund.” In his own words, “I just took the chance, packed my bags and went.”
The first option was the Dutch club, but in a trial game, manager Dick Advocaat deployed Lambert on the wide right of midfield and although he scored a couple of goals, it never felt like it was going to work out. It didn’t, and a rushed journey to Dortmund was followed by a car journey to Lübeck where Dortmund where engaged in a four-team pre-season tournament. “It was a four-hour journey and I’m sitting in the car with serious doubts in my head,” recalled Lambert. “I got to Lübeck, saw a massive yellow and black flag at the airport, fans everywhere and I’m thinking: ‘You’re out of your depth here.’”
Perhaps remembering Lambert’s performances from a couple of seasons ago though, Hitzfeld had wanted to see the Scot again for a closer look and deployed him in his natural position of central midfield. Although he didn’t find the net, in his own words, Lambert thought that, “it went all right.”
Back in Dortmund, at another tournament, playing in a 3-1 loss to local rivals Schalke may not have moved things along for him and when an injury forced him from the field 20 minutes into the next game against Borussia Mönchengladbach, all hope had almost gone, especially as Dortmund had laid out big money to add Portuguese midfielder Paulo Sousa to their squad. Lambert recalls the sad lament of thinking “That’s it.” It looked like a return to Motherwell. Lambert recalled receiving a ‘phone call from a team-mate at the time, Billy Davies. “’Where are you?’ Davies had asked,’” Lambert recalled. “I said, ‘I’m in Dortmund.’ He said, ‘Big Alec is going mad, asking where are you?’” Despite the downturn in fortunes, Lambert decided to ignore the potential wrath and retribution of his old manager, should he need to return to Motherwell with a tail tucked firmly between his legs. He stayed with his gamble in Germany.
His bravery and conviction were rewarded. Dortmund offered him a contract and Lambert who, by his admission, had been in awe of the players in the Dortmund dressing room was a Bundesliga player. Such doubts were surely understandable. He had become a member of the squad that had just landed the German title and were primed for a challenge in the Champions League. “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.” For all the self-doubts though, the contract proved that at least Hitzfeld felt Paul Lambert was ‘the real thing!’
Newly evolved into a holding midfielder by the actions of the astute manager, Lambert made his debut in the opening fixture of the season, away to Bayer Leverkusen. It was a harsh opening lesson. A 4-2 defeat with Lambert admitting that at least two goals were his fault. “I never knew the language, the terminology on the pitch. Jesus! What the hell was this?” There was a slight redemption though, “I scored to make it 2-1 and after that my confidence really picked up.”
It may only have been a temporary reprieve though, with the new star midfielder in the squad, Hitzfeld would make sure the pecking order wax clear. Ahead of the next game, he took Lambert aside. “Paul, you’ve done really fine but obviously we’ve signed Paulo Sousa for seven million deutschmarks. If he is fit, he will play. If not, you’ll play.” As the season progressed, Hitzfeld relented and saw Lambert and Sousa as a pair, not an ‘either/or’ conundrum.
Injury kept Sousa on the sidelines for the home game against Fortuna Düsseldorf, and Lambert “had one of those games where I couldn’t do anything wrong. It could come off the back of my head and go to one of my team-mates.” Performances would continue in an upward swing. “It just snowballed into the next game and the next game. All of a sudden I felt a part of it and then the crowd took to me and I became a mainstay.”
The player who had gambled so much by walking away from the security of a new contract in his native Scotland had arrived in the Bundesliga. He would take to his new environment with relish, and the fans on the Südtribune, home of the famous ‘Yellow Wall’ would respond in kind. Whilst some British players experiencing a foreign culture take refuge in the familiar, Lambert embraced the German lifestyle, learning the language and assimilating himself into the culture. His time under Hitzfeld also inspired him to take up coaching, working through his UEFA badges at the German FA’s Hennes-Weisweiler Akademie. It was a massive learning curve, but one that Lambert is clearly appreciative of. “I took so much out of the time I spent there. The German system gave me more knowledge about things I’d never considered like sports science, psychology and whatnot.”
On the pitch, Lambert would play 43 times for the team in his debut season, making 31 league appearances. Dortmund relinquished the title, finishing in third place at the end of the season, behind Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen. It would be in Europe competition however, where the club, and Lambert would have their most memorable time.
Placed into a group with Atletico Madrid, Widzew Lodz and Steaua Bucuresti, Dortmund qualified in second place, only losing out on top spot due to goal difference against the club from the Spanish capital. A last eight progress past Auxerre brought a semi-final against Manchester United. It was the sort of tense encounter where the gritty determination of Lambert’s obdurate play proved invaluable, and even earned the praise of Roy Keane as referenced in the Irishman’s autobiography. Two single goal victories took Dortmund to the final, where they would face, Juventus. With the Old Lady having added the imperious Zinedine Zidane to their squad, The German club were everybody’s underdogs for the game, but with five clean sheets already recorded in the competition, and with Lambert’s gritty midfield prowess, any such cavalier disregard of Dortmund’s chances was very premature.
On 28 May 1997, at Munich’s Olympiastadion, Glasgow-born Paul Lambert, late of St Mirren and Motherwell took his place in the Borussia Dortmund team to face the likes of Zidane, Didier Deschamps and Alessandro Del Piero, in pursuit of European club football’s most celebrated trophy. It was an occasion fit for a superstar christening, a time when the full flowering of Zidane’s talent would be put before the world’s footballing to be admired by all in awe and wonder.
After all, opposing him, seeking to achieve the surely insurmountable task of reducing the growing legend of the Frenchman to the realms of mere mortality was Paul Lambert, who had signed for Motherwell from St Mirren at roughly the same time that Zidane had first donned the Bianconeri. There any similarity ended. The Frenchman, balding, brooding, brilliant stood in stark contrast to the short, stocky and perceived stodgy play of the Scot. On such unlikely confrontations do the fate of matches hang. As was indeed the case on that May evening. As the old adage goes however, someone had forgotten to give Paul Lambert a copy of the script.
“It wasn’t really an instruction,” Lambert alter revealed, assessing what many pundits perceived as his task. “I kinda knew my role in the team. We played against a lot of superb number tens ant the time.” It’s a fairly self-effacing way of presenting the dilemma of man-marking Zinedine Zidane. He would certainly be facing a superb exponent of the number ten role in this game.
Whilst it would of course be wrong to say that it was Lambert alone that subdued the Italian advances, deployed ahead of a five-man back line, including Sammer as the libero, that the Juve thrusts found increasingly difficult to overcome, he patrolled his area stifling and suffocating space, harrying and hounding Zidane. It was a Man of the Match performance, an accolade that many had assumed would be granted to Zidane. Such impertinence by the Scot. He would even create the first goal for his team when Riedle scored approaching the half hour.
A ball dropped to Lambert on the right of the penalty area. Hiztzfeld had already pinpointed accurate crosses into the box as a potent weapon for his team, suggesting that opposition goalkeeper Angelo Peruzzi had a reluctance to command his box in such circumstances. With his manger’s ministrations echoing in his ears, Lambert’s accurate cross found Riedle at the far post, with Peruzzi keen to prove Hitzfeld’s point, rooted to his line. The striker controlled and drove home. Five minutes later, the German club’s manager was vindicated again. Peruzzi stayed at homer for a corner as Riedle doubled the lead.
Two goals down, Juve pressed. Zidane probed and prodded, but the yellow wall with the Scottish brick in place was implacable, shielding goalkeeper, Stefan Klos from so many attacks, most being limited to long-range efforts. A piece of impish magnificence from Del Piero offered a brief glimpse of salvation on 65 minutes, but just five minutes later, hope was extinguished when Ricken broke clear for the third goal. It had taken Juve over an hour to prise one goal from the tight-fisted Dortmund team. There wouldn’t be another.
At the final whistle, the Old Lady would be mopping the tears away, with her boys well beaten. The strutting skill of Zidane had been all but eliminated as a factor, by the hitherto unheralded play of an unassuming Scot who had risked all in pursuit of a dream. Those who had lauded the Frenchman’s abundant sills as being the deciding element in the game were compelled to reflect that such players can only perform when allowed to and, for large swathes of the evening’s action, no such largesse was granted. The season ended with Europe’s premier club trophy housed at the Westfalenstadion, and Paul Lambert as surely a fixture at the club for years to come.
Football can be a coquettish mistress though, and six months after the crowning glory of Munich, Lambert would leave the club. Ahead of the Champions League group game against Parma on 5 November 1997, the club announced that he would be moving to Celtic, and this would be his final game for the club. Hardly a time for celebration fireworks, Lambert later revealed the emotion of leaving a club where he had achieved unforeseen success and acclaim. “I never, ever thought I would cry over football — I’m from Linwood, near Glasgow, after all! But there were tears in my eyes the night I said goodbye to the Dortmund fans. Leaving was the most difficult thing in the world. It was a very big moment in my career.”
It was a parting felt just as keenly by those that formed the Yellow Wall. “The fans didn’t want to let me go,” Lambert recalled emotionally. “I was trying to drive away from the ground and suddenly this huge crowd were surrounding my car and everything.” Despite Paul Lambert only spending just over a year with Dortmund an unbreakable bond had grown between him and the club. Although a part of that was inevitably down to the success against Juventus, the memento of the event was not contained by anything tangible. “I haven’t a clue where my Champions League medal is,” Lambert revealed much later. “Because the memory is more important than the actual piece of metal, knowing that I’ve done it and I’ve come from Scotland to do it.”
At the same time, Lambert also revealed that there was one remaining desire left to be fulfilled with regard to Dortmund. “The club couldn’t have done anymore for me. It was an amazing experience. I’ve never been to the game as a supporter though. That’d be a great thing and something I’ve got to do before I’m not fit enough to keep up with the boys in the Südtribune.” Having been a part of the club in its moment of triumph, sharing the emotions of a game with the fans is surely an entirely appropriate aspiration for the man who became the Scottish brick in Dortmund’s Yellow Wall.
(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’s ‘Dortmund’ magazine)..