Paul Lambert stood wide-eyed in the Westfalenstadion, drinking in one of European football’s great cathedrals, and wondered aloud to team-mate Billy Davies “can you imagine what it’s like to play here every other week?”.
It was September 1994 and Lambert’s Motherwell had lost 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund in the first leg of a Uefa Cup first round tie. Lambert impressed but, even so, had you predicted that less than three years later he would appear in a Champions League final alongside Dortmund’s stars, the man himself would probably have dismissed the notion as ludicrous.
The Motherwell side of that era was a good one. They finished runners-up to Rangers in the Premier Division that same season. Lambert had joined them in 1993, having won a Scottish Cup aged 17 with St Mirren, and was viewed as a tidy, reliable Scottish top-flight midfielder. But by the summer of 1996, he decided he wanted more.
No seat on the bus & strong start
Football was coming to grips with the implications of the new Bosman rule and, with his Motherwell contract at an end, Lambert wanted to test the waters. He was put in touch with agent Ton van Dalen by former team-mate Rab McKinnon, who joined Dutch side Twente Enschede the same summer.
Van Dalen told him he had fixed up two trials and, despite not knowing the identity of the clubs, Lambert flew to meet him. “Sure enough, there’s this guy waiting with a placard with my name on it,” Lambert recalls of his leap of faith.
“Ton said, ‘I’m going to tell you the teams now – one is PSV Eindhoven, the other is Borussia Dortmund’. I thought he was going to take me to Lichtenstein or Azerbaijan or somewhere.”
The first trial was at PSV, managed by future Rangers boss Dick Advocaat and boasting the likes of Arthur Numan, Philip Cocu and Jaap Stam. Deployed out of position on the right wing, Lambert still managed two goals in two friendlies, but Advocaat’s preference for a pacy winger saw him send him on his way to Dortmund.
“By this time I’m thinking I’m out of my depth,” he says. “In the car to Dortmund’s pre-season base in Lubeck, I was thinking that if this doesn’t work out I need to go back to Motherwell or back to Scotland.
Paul Lambert tackles Andreas Moller in a Uefa Cup tie
“I got on the team bus and I must have sat on about five or six seats and every time a player would say, ‘You can’t sit there’. It was Stefan Klos who said, ‘come and sit next to me’. That was my seat on the bus from then on.”
Accepted by his team-mates off the pitch, Lambert impressed on it during the Fuji Cup pre-season tournament and was offered a deal by manager Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Portuguese superstar Paulo Sousa arrived at Dortmund at the same time, fresh from a Champions League triumph with Juventus. A 7m Deutschmarks signing versus a free transfer from Motherwell – there was no real doubt who would play when both players were fit.
“I played in the Bundesliga opener against Leverkusen, then we played Dusseldorf on the Tuesday. I had one of those games where I could have shut my eyes and the ball would still have gone where I wanted it to go. I set up two and just couldn’t have had a better game.
“Coming off the bench that night were Karl-Heinz Riedle and Sousa. When the board went up for a substitution I automatically assumed my number would go up, but it didn’t. After that I thought, ‘I am never coming out this team because if I do, I ain’t getting back in’. That’s when it hit me, I was with the best team in Europe.”
Di Livio’s prediction & joining elite group
Dortmund were chasing a third straight German title, but were struggling to keep pace with Bayern Munich. However, having emerged from their Champions League group as runners-up to Atletico Madrid, their European campaign soon started to pick up steam.
Auxerre were battered in the quarter-final, then they were too good for Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in the last four. Dortmund triumphed 1-0 home and away and, less than a year after leaving Motherwell with no idea where he was headed, Lambert was now en route for a Champions League final with Juventus at Munich’s Olympic Stadium.
“I noticed in the tunnel before the game that [Juventus midfielder] Angelo Di Livio had 3-1 written on his hand,” the Scot recalls. “I said to Paulo Sousa, ‘check out his hand’ and he said, ‘I know, he’s predicting the score’.
“When we walked out, the trophy was there and I said to myself, ‘If there is one game you need to perform, this is it’.”
The Borussia Dortmund team that took on Juventus in the 1997 Champions League final
Lambert performed. His cross set-up Riedle for the opener and he managed to reduce Zinedine Zidane to a peripheral role in the final. Riedle struck again to make it 2-0 before Alessandro Del Piero pulled one back.
But Lars Ricken’s exquisite goal put the game to bed and ensured Lambert would become the first British player to lift the European Cup with a continental side and join a select band of Scots to win club football’s greatest prize.
“It put me in that elite group with the guys that had done it before – Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen, John Robertson, the Lisbon Lions,” says Lambert. “It was an incredibly proud moment and nobody can ever take it away from me.”
‘Zidane remembered me’
So impressed were Juventus with Lambert’s display, they made him an offer to move to Turin that summer. It was one of many, but he was happy to stay at Dortmund.
And though he turned down the chance to play alongside Zidane, he would encounter the French maestro many years later. “I went over to watch Real Madrid train when Carlo Ancelotti was the manager. Paul Clement was the assistant and he introduced me to Zidane, who said, ‘Oh my god, that game!’. He remembered me.
“Wolves played Chelsea in the FA Cup not too long ago and Antonio Conte asked to see me before the game. He said: ‘Juve – Dortmund, I was injured that night and watched from the stands. You were unbelievable.’ That was great.”
Paul Lambert takes on Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League final
By November 1997, personal circumstances forced Lambert to look for a move closer to home. Wim Jansen was a long-time admirer and a transfer to Celtic was agreed, but leaving Dortmund was a wrench.
“For about a month, I couldn’t kick my backside at Celtic,” he says. “My head was all over the place, I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ Slowly but surely my game started to come.”
Celtic would win the title that season to halt Rangers’ march to 10-in-a-row. It was the start of a glorious spell, during which Lambert won four Scottish titles, two Scottish Cups, two league cups and captained Celtic to the 2003 Uefa Cup final. His spell with Borussia Dortmund had transformed him, injected him with the confidence of a truly elite player.
“I had that fearless thing of knowing I had done it at the highest level, so if you’re going to beat me you’re going to have to match me or be better than me. That’s what Borussia Dortmund did for me, catapulted me to that level. I could then handle playing in big games in front of big crowds. After that, nothing fazed me.”