Cast your mind back to the spring of 2012. As the Premier League season ended, Norwich City and Swansea City both finished on a comfortable 47 points, Norwich in 12th, Swansea once place above them thanks to a superior goal difference. Their managers were feted: young, British, progressive, and successful, here was the future. But where Swansea's Brendan Rodgers has become Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers with notable distinction, Norwich's Paul Lambert has found life as Aston Villa's Paul Lambert slightly less giddy.
At times, in fact, it's been downright miserable. Bring your mind forward to just before five o'clock on Sunday afternoon. His current team are 1-0 down at home to his former side; Wes Hoolahan has just capped a neat team move, but should really have his goal bonus withheld for a muted celebration against a team he'd never played for but would quite like to. The state of it all. Anyway, this goal is about to condemn Villa to another miserable, goalless, soulless defeat, drag them back into the relegation mither, and turn the grey-black clouds over Villa Park from weather to symbol.
And then Christian Benteke goes and saves the day, twice, with a little assistance from Leandro Bacuna and poor Sebastian Bassong, and everything is sunshine and rainbows and happiness and glee. 4-1 up by half-time, job done, everybody that isn't a Norwich fan goes home happy.
Happyish, anyway. To look at Aston Villa's results this season is to look something that goes beyond inconsistent and into the realm of complete nonsense. Thump Arsenal on the opening day; lose the next three games. Turn over Manchester City at home; fail to score for the next four games. Win away at Southampton; lose the next four, including Fulham away and Crystal Palace at home. Put together the best away performance at Anfield this season, follow that with a giddy 4-3 derby win over West Brom, and then lose away at Everton (fine) and then at home to West Ham (not fine). And then follow that with 25 dreadful minutes at Norwich, then 20 brilliant ones. No wonder Lambert looks stressed.
In part, this is down to the thinness of the squad. The spine of Ron Vlaar, Ashley Westwood, Fabian Delph, Agbonlahor and Benteke ranges from decent to excellent; the quality of their replacements is dangerously low. Handy illustrations of this issue came at Newcastle — for the 65 minutes Westwood was on the field, the home side created next to nothing; once he'd limped off, the game woke up — and at Liverpool — with Agbonlahor, 2-1, should have been more; without him, 0-1. That, plus Benteke's patchy form, have meant that Villa's performances have been arguably the most disparate in the whole division. Brilliant away at Liverpool and Arsenal; hideous at home against West Ham and Palace. That is not a sentence that makes any sense.
Which means it's hard, in turn, to make a judgement on Lambert's Villa. Finances have played a part in things — Villa have consciously rowed back from the relatively free-spending reign of Martin O'Neill — but so too have a series of signings of fairly dubious quality. Benteke was inspired, but neither Nicklas Helenius nor Libor Kozak have convinced as his back-up, while at the back, Brad Guzan has been afforded far too many chances to impress. As evidenced by the pursuit of Hoolahan, there is a serious lack of imagination in central midfield, while Andi Weimann's goalscoring touch seems to have been misplaced over the summer.
Another piece of transfer business was revealing in its own way. When confirming his interest in Grant Holt — who later arrived on loan from Wigan — Lambert was effusive not only about the striker's footballing qualities. Asked if he was looking for experience, he replied "There is that, plus he's a proper man." The implication is that this proper manliness is something that Villa's squad is lacking. Presumably proper men, in between all the wrestling of bears and growing of beards, are slightly more effective at playing football than improper ones. Whatever they might be.
Let's set the wretched sexual politics of the phrase aside for the purposes of this piece and just assume that Lambert was looking for some of those intangibles that fall under "character," after all, in some ways "character" was the defining characteristic of his Norwich side. As they rose from League One through the Championship and into the Premier League, one notable achievement among many was the fact that they never lost back-to-back league games over two seasons. That speaks not only of talent but of resilience, of what Iain Dowie would call bouncebackability.
Despite all the ups and downs, Lambert is reportedly in line for a new contract. If so, then it would be something of an unusual move in a business as precarious as Premier League management. Results have, after all, been mostly disappointing, and the Villa fanbase has spent a fair amount of both this and last season feeling pretty miserable. It would be an investment made on the basis of some evidence, yes, but also a fair amount of faith.
Not blind faith, though. Two factors work in his favour. The first is that there is something about him that shouts "I am going to be a really, really good manager." That's desperately unscientific, of course, but nevertheless, he just seems to. Maybe it's the way in which Norwich first rose and then stuck. Or maybe it's just a stereotypical combination of intensity plus Scottishness, which wouldn't be so encouraging since the same was true of Alex McLeish.
The second factor, though, is something that was never true of McLeish at Villa: you can see what Lambert's trying to build, and you can understand why. At full strength, when working as intended, Villa's squad can take one of two routes to goal: either they can play on the counter using Agbonlahor's pace, or they can play more conventionally around Benteke as a target-man. Against Norwich, once they clicked, they managed both, and looked like what they are supposed to be: a flexible side with the capacity to compete against almost anyone. To sit deep against the big lot or away from home; to take a bit more initiative against the weaker teams at Villa Park. It's not working reliably, yet. But at least you can see what he's trying to do. That's something. In football, that's quite a lot. And given a couple of decent squad players, along with some of this magical testicular propriety, he might even get there.