x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rickie Lambert's long climb to the Premier League

The Southampton player is making up for lost time now that he is among England's elite, writes Richard Jolly.

Rickie Lambert scored his first Premier League goal, and the 205th of his career, against Manchester City. Simon Bellis / Cal Sport Media via AP Images
Rickie Lambert scored his first Premier League goal, and the 205th of his career, against Manchester City. Simon Bellis / Cal Sport Media via AP Images

Good things are supposed to come to those who wait, but few waited longer. The 205th goal of Rickie Lambert's career was also the first he struck in the Premier League.

It came against Manchester City and, two weeks later, Lambert pierced the Manchester United defence to complete a rare double and score goal 206.

He is making up for lost time. Having waited 13 years to compete with the best, he scored four minutes into his top-flight career.

Yet rewind over a decade and it took Lambert 20 games to register the first of his double century. Even then, the opponents were a non-league side, with Forest Green Rovers facing his Macclesfield side in the FA Cup.

And his days as a footballer might have already ended, with barely anything to remember them by, let alone a goal.

The Liverpudlian was released by Blackpool after three appearances, the pain all the greater as the Liverpool fan was ostracised by an Anfield hero, the Seasiders manager Steve McMahon.

"He basically said I wasn't [even] playing in the reserves," Lambert said. But, after leaving Bloomfield Road, he was not playing anywhere else either.

There was no scramble for his services. He considered quitting.

"After Blackpool. I didn't want to, obviously," he said. I was going to join college. I can't even remember what I was going to do."

And then he was thrown a lifeline by Macclesfield, then one of League Two's smallest clubs.

"I just about managed to stay in football," said. He eventually earned a contract and, after 13 months at Moss Rose, he left for Stockport for a £300,000 (Dh1.7 million) fee that remains a Macclesfield record.

Even then, his rise was not straightforward or smooth. Goals were hard to come by and, as County headed for relegation in 2005, Lambert dropped a division to sign for Rochdale.

As he celebrated his 24th birthday, he was still in the fourth tier. However, the 2005/06 season was a first breakthrough year. Lambert scored a career-best 22 goals, prompting Bristol Rovers to pay £200,000 for his services. There, three seasons of incremental improvement ended with a seismic step forward. Lambert scored 29 goals for a mid-table team in 2008/09.

It attracted the interest of Alan Pardew, who was then in charge of Southampton. After relegation and administration, the Saints began in League One on minus 10 points. But after a takeover by the Swiss millionaire Markus Liebherr, Pardew had money to spent. He paid £1m for Lambert and promptly set about turning a talented player into a fitter footballer.

"Before, I wasn't as professional as I should have been," Lambert said. "Pardew was one of the main reasons why I got into the right shape with the right standards. Eating, drinking and sleeping properly."

As his weight went down, his reputation went up.

The newly mobile target man's technical ability was apparent. Besides scoring headers, he took penalties and free kicks, finding the net from long range from both dead balls and in open play. Lambert rose to the challenge. His first year at Southampton brought 36 goals, his second another 21, along with elevation from League One.

Finally, at 29, he graduated to the Championship. And, in his only season there, he was runaway top scorer and voted the best player, scoring 27 league goals as Southampton made it back-to-back promotions.

Just as they were following in Norwich City's footsteps, so Lambert had a role model at Carrow Road. Like him, Grant Holt came from the league's lower reaches at a comparatively advanced age, going on to register goals in all four divisions. Indeed, Wayne Rooney was the only Englishman to outscore Holt last season.

"Holty's a good friend of mine and seeing him do so well in the Premier League has given me the confidence to go on," Lambert said.

His early impact has prompted calls for a England call-up, but Lambert is concentrating on a ground where he has not played for two decades.

"I did actually play at Anfield when I was 10 and scored at the Anfield Road End, but my team lost 3-2, so scoring in front of the Kop to win 1-0 would be ideal," he said of their trip to Liverpool, scheduled for December 1.

And having scored already against both Manchester clubs, he is on course for a notable treble.

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