Football is fixated upon youth, teenagers coming through academies, bursting into first teams, racing their way onto the back pages, the front pages, the record books. Sometimes it seems that if you haven’t played for England, married a supermodel and signed a multimillion pound boot deal before your 21st birthday, you’re washed up, such is the power of the current narrative.
In spite of that, such hothouse flowers are still rare specimens and the majority of footballers take a longer time to reach the top, if they ever get there at all. For every Raheem Sterling or Ross Barkley, there are thousands of professionals who toil away in comparative obscurity, gradually inching their way up to the top of the mountain, whereupon they are hailed as an overnight success by those who haven’t really been paying attention.
But even by the standards of your normal pro, Rickie Lambert had to take a pretty lengthy route to get to the pinnacle of Premier League football, England goals and the World Cup.
Many were the diversions along the way, wrong turnings that might have broken a less driven character, but when you encounter the quietly spoken Lambert, you realise that here is an individual with a strong sense of purpose, an unshakeable belief and a determination to make the most of every opportunity that comes his way.
Perhaps that comes from taking some pretty hard knocks early on. Released as a schoolboy by his beloved Liverpool, there were plenty of disappointments to come further down the ladder when he was still at a formative age.
“I was at Liverpool when I was young, then moved on to Blackpool. Eventually I got released from there and for a few months, I couldn’t find another club. In the end, I went to Macclesfield and trained there without a contract for quite a while, probably six months.
“Obviously I had no money for that period, so I went and worked in a beetroot bottling factory. That didn’t bother me at all, I didn’t see it as a big deal. It’s become a story as I’ve got higher up the leagues, but at the time, nobody batted an eyelid, and why would they? I think going out and working was a really good thing for me, and I think it would help any young player to experience that.
“I think there is something missing at the top level. If you have a boy who’s always going to make it, then I think the academy system is great for them. But the players who aren’t quite going to make the grade, I think it can be dangerous being with a big club, because if you do drop out, it’s a very steep fall.
“The experience of hitting the floor in League Two is a big shock because it’s not like it is at Liverpool or Southampton, real life down at the bottom is very different. I think more needs to be done to prepare the kids for that. I was lucky in a way because being released at Blackpool, it didn’t affect me because I didn’t have much to start with!
“After Macclesfield, I had a spell at Stockport County – Carlton Palmer bought me when he was the manager there. I found it really difficult there, it just didn’t work out under Carlton. I had a good season when Sammy McIlroy took over but then things really started to go badly wrong for the team, for the club and for me personally. It affected me for a while, it took me time to recover from it and get my confidence back because it was a really difficult spell”.
It was also a period when Rickie was evolving as a footballer, edging closer to the kind of player that we recognise in him today.
“As a kid, I was a striker but then I got put back to centre midfield and I played there from being a YTS until I was 23, sometimes playing just behind the striker as well. It wasn’t until I joined Rochdale from Stockport that I really became a striker. My attributes have always been the same, scoring a goal or finding a pass to create one, those have been my strengths through my career.
“I needed that move away from Stockport because I was really struggling there and if I’m honest, I wasn’t looking after myself properly at that point because I wasn’t enjoying it. But when I got to Rochdale, that side of things came back and things started to come together for me again.
“Before I went there, all the belief I had in myself, the thought that I might get to the top, it all went out of me. When I went to Rochdale, those ambitions had gone and the only thing that really mattered was to get back to enjoying the game again, that’s all, and in Rochdale, I found a place I could do that. I teamed up with Grant Holt there and that worked really well from the start, we just had a natural partnership.
“Rochdale got me back on the right path I suppose but going to Bristol Rovers was a massive turning point in my career. Moving away from Liverpool, going and living somewhere else, that was probably one of the best things that happened to me. I love my family and my friends, but being away from them and having nothing but the football to focus on, that did help me.
“I had three great years there, there was a good group of players, a good manager in Paul Trollope and I carried on scoring goals. Then I remember there were a few rumours of clubs looking at me but nothing really came together from teams higher up the leagues.
“They were good years at Rovers, we won the play-off final, got to the JPT Trophy final as well, and then that following year, 2008, that’s when I really became a proper striker. They’ve had a great record for turning out goalscorers over the last 15 or 20 years at Rovers and it was nice to carry on that list.
“Up until then, I was a mix of a player but at Rovers, I really started to define myself and in my last season there, I scored 29 goals and that got me the move to Southampton which was probably the biggest single turning point in my career.
“When I went there in August 2009, I felt as if I’d been held back for years in my career, all through myself, I’m not blaming anyone else. I hadn’t maybe been as professional as I should have been at times and other people didn’t take a chance on me, maybe because of that, I don’t know.
“I was 27 then, I’d played around 350 games, scored around 120 goals in my career, I had plenty of experience but at that point, I had such hunger and desire to really make a breakthrough. Signing for Southampton, that was such a release for me because I’d finally found a club where I could see that I could really progress.
“It had everything there, the coaches, the facilities, the ambition, the support, the players around me, it was everything I needed. I kind of knew straight away that it was going to work out, that it was going to be special and it was. I didn’t ever imagine quite how big it was going to get, but it felt like the perfect match right from the start. Also I was just at the right point in my carer to help them and give them everything.
“Given all the success Southampton have had since, people forget that we started that first season in League One with a ten points deduction and there was even talk the club might end up in League Two. We didn’t start that season especially well either.
There was a complete change around in players and it took time for us to settle down, I think we were ten games in before we cleared the minus ten points off, but once we started to click, it was all one way and we ended up just short of the play-offs that season and that was the platform for promotion the year after”.
Getting Southampton back into the second tier was a huge success in itself for a club that looked as if it might be spiralling into oblivion a couple of years earlier, but it also started to reawaken the big ambitions in Lambert himself.
“When I was younger and joined Stockport, I felt like I would get to the Premier League one day, but it got knocked out of me really. Then at Bristol Rovers, I started to think I might get to the Championship, the First Division as it was then.
“When I got to Southampton, I was confident we would get to that level, I was sure we’d get promotion pretty quickly, but I still never really thought about the Premier League. So when we were on minus ten points in League One, it seemed a long way off! But then we got promoted and you could feel something was happening there.
“To win two promotions with Southampton was fantastic, and then to actually go out and play in the Premier League, that first game against Manchester City was one of the greatest moments in my career, just brilliant. I’d been wanting that all my life and, for so long, I never thought that was going to happen. So to come on as a sub in the second half and to score a goal within five minutes against the champions, it was unbelievable.
“Like any team that just comes up, everybody was writing us off as a team that would get relegated but we had a great season, we stayed up fairly comfortably and then had another brilliant season after that”.
That included Rickie’s first call up for England and the fairy tale continued as he powered in a header against Scotland with his first touch of the ball in the white shirt. A trip to the World Cup followed, all dreams come true, but an even bigger one was on the horizon, one that he had waited for all his life but one which was perhaps the hardest to accept.
“Southampton was a very special time, from day one to the moment I left, it was just the most perfect fit. I don’t think I could have gone anywhere except Liverpool, but it was still extremely hard to make the break. Southampton is a great club and I’m so pleased they continue to so well. It was a great experience there, the lads were brilliant, the fans were fantastic to me over the years and it was very emotional leaving.
“I think the fans understood that in the end, it wasn’t a choice for me, I just couldn’t turn down the chance of playing for Liverpool, back home, the team I grew up supporting. And I think supporters understand that because deep down, they know they would probably do the same in my position. But even with all that, it was a real wrench to leave Southampton, but it wasn’t a question of making a choice, I just had to go, it’s that pull of going home.
“It’s hard to explain, but it wasn’t as if I was making a decision and anybody who thinks I was doesn’t quite understand it because I absolutely loved Southampton. But after all those years growing up supporting the club, I had to take that opportunity at Liverpool, of course I did.
“I didn’t play as many games as I would have wanted to there but pulling on the shirt and playing at Anfield was incredible. It’s something that I’ll probably be able to describe better when my career is over and I look back at the whole thing, it’s still all a bit too close to really get any perspective on it all.
“I wish Liverpool nothing but success, I always will, but I don’t have time for looking back at that now, my career has moved on and I need to give everything I have to the Albion, this is the most important thing to me now.
“I think this is the right kind of team for me and I think I can contribute things that this team needs, that’s why I was very happy to come and join in the summer. All that has gone on since then makes me believe that I’ve come to the right club. The feel about it, the players, the gaffer, it’s a very good environment to be in, I’m really enjoying it.
“My style of play fits in I think, because I can play as a striker but I can play a bit deeper as well and help out the midfield because I had years of doing that earlier in my career. I quite like that in many respects because you get to see more of the ball. I’ve created a few chances so far, I’m getting a few myself, though mainly from outside the box, but I want to get a lot more out of myself in the games ahead. I want to get on the end of more things, I’m there to score goals as well as make them”.