Rags to riches

Rickie Lambert’s story should inspire any player who has had to cope with rejection earlier in his career — and there could yet be a fairytale ending in Brazil this summer. By Andrew McDermott.

In the modern world of football, where the best young talent are recruited into academies the second they show some potential, Rickie Lambert’s route to the top of the English game has been an unconventional but refreshing one.

It is a rags-to-riches story which should inspire any player who has had to cope with rejection earlier in his career — and there could yet be a fairytale ending in Brazil this summer. Nobody could begrudge Lambert the success he is now enjoying after working so hard to get to the highest level.

Born near Liverpool, he joined his local club at the age of 10 but was released five years later and admits it “felt like the end of the world.”

His initial breakthrough in the English game came at Blackpool where he was a trainee but he managed only three first-team appearances before they also let him go.

Four months without a club followed before getting another chance at Third Division Macclesfield but, without a penny to his name, he was also forced to work in a beetroot factory.

“I had to get to Macclesfield so I had to get a job and that was one of the only jobs I could get at the time,” says Lambert. “I was putting lids on jars. I was getting paid GBP20 a day. I would work in the day and go training in the evening.”

It seemed Lambert had finally found his level as the goals began to flow and he did enough to earn a move back up the English football ladder when Macclesfield accepted a club-record bid of GBP300,000 from Stockport for the striker in April 2002.

Lambert was a first-team regular at the third tier club, making nearly 100 appearances before leaving the relegation-threatened side and moving back down a division to Rochdale the day after his 23rd birthday.

His next move came in 2006 as he switched to Bristol Rovers, seemingly destined to spend his career in the lower divisions. He finally enjoyed some team success at Rovers, scoring against local rivals Bristol City to send the Pirates through to the League Trophy final, before they were promoted after beating Shrewsbury 3-1 in the play-off final.

This time Lambert was better equipped for League One and he finished as the division's joint top scorer with 29 goals — a performance which also resulted in his first inclusion in the PFA League One Team of the Year.

That made him an obvious target for Southampton when they dropped into League One and they paid GBP1million to take him to St Mary’s but with the increased price tag came extra responsibility.

“It was Alan Pardew, who was manager at the time, who told me I wasn’t as professional as I should be, and that really stuck in my brain,” reveals Lambert. “I was overweight. I wasn’t as fit as I should have been and I wasn’t looking after my body.

“I’ve got to give so much credit to Southampton. The fitness coaches and the physios changed me physically. They really did wonders for me and I’ve started to see the changes on the pitch.”

The reward has been there for all to see with Lambert helping Southampton achieve two promotions and return to the Premier League, where he is now regarded as one of the best English marksmen around.

It seemed life could not get much better last month when Lambert became a father for the third time following the birth of his first daughter but, after grabbing a few hours of sleep, he awoke to a series of missed calls and texts from friends congratulating him on his England call-up.

“I didn’t know when the squad was being announced,” Lambert admits. “I woke up at about 12.55pm and I had a few missed calls and text messages to say the least.

“So I rang (Southampton manager Mauricio Pochettino) and he told me. I couldn’t believe it. It was a complete shock. It was the most unbelievable moment in my life. I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

In true fairytale style, Lambert then came on as a substitute and netted the winner in England’s 3-2 victory over rivals Scotland at Wembley.

Another goal followed on his first start against Moldova and Lambert is now hoping to secure a place at next year’s World Cup finals in Brazil — quite a contrast to working in a beetroot factory.

* * * FACTFILE The player: Rickie Lambert Position: Striker Country: England Club: Southampton DOB: February 16, 1982 International Caps: 3 International goals: 2

Moment to remember: Coming off the bench to score the winner for England on his debut against Scotland at Wembley.

Moment to forget: Being rejected as a teenager by boyhood favourites Liverpool.

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