When your television screen is invaded by images of celebrity footballers, weighed down by a thick layer of hair gel, encased in an artificial bronze glow, and swimming in enough money to pave our roads, it becomes easy to forget that not all professional footballers seek the high life. For most, football is a love enriched by the joy and pride of wearing your chosen colours, not by the pondering of which Lamborghini to buy next. The tragedy lies in the game’s showbiz, which camouflages the honest work of many, dressing football up to be something it isn’t and smiting its reputation with tales of luxury and arrogance. One man who doesn’t go in for all that is Rickie Lee Lambert, a man worthy of applause for helping to keep the game’s fundamentals fully intact.
Lambert’s meander through the various levels of English football has instilled him with two invaluable mental attributes: belief and humility. The former of those traits was severely tested when, at the age of 15, Liverpool turned their backs on him, presumably not for his lack of industry but for a failure to show the technical attributes a future Kop hero is required to possess. Rejection stings a lot of people, but it’s how they nurse the pain which defines their future.
Rickie Lambert, Liverpool's newest striker. Guardian.co.uk
For many kids from working-class Kirkby, being cut loose at such a tender age often spells the end of their hopes of becoming the next Steven Gerrard or Jamie Carragher, but in 1997, when his beloved boyhood club cut his cord, Lambert was afforded the help and encouragement that enabled him to harbour ambitions of getting back on the horse. Advice from then-academy coach Hughie McAuley and faith from a close-knit family stood Lambert in good stead, even through a period of time in which he worked at a local beetroot factory earning a measly £20 a day. That experience itself is partly responsible for the 32-year old Lambert we see today, for the humility I mentioned, and the gratitude that oozes from every pore on his body only enlivens this fairytale turnaround.
Blackpool were the first team to take a punt on Lambert, who had also been on trial at non-league Marine. The Seasiders afforded the 16-year old apprentice the opportunity to take his first baby steps in professional football, handing him a debut as a 17-year old in 1999 as a substitute, before two subsequent appearances from the bench that same season. Three cameo appearances were to be all Blackpool had to offer Lambert, and he was later released by the club.
While appearing insignificant on first glance, that brief flirtation with professional football was to be nothing less than a curtain-raiser for Lambert, who did enough at Blackpool to warrant further moves to Macclesfield Town, Stockport County and Rochdale. They are three destinations that do little to plunge you into a state of unbridled salivation, but do plenty to arouse determination and diligence.
Bristol Rovers came calling in 2006, armed with £200,000 to prize Lambert away from the north-west and to a team who harboured plans of climbing their way out of League Two, an achievement that would ultimately elude them in the play-off final that same season. Lambert left Bristol with The Pirates floating around in mid-table, to join Southampton, whose financial woes had dumped them into the third tier of English football. That didn’t stop them spending £1 million on a goalscorer, and his 36 goals in all competitions during the 2009-10 season helped the Saints to a 7th-place finish despite being imposed with a 10-point deduction for entering administration. A further 21 goals the following campaign pushed Southampton to promotion, and confirmed his status as something of a modern-day club hero.
Lambert celebrating for his former club, Southampton. Caughtoffside.com
Lambert’s rise to prominence was proven over the course of the recently concluded Barclays Premier League season, which saw Southampton, under the guidance of Mauricio Pochettino’s creative management style, finish comfortably in the top half of the table, a mere six points behind perennial pace-setters Manchester United. Southampton’s English contingent, not least Lambert, has had many people purring at the future of the national team. Young quintet Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Jay Rodriguez, James Ward-Prowse, Callum Chambers, as well as a ripe Lambert have provided rare entertainment for English fans under the wing of one of the league’s most talented young managers.
Lambert, though, unlike his aforementioned colleagues, comes without glamour. An agricultural frame and a taste for good old fashioned hard work puts Lambert in a category that year by year lists fewer members. It is perhaps the reason why fans of Liverpool, the club now ready to welcome Lambert back, are unsure as to whether he fits the image. Lest we forget, it is footballers who sign on the dotted line, not fashion icons.
Liverpool’s business over the period of time in which Brendan Rodgers has been manager has been clear for all to see. Both in terms of who wears the famous red and white, and what is done behind the scenes, image has been a major priority for Liverpool’s hierarchy. One might be forgiven, therefore, for thinking there is an ulterior motive behind Lambert’s purchase. Perhaps it just isn’t ‘cool.’ The days of the journeyman are a thing of the past in light of the era of the ‘machismo.’
Lambert is a throwback to the old days of footballers manufacturing a living for themselves from very little scraps. From the pavements of Anfield Road to the beetroot factory, and back again, Rickie Lambert has come full circle.