From dreamland to Kiev – Rickie Lambert faces his biggest test yet
Former lower-league striker has made such an impact with England that he will be given a start in Tuesday's crucial World Cup qualifier
Southampton striker Rickie Lambert will continue his remarkable rise from the lower leagues with a key role in England's World Cup tie away to their main rivals Ukraine on Tuesday.
Having banished any fear of joining the ranks of one-cap wonders by starting and scoring in the 4-0 victory over Moldova on Friday, he will begin a match that Roy Hodgson's team cannot afford to lose if they are to win the group and take the one automatic qualifying place for the finals next summer.
In the immediate aftermath of Friday's one-sided romp, Hodgson teasingly implied that he might have to disappoint Lambert's hopes of another start, but his hand has been forced by the injury and suspension that have ruled out Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck. Yesterday came a further blow when Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge, who has begun the season with a flurry of goals, was officially ruled out.
"The FA can confirm that Daniel Sturridge will not return to the England squad ahead of the World Cup qualifier with Ukraine on Tuesday," said the FA in a statement. "Club England medical staff have been in constant contact with their counterparts at Liverpool since he returned there on Thursday, his injury has not progressed as had been hoped and it is now clear that Sturridge will not be fit for the match in Kiev."
No replacement has been called up so Lambert it will be and, on Friday's evidence, that may be no bad thing. The striker himself is struggling to believe that the next stop on the journey that began at Moss Rose, Edgeley Park and Spotland, is the Olympic Stadium in Kiev.
"Obviously, it's been a surreal few weeks, scoring on my debut and then again today," Lambert said on Friday. "It's a dream at the minute. I am hoping there is more to come. We have a game on Tuesday so that's another chance to impress. After these little moments tonight, I want more now."
There certainly will be, but to say that Lambert is starting by default would be unfair – he has done everything he possibly could so far to impress, with two appearances and a goal in each. He was England's best player on Friday night and looks very well suited to Hodgson's side.
Lambert, though, would never admit to feeling too comfortable in the set-up, and insisted that he still has to continue to justify his arrival on this new stage.
"I don't feel at home, I still have a lot to prove," said Lambert, who spoke to the gathered media with the enthusiasm of a man enjoying everything about international football. "I still have to impress every chance that I get, to try to make sure that I am a different option for the gaffer. I understand that I still have a long way to go to stay in his plans."
For all this eagerness to impress, though, there is very little nervousness about Lambert. At the age of 31 he knows his game, what he is good at – and so he plays with the freedom and fearlessness of a man taking his only roll of the dice. When out on the pitch was he afraid to miss? "No, not really. I used to but not any more. If I miss, I miss, I don't dwell on it. I am not going to worry. I will just wait for my next chance and hopefully I can put that one away."
The goals are good, of course, and why he is in the team, but the most impressive part of his game on Friday night was his build-up play. He made both Danny Welbeck goals with two perfect through passes – one long from deep, the other quick and incisive, although Lambert tried to deflect the praise away from his first assist. "Full credit to Danny, especially with the first ball, he made it look better than it actually was, he made it his own," he said.
But that intelligence, vision and passing range defines Lambert as something other than the archetypal English No 9 he is characterised as. It sets him apart from England's other recent big men up front – Andy Carroll, Kevin Davies and Emile Heskey. That sense of a break from what has come before might be the most alluring part of Lambert.
He already has a different relationship with the Wembley crowd than his team-mates, being loudly and specifically cheered through his first and second caps. "It's been surreal the way the England fans have taken me in," he said.
But it should be no surprise. Lambert, with his humble background and long journey to the top, feels counter to the sheltered "Golden Generation". He is even the same age as most of them. But while they were at World Cup 2002 and Euro 2004, he was at Stockport. And when they were at World Cup 2006, he was at Rochdale. He is less famous than his new team-mates, but somehow more familiar.
Hodgson recognised that Lambert's experiences set him apart from some of his England team-mates. "You are talking about a very mature person who has seen all that football has to offer," Hodgson said. "He has also seen the fact that if you are not in football, what life has to offer is maybe not as good comparably." Lambert is starting to enter a different environment now, but the fame and regard is nothing compared to what it might be if he makes it three goals in three in Kiev on Tuesday, firing England closer to next summer's World Cup.
"It's been a bit different for me since playing for England, the amount of attention from everyone has gone up obviously. You have got to dream and you have got to believe. I am over the moon."
Allan Clarke's four in four
Rickie Lambert became the only England player since 1976 to score in his first two internationals. Now he has in his sights Allan Clarke of Leeds United, who scored in his first four between June 1970 and May 1971.
England 1 Czechoslovakia 0 11.6.70
Never short of confidence, Clarke was happy to take a penalty on his debut as a 23-year-old in a World Cup group match in Mexico.
England 3 East Germany 1 25.11.70
Clarke ensured victory with a chip over the goalkeeper from Francis Lee's pass. The visitors had pulled back to 2-1 after goals by Martin Peters and Geoff Hurst.
England 5 Malta 0 12.5.71
A game in the European Championship with one of the continent's minnows offered England's strikers abundant opportunity. Clarke converted a penalty for the third.
N Ireland 0 England 1 15.5.71
After George Best had a goal disallowed, allegedly kicking the ball out of Gordon Banks's hands, Clarke made it four in four, again from a Lee pass. His run ended in a 0-0 draw against Wales four days later.
Latest in Sport
Daniel Sturridge injury: Alongside Luis Suarez, how the Liverpool SAS may FAIL to become the most lethal partnership in Premier League history
Barcelona v Real Madrid: Copa del Rey final 2014 match preview
Diego Costa transfer to Chelsea impossible to stop, admits Diego Simeone
Hillsborough disaster anniversary: Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martinez among those at Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 who lost their lives
Daniel Sturridge injury latest: Liverpool striker has 'small strain' and will be given chance to prove fitness for Norwich game
- 1 Poveglia: 'World's most haunted island' up for auction...is anyone brave enough to buy it?
- 2 Refugee facing deportation from Sweden saved by fellow passengers refusing to let plane leave
- 3 Naked yoga: the bare truth - it's already big in the US, and has now landed here
- 4 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 5 Drugs giant GlaxoSmithKline bribed doctors to boost sales, says whistleblower