Hounsdown School near Southampton is typical of comprehensives up and down the land, unheralded, over- populated and under-funded. Outside of those who attend it or work within its walls it is on the radar of few. Imagine the frenzy, therefore, when a Premier League footballer turns up.
Children stationed at strategic points on the campus to guide the incoming traffic to the appropriate spot are the sons and daughters of privilege on the day Rickie Lambert enters their world. Lambert is footballing royalty in these parts, no matter that half the sample questioned declared an allegiance to distant institutions, Chelsea, the Manchester massives and Arsenal being the principal offenders.
Lambert attended a school much like this in Kirkby. Here the young lads in their blue kits are eager to show him what they can do in a series of pre-planned training drills. Parents, staff and kids bustle on the touchline. It takes him back to his own youth when as a football-obsessed teenager he was on the books at Liverpool. “Good days,” he says, reflecting on a Liverpool barrio that also produced Leighton Baines, Alan Stubbs and his close friend Ryan Taylor.
Kickabout done, Lambert progresses to less familiar terrain, the school library, where a line-up of pacy kids put some thoughtful questions to him. We learn of his preference for Brazil as World Cup winners, the identity of his toughest opponent, Nemanja Vidic, and how he spends the morning of matches, sleeping-in and gorging on pasta.
There is also a subtle lesson being given and absorbed. For any teacher seeking to imbue kids with fresh motivation, or an idea of what it takes to get on, Lambert is a walking, talking example of how to turn a life, a career around. From attaching lids to jars of beetroot for £100 a week while trying to crack it at Macclesfield to playing at Wembley for England, leaps don’t come much bigger. The four years at Southampton bear little resemblance to what went before in the game’s nether regions at Blackpool, Rochdale, Stockport and Bristol Rovers. A journeyman midfielder became a bona fide striker capable of holding his own in the Premier League.
The transformation began with an acceptance of failings, and an understanding that only he could change the culture of a lifetime. If he were ever going to maximise the potential that persuaded Liverpool to invite him to their academy at 10, he would have to get his head down and graft. The process began under Alan Pardew, whom he faces at Newcastle today, and continued under Mauricio Pochettino.
“Looking back, I was one of the unfittest professional footballers you will ever see,” Lambert, 31, says. “I was a YTS lad. I just thought that that was my way, that I was this kind of athlete. It wasn’t until I came to Southampton that my attitude changed and I had to do something about it. I got to the right club at the right time in my career. I was obviously a very determined man at that age. I was desperate to do well, desperate to be higher than League One. And I managed to show everything at Southampton, where everybody felt the same as me. It was the perfect match. It just happened at the right time.”
It was Pardew, a progressive coach keen to embrace new thinking, who pointed out the facts of life. Lambert was 27. He should have been at his physical peak; instead he was a stone overweight. Southampton paid £1m to bring Lambert from Bristol Rovers. Pardew saw the potential but wanted more. “He did do a lot for my career. He gave me the kick up the arse that I needed. I’ll always be grateful for what he did.”
It was at Rochdale in his early twenties that Lambert converted from midfielder to striker and at Bristol Rovers that he began to catch the eye. “I don’t think many people understand that I was a central midfielder until I was 23, 24. It wasn’t until I went to Rochdale that I tried to learn the new position. I was a striker when I was younger so I always wanted to hit the back of the net. I was always good at finishing, I just tried to learn the other parts. I learned at every step but when I came to Southampton my all-round game just improved massively.”
He averages a goal every other game at St Mary’s (97 in 184 league appearances) and is a central figure in the fairy story evolving under Pochettino. The Argentine wraps a huge work ethic around Latin rhythms and Lambert rejoices in the injection of new ideas.
“It is just the philosophy,” Lambert says. “It wasn’t easy to get to grips with. I have played ‘the English way’ for most of my career, getting stuck in and that. Perhaps he emphasises that in a different way. It was the same message, just different techniques that he has used in training. It is more a philosophy that he wants to get across. I know a lot of managers have used that word, but that’s what he put across and we took it in. It was either dismiss it or give him everything.
“The way we train is different to anything I have ever experienced. On warm-downs we do running. That took me a while to get used to. Normally you would just have a hot bath, a massage and a little run or a stretch. He was putting us through 45-second runs and we were thinking, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ But we bought into it and I have never felt so good in my life. The other players are saying the same.”
A run of three successive defeats was halted at home to Manchester City last week. Southampton came from behind to force the draw and pushed City as hard as any team this season. Lambert scored his first Premier League goal against City last season, adding his name to the small list of players to have scored in all four divisions. His next goal came against Manchester United. He also scored against Chelsea during his first tour of elite football. There is still a sense of novelty about the company he is keeping on Saturday afternoons.
“When you are in League One and Two I think you do believe that it [the Premier League] is a million miles away, a completely different world. But it’s not. There is a difference but there is not as big a gap as you imagine.
“Obviously the atmosphere in the big grounds is amazing. When I was younger it might have affected me but now I’m older I’m able to take it in the right way. I enjoy it and let it enhance my game rather than take it away, which is good. I constantly think back to those days and that’s why I appreciate it so much. It’s only my second season [in the Premier League] and I’m loving every minute of it. I definitely don’t want to let it go any time soon.”
The festive period sees Southampton on the road in three of their four fixtures. The recent defeats hurt but have not holed belief. City have lost four times this season, United five. In this season of twisted outcomes Lambert fears no one. Only in the second half against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge have they been seriously bested.
Lambert is living his dream. That’s what a past pickling veg does to a man, it tells him anything is possible. “I think it’s about who believes it the most. It’s so close, anyone can win it. My mindset has changed massively over the past four years. I would never have believed I could have done what I have, or the club. But we’ve done it so I’m never going to rule out anything.
“I don’t want to say to people that we are going to finish in the top four because I totally understand how hard that’s going to be. There are some top squads. But I think it has changed this year. It is not the same league that it has been for the past 15 years. We believe we can do it.”
Rickie's road to the top: Lambert factfile
1982 Born 16 February, Kirkby
1992 Joins Liverpool academy
1998 Signs for Blackpool, first as a trainee, then on a month-to-month contract
2001 Joins Third Division Macclesfield, scores first professional goals in an FA Cup draw with Forest Green Rovers
2002 Moves to Stockport for £300,000
2005 Transferred to Rochdale. Scores 22 League Two goals in 2005-06
2006 Joins Bristol Rovers for £200,000. Scores 51 goals in 128 games
2009 Signs for Southampton in August for £1m
2010 Saints win FL Trophy
2011 Helps club to Championship (21 goals in 2010-11) and then Premier League (31 goals in 2011-12)
2013 Hits 15 goals in debut top-flight season
2013 Scores with first touch on England debut against Scotland
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