From packing beetroot to tucking away goals
Saints striker Lambert believes he can match Grant Holt in the big time
If you thought Grant Holt's overdue Premier League debut at the age of 30 with Norwich City was the feelgood story of last season, then get ready for a repeat – but with Southampton's Rickie Lambert in the lead role. And join Saints supporters in hoping for a similarly happy ending.
The parallels between the two former Rochdale team-mates are uncanny. Both might be termed old-fashioned centre forwards, and both seemed destined to spend their entire careers in the lower divisions. But then each found the right League One club at the right time, arriving at the top level 12 months apart after spearheading back-to-back promotions.
Holt's 15 goals helped Norwich to an unexpectedly comfortable first season back in the top flight, and Saints' chances on their return to the Premier League after seven seasons away may depend on Lambert, also 30, adjusting as quickly. But Lambert knows that it will not follow automatically, even though his old strike partner has told him what to expect.
"Obviously there's a lot of resemblances between Holty's career and mine, and the way we play in some ways," Lambert said. "To see him do so well has given me confidence that I can do it, but I understand that just because he has done it doesn't necessarily mean that I am going to do it as well. And vice versa – if he hadn't done so well, I'd still have been confident that I could do it.
"Last year I asked him about the Championship, because I hadn't played there, and he said there was nothing to worry about – it's harder but you'll be OK," Lambert said. "He kind of said the same this year – it's harder, you'll get [fewer] chances, but believe in yourself. He has given me advice about certain teams. But I'll keep that to myself."
Lambert scored 27 League goals last season, his third at St Mary's after a £1 million move from Bristol Rovers, and he accepts that he will be expected to deliver again. "There's no getting away from it – it's my job to score goals," he said. "I try to be involved in other ways, but you can have the best game in the world and if you keep on losing 1-0 you're questioned for not scoring. But I always believe that if I'm playing well, I can score."
The first test of that confidence comes today against the reigning champions – a fixture that he had guessed would be first up. "My cousin said, 'Who do you reckon you'll get?' and I said, 'Man City.' You can't have a bigger game than the champions, at their place. They are formidable at home but I think if there's any time to play them, it's in the first game. Hopefully we can catch them [before] they're firing on all guns, but I'm made up to be playing against the best players in the Premier League. Vincent Kompany I think is the best defender in the world, so I can't wait to test myself against him."
He could not have imagined such an encounter 12 years ago, when he was packing beetroot in a factory, having failed to make the grade with Liverpool, his hometown club and the team he supports, and been released by Blackpool, his first professional club.
"When I got let go by Blackpool, staying in the League was more of a worry than whether I'd get in the Premier League. I managed to get a trial at Macclesfield, and it lasted about a year and a half. I was in the first team but they couldn't afford to give me a contract so I was playing for expenses until the last four or five months. It was the love of the game – I didn't want to give it up. I went to college as well, even though in my heart I didn't want to do anything else. I can't even remember what I studied."
All of his 469 League appearances and 183 goals have come outside the top flight. "It's going to mean a lot to me, but I can't predict how I'm going to feel. I'm excited, but as soon as the whistle goes I'll be focused on the job.
"To play as many games as I have, and have so many lows, I thought I would never get the chance. And now I have, I'm going to try to take it with both hands."
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