Grant Holt & Rickie Lambert: Rise of the Rochdale diamonds

Grant Holt and Rickie Lambert played in League Two together. Tonight they meet in the Premier League, proving you can still climb from the bottom to the very top

Grant Holt cost Rochdale £10,000 but he was so bad on his debut at Darlington one team-mate asked the manager if he had kept the receipt.

That was February 2004 in the Third Division. Nearly nine years on Holt is at Norwich City playing Premier League football and has been mentioned as a candidate for England. Rickie Lambert, his old Rochdale strike-partner, is in the top flight, too, with Southampton and tonight they meet at St Mary's.

Sergio Aguero and Wayne Rooney were branded from boyhood as elite strikers of the future. It is safe to say Holt and Lambert were not. But their stories show that even the billion-pound glamour factor of the Premier League is still accessible from beneath. There are many paths a football career can take but one of them still leads from the bottom to the top.

When Holt and Lambert arrived at Spotland, within one year of each other, neither looked like they would one day be scoring against Manchester United, as they have each done. Both joined Rochdale as 22-year-olds with some ability, but yet to find themselves as players.

Lambert signed after mixed spells at Macclesfield Town and Stockport County. Holt had played in the Northern League and in Singapore before joining Barrow and then Sheffield Wednesday, from where then-Rochdale manager Steve Parkin signed him.

"He was a rough diamond, really," Parkin told The Independent. "Without any disrespect to him, he was rough around the edges. He definitely had an eye for goal. All we had to do was tidy his professionalism up a little bit, tidy some of his work up in the middle third of the pitch.

"I was once questioned at a fans' forum by a supporter, who said: 'I think Mr Parkin you have made a grave mistake bringing Grant Holt to our football club.' I said: 'Don't always judge a book by its cover too early. Let's just see how it goes'."

And, in time, Holt's goals started to flow. He scored three in the remainder of 2003-04, helping to keep Dale out of the bottom two. The next year, he scored 17, and 14 after that. It was eventually too much for him to stay.

"He didn't have the best of starts but from there he did absolutely fantastic," said Gareth Griffiths, who played in defence for that Rochdale side. "In the dressing room, he was somebody we recognised very quickly was a good player. Parkin saw something in Grant. And that was the start of his path up."

Lambert's career has followed a similar road to Holt's, before Rochdale and after, but he is not quite the same player. "Rickie was different in terms of his ability," Parkin remembered. "He has got incredible natural talent, he could see a pass, set up a goal, or score a goal, with his left foot, his right foot, or his head. He was blessed with natural ability that not many players are given. That is what set him apart from the rest."

Lambert arrived at Rochdale one year after Holt, but as a gifted young midfielder who could not quite settle at Macclesfield or Stockport. "He started off as a midfield player but I had no intention of playing him in midfield," Parkin said. "He had a calmness and a coolness to his play."

Holt has always torn around the pitch with bullish enthusiasm. "Rickie was no less committed," added Parkin, "but in a different kind of way."

Lambert's relaxed attitude continued off the pitch. "I would never say he was ambitious," Griffiths recalled. "With Rickie, he's so laid-back he's horizontal. He was always late. He was one of those lads who was very aware and very sharp on the pitch. But he was so laid-back, he'd forget when we were meeting.

"Perhaps Rickie didn't realise what he had under the bonnet. I think that's why he took so long to mature. It really took him a bit of self-realisation for the steps he made toward the highest level."

In Lambert's first season, 2004-05, he provided the ammunition for Holt. Rochdale started well and might have made the League Two play-offs but tailed off and finished ninth. The next year Lambert, growing as a mature and powerful footballer, overtook Holt. Rochdale were poor and finished 14th but Lambert was excellent, joint-top scoring in the league with 22, eight more than Holt.

Parkin said: "I just remember when we had a free-kick within 25 yards of goal. It just felt like it was a penalty." Griffiths was even more positive: "That season, every time we had a free-kick outside the box we just thought it was going in. It was ridiculous."

It was too good to last. In 2006 Holt and Lambert were sold to Nottingham Forest and Bristol Rovers respectively, Rochdale picking up a cool £500,000 in total in return. Holt moved on to Shrewsbury before settling at Norwich City, then in League One. Lambert went from Bristol Rovers to Southampton in 2009.

There still is a road from the fourth tier to the first, though as Griffiths admitted it is more difficult to travel than it once might have been. "There are all these twists and turns along a career and the decisions people make," he said. "They made good decisions, have applied themselves fully, but they have also been given an environment by those around them to flourish. The lower-league filter is harder to break through now. Holt and Lambert are a shining light for people who may feel they have missed the boat."

Odds Southampton Evens Draw 5-2 Norwich 13-5

Kick-off 7.45pm (Highlights BBC 1, 10.45pm)

Referee M Clattenburg (County Durham)

News
Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
News
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
news
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own