New Faces for the New Year / Football: Lambert wings his way up: Trevor Haylett on the Reading teenager with the brains to match his fine ball skills

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The Independent Online
YOUNG EAGLE of the month or the 'new Stan Bowles': at 19 and after only eight full first-team appearances James Lambert is acquiring an impressive list of titles to his name. Yesterday in training his Reading colleagues added another for the collection . . . King Slug.

All things considered it was not the perfect occasion in which to assess the young sprite who was turning managerial heads in the direction of Elm Park. A series of sprints requiring quick thinking as well as quick feet found him well off the pace. Last, to be precise, hence the latest moniker.

On to the shooting practice and no immediate improvement as few of his attempts land on target. Like all true performers it seems he saves his best for when it really matters and it will matter tomorrow when Reading strive to achieve an FA Cup upset over Manchester City in their third-round replay.

There has been a renaissance of youngsters taking flight on the wing and Lambert promises to live up to the standard already being set by Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe at Old Trafford and Steve McManaman at Liverpool. Free spirited, he wears his hair long in contrast to today's short cuts while his mastery of the ball is a welcome antidote to the athletic emphasis that has rendered too many games a test of endurance rather than ability.

Reading always knew they had a prodigy on their doorstep and, fortunately for them, the local boy only ever wanted to know Reading. He gave no encouragement when Norwich and Birmingham among others offered him schoolboy trials although he admits he is unlikely to be so resistant when, and it is much more of a when than an if, the bigger clubs attempt to pull him away from his roots and on towards fame and fortune.

That process has already begun. Graeme Souness ran a personal check on him in a recent game at Chester but it is the French club, Monaco, who have beaten everyone at home to the young gun.

Their starfinder with the brief to scour all of Europe for tomorrow's team was tipped off and arranged for Lambert to spend time training with them just before Christmas. 'That was a real stunner,' he said. 'Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that someone like Monaco would be interested in me.' Suitably impressed, the Monaco coach, Arsene Wenger, has promised to come over soon to see him in action for his club.

'He particularly liked what he called James's mental skills,' the Reading manager, Mark McGhee, said. 'The way he went there and was able to settle in so quickly and also his understanding of the game, his awareness of other players and where they wanted the ball.

'He has qualities you can't coach in a youngster, good vision and balance, close control and quick feet. We can play him anywhere along the front line although eventually I see him settling into the left-wing position. When I first saw him the first thought that came to mind was of a new Stan Bowles. He has the same ability to go past opponents and the same strength on his left side.

Lambert was also able to talk a good game with his Continental hosts, a French A level helping him to match the fluency he possesses in his boots. There are brains in the family - his father is a solicitor, his mother a private schoolteacher, and his older brother, Simon, gained a degree in history at Oxford - and he rejected a YTS contract to stay at school an extra two years.

He turned professional at the start of the season and the best he was hoping for was to make the No 12 shirt by Christmas. 'I'm quite surprised at the impact I have made,' he says while working with weights which will bring him the extra strength he will need as his reputation grows.

He prefers to forget his first appearance when called up from the bench against Rotherham. He heard the final whistle before he had so much as a single touch. But from there he he has not looked back, winning the December vote as the Barclays Young Eagle for London and the south.

A new three-year contract awaiting him on his return from Monaco was another reward, another surprise, yet if his first strides are any guide - and remember he was still at school six months ago - he is unlikely to be around to see it out.

McGhee says it is inevitable that he will be enticed away. 'We hope to progress and take this club forward but James will progress at a faster rate than us,' he said. 'Eventually he will outgrow us and he could become the most sought-after young player of the year.'

(Photograph omitted)

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