It never ceases to amaze me how much influence one player can have on a football club and its fans. Certain special players become icons, become talismans and are seen as the embodiment of the halcyon days of the team they represent. A month ago the retirement from football of one such player was announced – Rickie Lambert; born in Liverpool, made in Southampton.
Over a five year period from 2009 to 2014 Southampton FC went from the brink of non-existence to being one of the top eight teams in the country. Lambert was there pretty much every step of the way. During his time at Saints he grew from journeyman lower league striker to Premier League top scorer for the club and an England international. That old cliche, ‘Roy of the Rovers stuff’, doesn’t even cover it.
The early summer months of 2009 were a dark time to be a Southampton fan. Just relegated from the Championship and days away from liquidation, they were at the peak point of a crisis. Fortunately, after numerous agonising false dawns, a Swiss man by the name of Markhus Liebherr saved the club from dissolution. And so began the journey back.
Lambert’s signing on the 10th of August for one million pounds from Bristol Rovers was, at the time, a massive fee for a League One club to spend on a player; let alone one with no experience of playing above the third tier of English football. It was seen by many as something of a gamble, even factoring in his impressive goalscoring form for Rovers which had seen him finish top scorer in England’s top four leagues for the previous campaign. But any risk involved was rewarded monumentally.
Lambert scored on his debut against Northampton, kick-starting a run of prolific form which saw him repeat his feat of the previous season of being England’s professional league top scorer. His goals propelled a side which started on minus ten points to finishing just one place outside the play off places. Without the deduction Saints would have been fifth. There was some cause for celebration during this season though, as Southampton beat Carlisle United 4-1 at Wembley to claim the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Rickie opened the scoring with one of his trademark near unsaveable penalties.
Speaking of penalties, amongst the many legacies Lambert leaves at the club, his 100% conversion rate from the spot for Saints has to go down as one of the most remarkable. To score thirty four shots from twelve yards might not seem that incredible, but when you actually start to consider how often penalties are spurned by even the greatest of players it comes into perspective how impressive it is to net so many without missing. Add to this feat that it was accomplished across three leagues and you really do have to admire the achievement.
It really did feel like whatever Rickie touched turned to gold during the years in League One and the season in the Championship. The team really seemed to ride the wave of his goalscoring efficiency. That, along with the solidity of players such as Morgan Schniederlin and Jose Fonte, as well as the creative partnership Rickie formed with Adam Lallana, took Saints all the way to the summit of the second tier and the verge of the Premier League by the Summer of 2012.
I still remember clearly the final game against Coventry. Skiving Athletics on a Saturday afternoon at my school to watch on the Sixth Form Club TV as Southampton, despite some nervy moments early on, stormed past an already relegated City to secure entry to the big time. Although Rickie didn’t score on the day, you felt that this moment was the culmination of his exploits in front of goal over the course of the past three seasons.
The Premier League was a brave new world for this Saints side. So swift was their catapulting into the fray of the richest and the most famous of football clubs, people asked the inevitable questions; was it too much too soon? Rickie’s ability to handle the jump was similarly queried. Could he cope with the pace of the league? Would he fall into the pile of Earnshaws, Jeromes and Nugents that scored for fun lower down the English football pyramid but could never quite cut it at the top? Or would he simply pick up where he left off?
The answer to the last question was an emphatic yes. Although Rickie was benched for the season’s opener against reigning champions Manchester City in favour of the much less prolific but more mobile Guly do Prado, he was brought on at half time with Saints a goal down. With his first shot of note, the big man scored, sending the travelling Saints fans into raptures. Any question marks as to whether the fairy tale could continue for Lambert and Saints felt quashed in that moment, even in spite of the fact they went on to lose 3-2.
There were doubts though in the first half of that season. Doubts which were acted upon by then chairman Nicola Cortese, who shocked Saints fans and many football fans in general by sacking the eminently positive and well liked Nigel Adkins in favour of a somewhat unknown Argentine by the name of Mauricio Pochettino. Saints’ stuttering start to the season had been poor; they faced some tough opposition yes, but alarming surrenders to the likes of West Brom and Wigan eventually cost old Nige. The timing was a tad unfortunate, what with the team having just managed to mount a stirring comeback from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Chelsea, but with hindsight it was the right call to replace Adkins. He had led Saints a long way, but if we’re looking at results since for both managers, the aforementioned Argie was the correct man to pick up the baton as he has gone on to become arguably the finest young manager in the world.
Under Poch, Lambert’s on pitch relationship with Lallana continue to thrive, but the development of Jay Rodriguez into a second striker to provide pacey runs for Lambert to find with knock downs and passes when holding up the play added a new attacking dynamism to Saints. Whereas Adkins had mostly shoehorned Jay in out wide, Pochettino preferred him playing in the more central role he had at Burnley, with the freedom to run the channels. This shift, although it paid dividends immediately and allowed Saints to stay up with relative ease considering their slow start, really saw the most major impact at the start of the 2013/14 season. It coincided with the English trio hitting a purple patch which saw Rickie earn an England call up for his efforts for a friendly against the auld enemy. And so followed probably the only England game I have enjoyed watching in my entire life.
The game against Scotland was poised at 2-2, when with twenty minutes or so to play, Roy Hodgson gambled and decided to give the uncapped Lambert his chance. He repaid it instantly. From Leighton Baines’ corner, he leapt head and shoulders above his marker and produced one of the finest headers I have seen live, which flew like a bullet into the top right corner. I’m not one for outwardly showing too much emotion over football, let alone matches which don’t have any competitive impact, but I damn near shed a tear in that moment. It proved what Saints fans and Lambert himself had known for years. He was, quite simply, a goal machine.
In interviews since, Rickie has made mention of his attitude at that time, ‘pure ruthlessness’. He wanted a chance to come his way, because he knew he would take it. Oh for a striker with that sort of mentality to be a part of Saints’ squad this season! He has also noted that he knew even then that that goal was the ‘pinnacle’ of his career. Although further England action and goals followed, as well as a call up to the 2014 World Cup, that moment was truly special.
It was a shame that Rickie went to the world cup that year as a Liverpool player. In truth, even Rickie himself probably knows leaving Saints was the wrong move career wise, but he had to take his chance at his boyhood club and not many begrudged him that opportunity. Sadly though, the same fans also knew that he was merely a floodgate opener allowing Brendan Rodgers to ransack the Southampton team for three of its top performers. Looking back, though, I’m glad Rickie left when he did; on a high and still the main man. Saints have since gone from strength to strength (albeit now to slight decline), and I feel as if he was just on the verge of losing his edge which might have seen him slip down the pecking order.
There’s no need, though, to look back at the disappointing end to Rickie’s career. Instead, we should just revel in the joy of his talismanic peak. He is the player, above all others in that team from 2009 onward, who truly revived my passion for the game. At a time when I was still young and impressionable enough to have loved something else, he dragged me back into the boundless highs and gut-wrenching lows of being a football fan. And for that above all else, I will always be grateful.