The Football League Player of the Year awards were handed out this week and there were no prizes for guessing who picked up the Championship Player of the Year. Southampton’s main man Rickie Lambert was the obvious choice, after dominating the goalscoring charts in the division.
Lambert has smashed in 25 goals in 39 appearances this season, 21 of which have come in the league, six more than nearest rival Ross McCormack. The big frontman has also notched three hat tricks during this period and he has proved to be the Saints’ key man in what is shaping up to be a sensational season for Nigel Adkins’ side. Team mate Adam Lallana was runner-up for the award, but there’s no doubting Lambert deserves all the plaudits after making a successful transition from lower league footballer to Championship hot property.
Lambert told Sporting Life after winning “When Saints got to the Championship I was at a point in my career where I was mentally strong. I came into the Championship at the right time and I was confident I could do it. I am happy at Southampton. My family are happy and I am in a great team as well. I have a lot of experience and I’ve kept learning. I feel I’m at my peak right now.”
The 30-year-old may well be at his peak currently, indeed he is approaching the twilight zone of his career, but comparisons have already been drawn with Norwich’s elder statesman of a striker, Grant Holt. Holt is another who has worked his way through the divisions, before making a late break for success at the top and has bagged 12 goals so far to help make Norwich’s return to the top flight a more comfortable ride than expected. Talk of an England call up may be far-fetched, but his form has given hope to those players out there who didn’t earn a move to the Premiership early in their careers.
Lambert has also taken the difficult route, spending the beginning of his footballing adventure as a journeyman down the Football League pyramid. After making just three appearances for Blackpool as a youngster, he went on to make his name at Macclesfield, scoring ten goals for the club in 40 games in the old third division. This earned him a move to Stockport County for £300,000, the most that Macclesfield had ever received in transfer fees, underlining the potential Lambert had displayed at the club. The move didn’t quite go according to plan however, as the forward only managed 18 goals in 98 games, something that Saints fans would consider astonishing given the form he has shown during his time at St Mary’s.
Lambert continued to rack up the glamorous locations in English football, dropping down a division to join Rochdale in 2005, though just a season later, he was on the move again, venturing down south to make his name at Bristol Rovers. He established himself quickly as a fan’s favourite at the Memorial Stadium and his impressive goalscoring form fired the Pirates into League One. Lambert started to find the net on a more consistent basis and finished the 2008/09 season as the joint top-scorer with 29 goals, as Rovers achieved a decent 11th position.
The big clubs then came sniffing and Rovers supporters suffered their worst nightmare as Southampton swooped with a £1 million bid that proved too much for the board to turn down. Lambert was charged with the task of finding the goals to fire the Saints back into the Championship. After bagging 36 goals in all competitions, he finished as the top scorer in all four English leagues for the second season in a row, also picking up personal accolades by being named in the PFA Team of the Year for League One, not to mention winning the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year. This still didn’t secure the Saints promotion however, but second place the following year under Nigel Adkins, also thanks in part to Lambert’s 21 goals, saw Southampton regain their place in the Championship.
And so has followed his sensational transition to the second tier of English football. His record of 82 goals in 149 games for the Saints is nothing short of amazing and would have surely earned him a move to a bigger Premiership club were it not for his age. Their loss is Southampton’s gain though and age is just a number in Lambert’s case. He will hope to finish the season with another promotion to celebrate, then we can all look forward to his battle with Grant Holt for the title of England’s most improved striker. If Jay Bothroyd can play for England, why on earth can’t Rickie?