First published 2016
Rickie Lambert is probably sick of hearing the word ‘beetroot’. It’s not because he’s dismissive of his time working in a factory that packed the said vegetable, but more because there doesn’t seem to be an article in the press concerning his rise to fame that fails to mention it.
The beetroot, however, is as much a part of the Rickie Lambert story as his time at Rochdale AFC, where yet another visionary move from then manager Steve Parkin transformed the life of a footballer forever. He saw in Lambert an intelligent player and natural goal scorer, something everybody else up to that point had inexplicably missed.
In my previous book, The Rochdale Division, Parkin told me: ‘Rickie Lambert was even more pleasing [than Grant Holt]. I’d only ever seen him play in midfield. I never thought he had the legs to play there, to be perfectly truthful. He did have a terrific shot, however. I started thinking, if he’s a bit further up the pitch, he could create the kind of space in the box that he does in midfield. I sold this idea to him, I said: “I want you up front with Holty”. He snapped my hand off because it meant less running for him.’
Lambert, in this new role, teamed up with Holt to form one of the best strike partnerships ever seen at Spotland. But, like Holt, Lambert had been around the block before his football career finally clicked under Parkin at the age of twenty-three.
In a relaxed manner, and with a softly-spoken Liverpudlian accent, he recounts the formative years that took him to that point.
‘It was the early 1990s,’ he says. ‘I was ten years old, playing for a local youth team, and I was spotted by a Liverpool scout. I was invited in for a trial and ended up getting a contract. My dad was so proud. That contract stayed in a frame until I was in my early twenties.
‘I joined the ten and elevens age group and stayed at Liverpool until I was fifteen. I was mostly playing on the right of midfield, which, as you know, isn’t really my position. Steve Heighway was the director of the youth team at the time and he called me in with my dad and said bluntly: “I don’t think you’re good enough. It’s not going to work out”. I was devastated. It was like my world had ended.’
Despite being discarded by the club he loved, spells at Blackpool, Macclesfield Town and Stockport County would follow, punctuated by that oft-reported spell in a beetroot factory. Lambert describes these years as frustrating.
‘I didn’t know what to do with myself after Liverpool got rid of me. Then I heard from Danny Coid, who I had grown up with. He had been let go by Liverpool, too, and was now trying out at Blackpool. He invited me to go down there with another mate and all three of us went on to get a Youth Training Scheme deal at sixteen.
‘It went okay for a while. When Nigel Worthington was manager, I was doing well and it looked promising that I might break into the first team, but then he resigned just before I was about to turn pro. Steve McMahon took over and gave me a month-to-month pro contract when I turned eighteen. Again, though, it wasn’t long before I got that call to the office to be told it wasn’t working out. Steve wasn’t even playing me in reserve games, which I wasn’t happy with.
‘It was the middle of the season when Blackpool let me go and I found myself training at Macclesfield, who were in the old Third Division. They wanted to sign me but couldn’t afford to. When it came to the summer I had no money coming in, so I took a job on a farm near Kirby, where I grew up. I had lots of things to do there, including working at the beetroot-packing factory. It reminded me what was waiting for me if the football didn’t work out. It made me more determined.
‘As it happened, Macclesfield signed me the next season and I did really well there. That led to Stockport coming in to buy me for £300,000 when I was twenty-one. I thought things were going to progress from then on but my first season there, under Carlton Palmer, didn’t go very well at all. He wanted me to play as a deep-lying midfielder and I found it hard, to be honest. I very rarely played and, when I did play, I was subbed. It was a very frustrating time.
‘Then Sammy McIlroy took over and he played me as a central midfielder. I liked Sammy and things picked up. I was the leading goal scorer and Player of the Season. But again, things went backwards. My third season at Stockport was one of the worst I’ve had personally. We were bottom or near the bottom of the league most of the time. I don’t know why we were so poor, but it cost Sammy his job. The crowd was on our backs because we weren’t performing. It was really hard mentally. Chris Turner came in but things didn’t improve and the minute Rochdale enquired about me I was allowed to speak to them.’
The lure of regular football was enough to persuade Lambert to drop down a division in 2005 and the Liverpudlian committed to Rochdale just a day after his twenty-third birthday.
‘When I met him, Steve Parkin said to me: “Rickie, I need goals”, but we had an agreement that I would play the remainder of that season, which was about three months, as a centre midfielder. He needed somebody there. Sometimes he would push me up as an attacking midfielder or as a number ten, if the game needed it. The following summer, during pre-season, he pulled me to one side and offered me the chance to play as a forward. He’s right in what he told you; I did bite his hand off.
‘Things really changed for me at this point. I came to Rochdale off the back of Stockport, where I’d really not enjoyed myself. I had no confidence. In making me a forward, Steve Parkin brought my confidence back and he got me scoring goals. I loved playing with Holty, too, even though he wouldn’t pass to me! We were in competition with each other as to who could score the most goals, but he tried to grab all the penalties, so I had no chance. Seriously though, I loved the guy.’
Lambert quickly established himself as dead-ball specialist at Rochdale. Free kicks won around the edge of the opposition penalty area were quickly greeted by rapturous cheers from the Spotland faithful. They knew what was coming from his malevolent boot.
‘I’ve always been good at set pieces, even when I was kid. I’ve never been as prolific at them as I was at Rochdale, though. The secret is practice. When I was kid, I would get rows of balls and just practice that technique over and over. I was always good at striking a ball, but the free-kick technique is different. It has to be practised and it comes with time. At Rochdale, I hit a purple patch where every one I took seemed to end up in the back of the net. It got to a stage where the opposition was terrified to concede a free kick anywhere near their own area. To see the ball bend over the wall right into the top corner; it’s a perfect thing.’
Lambert recalls his favourite game for Rochdale, which saw him score two goals past a goalkeeper who would himself rise to the elite level of the game.
‘It was the 4-3 win against Shrewsbury,’ Lambert says. ‘In fact, it’s one the best games of football I’ve been involved in full stop. We came back from 3-1 down. Holty scored two and I scored two, including the winner, against Joe Hart.’
The freight-train Rochdale had become with its unstoppable strike force wasn’t quite derailed when Holt was sold to Nottingham Forest, but it certainly lost more than a few wheels. Lambert without Holt was like an Empire biscuit without a jelly tot.
‘I was gutted when Holty was sold,’ Lambert says. ‘We were in contention for the play-offs and the two of us were on fire. I think everyone felt it when he left. Our league position deteriorated. Listen, though, I know that that’s football. It’s money to the club and it was a good move for Holty. Personally, I was disappointed, as I really enjoyed playing football with him and he was a great lad around the club.’
It was perhaps inevitable that Lambert would follow his strike partner through the door eventually, although his destination, Bristol Rovers, surprised many, as they were in the same division as Rochdale at the time. The reported £200,000 fee was considered somewhat meagre too, but the added clauses of that deal have gone on to make Rochdale a lot of money in the years since.
‘I was offered a new contract by Rochdale,’ Lambert says. ‘I wasn’t saying no, but I was holding off. I wanted to progress up the leagues and I wasn’t too sure Rochdale were going to do it. I didn’t want to tie my future down at that time. It was the August transfer deadline day and Steve Parkin took me into his office to tell me Bristol Rovers had come in for me. I had three or four hours to decide the next three or four years of my career. It was very stressful. There were a few things in my private life that were stopping me being as professional as I needed to be. They were holding me back. It was nothing to do with Rochdale. I loved Rochdale. It was my own issue. I thought if I took the Bristol move, it would force me to leave Liverpool, where I still lived, and the comfort of home. That’s what I felt I needed to do. It turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I wasn’t quite isolated in Bristol, but I was by myself a lot and everything became solely about my football career for the first time.’
Lambert’s continued success with Bristol Rovers led Southampton − themselves in League One at the time – to pay £1million for his services. The fee raised a lot of eyebrows but it was more than justified. Lambert fired Southampton to back-to-back promotions and quickly established himself as a very able Premier League striker.
‘I progressed into a better player at Bristol Rovers,’ he recalls. ‘We got promoted out of League Two through the play-offs and did okay in League One. I had scored twenty-nine goals in my third season. In my head, I was ready to progress and play Championship football. In many ways, it was like Rochdale all over again. I didn’t think Bristol Rovers were going to make that step up to the Championship.
‘I loved it there, though. I would never have put in a transfer request or anything like that. For me to leave, someone would have to come in for me. I remember that summer came and went and nobody came in for me. I felt disappointed. Not because I was still at Bristol Rovers, but because it felt like nobody believed in me. The season started and then Southampton came in for me after the first game. Straight away, I knew I had to go there. They had just been relegated to League One, but when I met the chairman and spoke to the manager, Alan Pardew, and heard their plans for promotion and beyond, I said: “This has to happen”. There were a few scary moments when Bristol Rovers were, quite rightly, trying to get as much money for me as they could, but I was doing my best to get the move pushed through.
‘Again, the move to Southampton forced me on further as a professional. I remember Pardew called me into his office a few months after the move and he gave me a right dressing down. He said: “You’re not fit enough. You’re not looking after yourself. You should be ashamed.” I was banging in the goals at the time, so I was in shock. It was a proper eye opener. From that moment on, I thrived on working hard and doing extra training and being in the gym. Suddenly, I was as fit as everyone else. I was going into games and everything started to feel really easy. That’s when I would say I became a proper professional footballer.
‘We just missed out on the play-offs in the first season in League One, but we won the LDV Trophy. Then we started the next season badly and Alan Pardew got the sack. Nigel Adkins came in and it took us all six months to get to grips with the league. Then we went on an unbelievable run and finished second behind Brighton. Full credit to Nigel for that. He got us into a style of playing, and instilled a belief in us, that other teams couldn’t cope with. Behind the scenes, the club was being run like a Premier League side. We had the best medical advice, all the stats you could imagine, the best transport. So, when we got into the Championship, we were more than ready for it. We absolutely destroyed the league that season. It was superb. We were promoted to the Premier League in style.
‘Once there, it took us a while to get used to the Premier League. We carried on playing like we did in the Championship. We would open up, pass, and wait for teams to get tired, break them down and score. In the Premier League, people don’t get tired. People don’t make mistakes. People don’t open up. They wait until they get the ball, or until you make a mistake, and, straight away, they’re through on goal and they score. In the Championship, you would lose it two or three times for them to score one. In the Premier League, you lose it once and they score. I was like: “Wow.” So we changed our style to suit and we stabilised in the league.
‘Then Mauricio Pochettino came in when Nigel left and took us up another level. He was a proper eye opener. He’s easily the best manager I’ve played under. I remember he started running us on a Monday in training. We all went to see him afterwards and said: “You shouldn’t be doing this. We’ve just played ninety minutes on a Saturday. You shouldn’t be running us on a Monday.” He was all relaxed and said: “Okay, yeah, that’s fine.” The next Monday, he doubled the running. We just looked at each other and decided to keep our mouths shut from then on.’
Lambert’s rise to the top wasn’t finished yet. At the age of thirty-one he finally fulfilled an ambition harboured by almost every boy in England − he wore the Three Lions. The fact that it was a game against Scotland, the Auld Enemy, made it all the more special. By this stage, Lambert had scored one-hundred-and-three goals in just one-hundred-and-ninety-six appearances across three divisions for Southampton. His call-up by Roy Hodgson was surprising only to those who still didn’t fully appreciate what he was capable of. Needless to say, he scored on his international debut − with his first touch. It proved to be the decisive goal as England saw off Scotland 3-2 at Wembley in the first meeting between the two nations for fourteen years.
‘My call up was surreal,’ he says. ‘I’d been in hospital all that night with my wife, who was giving birth to my baby girl. I went home and went straight to bed in the morning. I woke up at midday to fifty missed calls and one-hundred-and-twenty messages. I thought that’s a hell of a lot of well-wishers for the birth of my daughter. One of the first messages said: “Please call the Gaffer”. I was like: “Shit, what’s this?” So I called him and was told I was in the England squad. I didn’t even know the squad was being named that day. I thought I was being wound up.
‘I’ve had a lot of great moments playing for my league clubs, but that probably is the best moment of my career. It felt like everything had been building up to it. I remember sitting on the bench at the game itself, being absolutely desperate to get on. I was like a tiger in a cage. I knew if I didn’t get on and do something, I might never have the chance to represent England again. It felt a bit like I got a call up because of my league form, but I didn’t feel established, if you know what I mean? I felt it would just take another player to start scoring goals again and my place would be gone. Still, I didn’t envisage my impact being as extreme as scoring the winning goal with my first touch. That was something else. It was indescribable.’
It was about to get better for Lambert. Following selection for the England squad for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Liverpool, the club that released him as a teenager, wanted him back.
‘I had just been called up to the World Cup squad, which was amazing enough, and then my agent phoned to tell me Liverpool had come in for me,’ he says. ‘It was turning into an incredible year for me. The club I supported as a boy, and still do, wanted to pay money for me. I was very emotional, though. I saw myself retiring at Southampton, but the pull of Liverpool was too strong and I was never going to say no to them. Obviously, the training facilities were all new compared to when I was there as a kid, but the ground, Anfield, was exactly the same and inspired the same emotions in me.’
As it transpired, England bombed out of the World Cup in the group stages that summer without registering a single win. Lambert himself was given a mere three minutes of game time against Uruguay. It was disappointing Hodgson then failed to play him in the final game against Costa Rica, which was nothing more than a dead rubber.
After the dissatisfaction of Brazil, Lambert was keen to get back to domestic action.
‘Because I was so excited to join Liverpool, I joined up with them two weeks earlier than I should have done after the World Cup. I wanted to make sure I started well for them, but it backfired. I needed more rest, if I’m being honest. I didn’t feel as sharp as I did the season before. It took me a while to get a run of games. To be honest, it’s a period I don’t want to go into too much.’
While Lambert feels disappointed about how his return to Liverpool panned out, he was given the chance to continue his Premier League career at West Bromwich Albion, where he is currently playing at the time of our interview. I ask him about his future.
‘Long term, who knows?’ he says. ‘I know I’ve not got long left to play. I don’t want to cut my Premier League career short, but playing football is what it’s all about for me. I’d like to think I could be a manager one day, though. That said, if I did it, I would need the same hunger as I have as a player. I would want to learn properly how to do it rather than jumping straight into it.’
As we round off our chat, Lambert is quick to enthuse about the bearing Rochdale had on his vocation.
‘Rochdale had a massive impact on me because I wasn’t enjoying football and my career was going nowhere,’ he says. ‘Rochdale brought enjoyment back to football for me. Most importantly, I started scoring goals there. When I was a kid, before I first went to Liverpool, I was striker. I used to score hundreds of goals a season. All those instincts came back to me at Rochdale. That feeling of hitting the back of the net can’t be compared to anything else in the game. That’s why I started playing football.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham