For Rickie Lambert, the month of August was a real emotional trampoline. The former factory worker celebrated the joy of the birth of his third child, his first England call-up and a goal on his debut against Scotland, only to be brought abruptly back to earth by being patronised within an inch of his life by an overzealous media. Lambert fought his way out of intensive care to make it for the start of the season, where he scored a last-minute winner against West Brom on the opening day. What can we expect next from this Yeoman of the Beetroot?
Roy Hodgson was quick to quell the mild excitement generated by the journeyman striker’s unlikely rise to prominence, offering an endorsement that was less ringing, more whispered in hushed tones from behind a bush. “Obviously there might be more competition next time,” he said, “But Rickie won’t be struck off my list lightly”. As we all know, this is most likely absolute guff. Lambert hasn’t been compared to David Nugent, Kevin Davies and Jay Bothroyd simply because they all love root vegetables. A goal doesn’t necessarily change the fact that he shall be preserved as a one-cap-wonder, with memories of his goal mothballed along with his shirt (signed by all the lads, of course). Should that prove to be the case, then Lambert’s story will still remain a treasured tale of triumph against the odds, something to keep us all warm and restore our faith the next time we hear of a footballer selling his nan’s kidney for gambling money, or using a child with leukaemia as a napkin.
But could it mean something more? We all know that he was called up in the first place because of a paucity of available options, partly due to injury, partly because England simply isn’t well stocked in quality players as they once were. His limitations have been noted by all; the very fact that he plied his trade for so long at places like Macclesfield and Rochdale are what make his story great, but also serve as testament to his perceived lack of quality. How can someone who was playing at Bristol Rovers just four years ago possess the same street smarts as someone such as Wayne Rooney, who has been ensconced in the Premier League bubble since he was a child? Boasting cult hero status on the South coast is one thing, possessing international quality is quite another.
This betrays the fact that he may yet be able to offer something that nobody else can. The root cause of many of England’s failures of the past has been a mental one. The feted Golden Generation had the talent, but lacked the psychological resilience of hardened winners. Lambert can play free of those shackles. He is unencumbered by expectation, thrilled just to be invited to the party. He is old enough to maintain some valuable perspective, the better to dismiss the pressure of expectation that fast-tracked youngsters of the past have been indoctrinated in to. Let’s not forget either that he showed last season that he can score goals for a (relatively) average side, so the cover letter meets this particular job spec; the reality is that (should England qualify) Hodgson will not be picking a squad to win the World Cup. For all that sceptics will maintain the fact that Lambert isn’t a player that will win a team a World Cup, all that means is that he’ll surely fit in with the rest of his colleagues. Hodgson knows at this stage that he won’t stumble upon any fresh world-class talent. He will be looking for a striker to supply competition from the bench for a side hoping to progress to the quarter-finals and most likely no further. The question should be whether Lambert is good enough for that level.
Lambert still has much to prove, with the ominous risk of second-season syndrome the most likely threat to his dreams of Brazil. He will be assured by his manager Mauricio Pochettino’s confident business in the transfer window, meaning he will surely have the freedom to build on last season’s haul of 15 goals and 9 assists. If he can repeat himself at the highest level and score freely for Southampton in this campaign, there is no reason not to involve him in the England squad more often, especially when you consider the circumstances surrounding some of England’s other options up front. Rooney is mired in personal crisis; Andy Carroll’s injury record remains a concern; Jermain Defoe can expect fewer starts for Tottenham; Darren Bent needs to remind himself how to play football after a wasted season.
Not for the first time in his career, Lambert finds that the odds are stacked against him. The World Cup in Brazil might be one brass ring too far, but if Hodgson should face a similar dearth of options next summer, then we’ve seen in the past that you don’t necessarily need to be an established world beater to be capable of making an impact. Take Toto Schillaci in 1990, Stephane Guivarc’h in 1998, or Luca Toni in 2006.
When Lambert scored against Scotland, his team-mates rushed to celebrate with beaming faces, eager to vicariously share his moment of glory. When was the last time you remember seeing an England goal being celebrated with such unbridled joy? Perhaps Lambert can bring some positive energy to a team addled by psychological scars. Sometimes you just need someone to be in the right place at the right time. Given some good fortune, that might just be enough.