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Rickie Lambert: From Division 3 to Three Lions on his England shirt
FOUR years ago tomorrow Saints signed a striker who had spent his entire career in the lower divisions.
Released by his first professional club Blackpool when a teenager, he had reverted to working in a beetroot factory prior to getting a second chance with Macclesfield.
There followed spells with Stockport and Rochdale before a move to a big city club. Well, Bristol is a big city and Bristol Rovers are a club in Bristol ...
They soon found out quickly enough as Lambert scored on his Saints debut in a Carling Cup tie against Northampton.
Lambert started as he meant to go on, and with 103 goals later in just 196 league and cup appearances his position in the pantheon of Saints legends is undisputable.
For four years now, Saints fans have been enjoying life with Lambert.
Many have been saying for a while that he deserved an England international call-up.
Yesterday, he finally got one – aged 31.
Lambert’s inclusion in Roy Hodgson’s squad for next week’s Wembley friendly with Gordon Strachan’s Scotland capped a truly meteoric few years for the popular scouser.
He is not the first thirtysomething in recent years to win his first senior England call.
Three years ago, former Saints striker Kevin Davies was called up by Fabio Capello for a Euro 2012 qualifying game. Davies was 33 at the time.
Lambert has only spent one season rubbing shoulders with the elite, and was never remotely close to England calls during his youth.
Instead, he has spent a vast chunk of his career playing for unglamorous clubs in the lower divisions, often in games watched by barely a few thousand die-hard fans.
The third and fourth tiers are a world away from the glamour, glitz and financial riches of the Premier League.
It takes a certain mentality to succeed at that level. The likes of Macclesfield, Rochdale and Stockport are no place for fancy dans.
Pardew knew that Lambert possessed that attribute when he brought him to the south coast four years ago tomorrow.
Back in August 2009, Pardew knew he was getting an accomplished League 1 marksman – Lambert had belted 29 goals for Rovers the previous season.
What he could never have envisaged, though, is the remarkable story that Lambert has written.
Along the way, he has answered all the questions.
Could he score goals in the Championship? He did, almost 30 of them in 2011/12 – his first at that level.
Could he score goals in the Premier League? He did, 15 of them last season – making him the joint top-scoring Englishman in one of the top leagues on the planet.
Could he transfer that ability to the international stage?
Well, that is one question he has – until now – never had the chance to answer.
But with Jermaine Defoe and Wayne Rooney injury doubts – and with their clubs no doubt leaning heavily on the FA to restrict their involvement if they are not 100 per cent – then we can realistically expect Lambert to face Scotland next week.
My mind goes back to May 1989 – 24 years ago.
Back then, in those pre-Premier League days, England played Scotland at Hampden Park.
England boss Bobby Robson picked a striker who had made his name, like Lambert, plundering goals in the bottom two divisions.
Amazingly, Steve Bull had only just helped Wolves to promotion from what is now League 1 when he made his senior international debut against the Auld Enemy.
Like Lambert, Bull was a typical English striker – a throwback, if you want, to a long forgotten age.
Steve Bull scored on his England debut in a 2-0 win against Scotland, and went on to feature in the following summer’s World Cup.
It was a great story, and all football fans – whoever you supported – should have been delighted for the boy from the Black Country.
In Bull, the fans could see one of themselves. Down to earth, never likely to let fame go to his head, someone who never forgot where they came from.
Lambert is straight out of the same mould.
That is why all football supporters – not just the Saints ones celebrating Roy Hodgson finally taking notice of their talisman – should celebrate the Saints No 7’s call-up.
Rickie Lambert, the man from the beetroot factory, has had to work harder than most for his international chance, and no-one deserves it more. He is living proof that lower division footballers CAN make it to the top if they work hard and believe.
As a result, he is a true inspiration.
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