Pardew can be proud of Rickie's ascent to greatness

Basingstoke Gazette: Rickie Lambert Rickie Lambert

Should the circumstances permit it, Alan Pardew may afford himself a small smile of satisfaction if Rickie Lambert scores his 100th Saints goal on Sunday.

Newcastle’s predicament, as one of the clubs on the periphery of the Premier League relegation battle, means generosity cannot be easily afforded at St James’ Park, but it is unlikely that Pardew would begrudge his former striker a consolation effort this weekend.

After all, Lambert has had few bigger supporters in his career than the current Magpies boss.

Pardew, who brought the forward to Saints from Bristol Rovers in August 2009, has played a central role in Lambert's incredible rise from a lower-league journeyman to the joint-top English goalscorer in the Premier League.

From the moment he signed him, Pardew was firm in his belief that Lambert could make it to the top flight.

“He’s got to take us through two divisions, and he can,” Pardew declared, while Saints were still a League 1 club.

Undaunted, he went on to make an even bolder prediction, too.

“For me, that would make him as big a legend as some of the big, big, names you’ve had here – the Mick Channons and Kevin Keegans.”

Those who watched the likes of Channon and Keegan in their pomp may baulk at such a suggestion, even now.

But there can be little doubt that, in the last ten years at least, few players have been as important to the Saints cause.

A total of 99 goals in three-and-a-half seasons is a majestic return, and makes it all the more curious that Lambert was overlooked by so many for so long.

When Saints signed him, Lambert was edging towards his 28th birthday, and had never played above the third tier.

“Plenty had talked about him, but no-one went for him,” said Pardew, who would go on to add: “The signs that I’m seeing are a player that’s undervalued and under-appreciated from outside.”

Huddersfield, for example, had been interested shortly before Lambert’s transfer to St Mary’s, but chairman Dean Hoyle summed up the reservations of his club, and perhaps others, suggesting that, at his age, Lambert would have “little or no resale value”.

Saints, thanks to Markus Liebherr’s takeover, were not constrained by such financial concerns, though. Even so, Pardew has claimed it was a “hard-sell” to convince chairman Nicola Cortese to sanction a deal.

But Cortese approved, and agreed a fee worth a little over £1m.

It was a huge sum for a League 1 side, yet Pardew was adamant that it represented a bargain.

“I felt it at the time. People probably didn’t see it that way, but he’s probably proven that is the case,” said Pardew – and that was just three-quarters of the way through Lambert’s first season at the club. He is a proper player for this football club and could have played for this club in any era in my opinion.”

It was a view endorsed by arguably the greatest Saints player of all, Matt Le Tissier, who has said: “If he stays at Saints and keeps playing and scoring the way he is, he will be up there with the number sevens of the past.”

The pressure was certainly piled on Lambert from the start, with the club handing him their most revered number – and encouraging the media to make a big deal of it.

Following Le Tissier’s retirement, in 2002, Saints had struggled to find a suitable successor to the shirt. In Lambert, however, they felt they finally had one.

The day he signed, the striker said: “What can I say, there’s only one Matt Le Tissier and I’m not going to try and emulate him.

“I’m just going to try and be as good as I can be and hopefully that’s good enough.”

It certainly has been. Pardew was clear when Lambert arrived, however, that he was not yet the finished article.

He had no desire to alter his game – “I think he’s a good age and he knows his job. He knows what he does well,” – but he challenged Lambert to overcome what had arguably been the biggest barrier to his career progressing.

“I told him that he would be a Premier League player once he got his condition, fitness and body shape right,” he said.

Lambert has never hidden from the fact he did not look after himself in the way he should have done earlier in his career.

It was an issue that others, before Saints, had attempted to resolve.

One of the biggest influences in Lambert’s career was Steve Parkin, who signed him for Rochdale when he was 23.

Parkin’s most important contribution was to turn Lambert from a midfielder into a striker, but he also recognised how crucial it was that the player improved his condition.

“The game was changing and players were getting fitter, and that’s what he had to do,” said Parkin.

“He had to restrain himself from having a beer or two too often, and make sure that he ate properly. He also had to bring his physical stature up to speed, and he did exactly that.”

The improvement continued under the guidance of Paul Trollope at Bristol Rovers, before Pardew and Saints fitness coach Nick Harvey, who Lambert has praised, got their hands on him.

“At Rovers I wasn’t as professional as I should have been when I went there,” he said. “I stepped it up a level there and I think I have stepped it up another level at Southampton.”

His record certainly bears that out. Lambert has barely missed a game through injury since his arrival at the club, making 184 appearances in total.

After Pardew was sacked in August 2010 – a decision that disappointed Lambert – the striker continued to thrive under Nigel Adkins.

Having helped lead the club out of League 1, his 31 goals last season were an essential contribution in Saints’ promotion to the Premier League.

So far this term, he has 11 and has even made a strong case for an England call-up, albeit one that has been ignored so far.

“I am so proud of him,” said Pardew earlier this season. “I always said Rickie could be a Premier League player and he is proving it.”

Pardew’s faith in Lambert may come back to haunt him on Sunday, however, as the striker goes in search of his Saints century, against Newcastle.

Should he reach it, he will become only the tenth post-war Saint to hit the 100-goals mark.

In a season of struggle, the Magpies hardly need further misery heaped on them, but should Lambert make their position in the table even more precarious, Pardew will find it hard to hold it against him.

“He is a lovely, humble, smashing lad,” he said, illustrating the genuine affection that exists between the pair.

There are certainly two Rickie Lamberts. The devastating predator who prowls and roars around the pitch, and the softly-spoken, engaging, gentle giant off it. There is a supreme level of self-confidence in Lambert, but not a hint of ego. He is a down-to-earth family man who seems genuinely privileged to conduct the job that he does.

“Not just as a player, but as a character and a person, he deserves the fans to shout his name every week,” said Pardew.

And shout it they do.

Pardew will be hoping the cries aren’t too loud this Sunday, of course.

But, should he find the back of the net and bring up his ton, the Newcastle boss may well be one of the first to congratulate him after the final whistle has blown.

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