The 25 Best Players in the Championship - as voted for by you: Part 7 of 25
When Southampton were promoted to the Championship in May, many of their supporters must have looked at the example of Norwich City to see whether they could emulate the Canaries’ feat of two successive promotions. Perhaps Rickie Lambert looked at Grant Holt and thought “I could do that”…
And maybe that is a lazy comparison. Either way, Saints are currently on course to go one better than Norwich by winning the title. There’s a long way to go, but in Lambert they have a front man to strike fear into every defence in the division – as Paul Binning explains.
Rickie Lambert (Southampton)
When a player is having measurable success in the lower leagues there are all too many people ready to have a pop at them without hard evidence. “Could they really take the step up?” is a question often asked, while the cricket analogy “flat-track bully” is usually rolled out to explain why a player scores lots of goals.
Rickie Lambert was 29 years old and an amazing 423 games into his professional career before he touched down in the Championship. 12 goals in 19 matches, including two hat-tricks (against Nottingham Forest and Brighton), makes you wonder what everyone was waiting for.
Until this season, Lambert had been a star of the lower half of the Football League. He plundered goals aplenty for Macclesfield, Stockport, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers before Southampton decided he was the man to lead them back to the Championship.
An astonishing 37 goals in 2009/10 was not enough to get Saints back up but his 21 the following season, working in combination with the diminutive Adam Lallana in particular, elevated the south coast club and they’ve barely looked back since.
So why did Lambert take so long getting here? His career started relatively slowly with a ratio of only one goal every four games. Stockport paid a gigantic fee for that level – £300,000 – for him before Rochdale snapped him up on a free transfer three years later and this was the first place Lambert started to really show he could offer a substantial goal threat.
One of the more repeatable nicknames given to him by Bristol City fans during his successful spell at neighbours Rovers was ‘Fatty Lambert’ and perhaps the size of his frame has counted against him at times. Indeed, Rovers fan Andrew Strong told me he felt his biggest attributes were immediately obvious as strength and power as it took time for ‘Lambo’ to settle in Bristol.
A big target man often does a lot of unheralded work and needs goals to pacify the most critical of fans who struggle to see the team benefits delivered. Rovers paid £200,000 for Lambert in 2006 – an amazing amount of money for a League Two side – and when he only scored one goal in his first 24 matches, his position was under threat. But in the second half of that season he started to find the net more regularly. This form helped Rovers to promotion via the play-offs, Lambert weighing in with ten goals but critically proving the talisman to partner Richard Walker.
Andrew also points out that Lambert has an eye for the audacious and scores a good number of long-range goals. One strike in particular that season made him a legend amongst ‘Gasheads’ – a winner against City in the Football League Trophy Area final that sent the blue half of Bristol to Wembley.
As Lambert has climbed the leagues, his annual goal tally has also enjoyed an upward trajectory and 19 goals in Rovers’ first season back in League One was smashed the following year with a tremendous 29 goals leading to the inevitable move to a bigger club for £1million.
As a strong, broad and powerful striker, Lambert is not someone you would look at and naturally expect to take set-pieces but his record from the penalty spot and free-kicks outside the area is superb. Southampton blogger Sam Dobson of The Saints Hub notes that he scores a lot of great, often powerful free-kicks and has never missed a penalty since his move to St Mary’s.
Sam adds that Lambert is Southampton’s “most important player”, which is further evidence of his value as a team player. “As well as scoring, he brings others into play with good movement and hold up play. He often drifts out wide, making unselfish runs and is in the best physical shape of his career”.
That ‘shape’ word again. He can’t get away from it. That underlying concern, plus the fact he turns 30 in the New Year may just stop Lambert getting a move to the Premier League. Of course, the way he is currently leading from the front and inspiring the men from the south coast, he may not need a move to play at the top level.
Who else did you vote as one of the 25 best players in the Championship? Read about the rest so far here.