Rickie Lambert's unlikely and unparalleled ascent
"A shock," Rickie Lambert said. "I just can't believe it." Little wonder, either. His is a story to stretch the bounds of credibility. It is unbelievable, and unlikely to be repeated.
He was well into his 29th year before he even played in The Championship; he was 30 years and six months old, and a veteran of more than 500 senior appearances, when he made a belated bow in the Premier League. At 31, he made his England debut. At 32, he was chosen for the World Cup and re-signed by Liverpool, who released him when he was 15.
He seems living proof that "good things come to those who wait" is not merely an advertising slogan. Lambert waited and waited and then, suddenly, his footballing life kept taking fortunate turns. He scored in his top-flight debut. He struck with his first touch in international football. At an age when contemporaries' careers are starting to wind down, he has scaled new heights.
There is an anachronistic element to Lambert's tale. He is a throwback to the days when sporting stars had firsthand experience of manual labour. The man who screwed the tops onto beetroot jars in a factory -- it is almost obligatory to mention the beetroot -- is now charged with applying the finishing touch for his country and the club he has always supported.
As he is that rarity, a footballer who seems hard to dislike, few should begrudge him the opportunity. Not Southampton, who quadrupled their money on their most talismanic figure since Matt Le Tissier after he powered them from third tier to their joint-highest Premier League finish. Nor outsiders, either; Lambert is the everyman who has transformed himself and transcended the lower-league clubs where he lingered for years. He is football's equivalent of a rom-com, forging a happy ending from unlikely beginnings.
As Lambert recognised, the feel-good factor will subside. When he takes the field, whether in Brazil or for Liverpool, it will be time to deliver. He has scored at least 14 goals in each of his last seven seasons, so consistency has been a forte.
It is one way he differs from Andy Carroll. Some forwards are often compared. They were rivals for the tall striker's berth in Roy Hodgson's squad. The Geordie was exiled and sold by Brendan Rodgers, who made an immediate decision to dispense of the club-record signing two years ago.
Now Lambert, the Liverpudlian, has been signed by the Northern Irishman. To some, that will seem to be a volte-face, a belated acceptance that the physical approach can constitute a Plan B. Yet equating Lambert with Carroll is to misunderstand the older man. Lambert may not terrorise defences with aerial ability and an uncompromising approach quite like Carroll, but there are more dimensions to his game.
Lambert's total of 10 assists last season shows he is capable of creating. He is a skilled technician, as his set-piece prowess indicates. His crossing ability suggests he has used his understanding of what a striker wants to help provide for others. While the theory was that Carroll could get in Luis Suarez's way, Lambert is no static target man. Indeed, he was versatile enough to operate as a No. 10 in Southampton's April win over Everton.
Even when deployed as a striker, he has a fondness for drifting to the left, freeing up the space in the middle for runners. At Liverpool, as at Southampton, he will be charged with being an unselfish foil to younger, quicker players. Manager Mauricio Pochettino's pressing game and coaching helped Southampton's Jay Rodriguez and Adam Lallana enjoy the finest season of their careers, but so, too, did the senior citizen who sometimes served as their supply line.
It suggests Lambert could be on the same wavelength as Liverpool's creative talents. If his lack of pace will render him, at best, a slow-motion version of Suarez, Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling, Lambert has the movement and the football brain to help realise Rodgers' version of fluent, tactically intelligent football.
What the World Cup may help illustrate is how he performs in a bit-part role. Lambert has not always been an automatic choice in the past few years -- he scored as a substitute on his Premier League debut, while his place was put into question again after the arrival of Pablo Osvaldo -- but the majority of his appearances as a replacement came in the first half of his career. He is realistic enough to accept that. Liverpool had the division's two most potent strikers last season, so he is likely to spend more time on the bench next season.
Liverpool's lack of strength in depth was revealed on the few occasions they required Iago Aspas, the unconvincing understudy to Suarez and Sturridge, to make an impact. The Spaniard generally failed. Now the Liverpool manager has shifted tack. Lambert, the man some at Southampton wanted to sell after they won promotion to the Premier League, has secured his own elevation. First the World Cup beckons, then the Champions League. It is, indeed, unbelievable.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.