Over the years Bristol Rovers have had some great centre forwards. The likes of Geoff Bradford, Alfie Biggs and Jason Roberts spring quickly to mind.
And another right up there with the best is today’s Memory Lane guest, Rickie Lambert.
“It was with Rovers that my game really took off,” said Lambert, when I caught up with him at his home in his native Formby, Merseyside.
“I joined Liverpool at the age of ten. It was a dream come true for me. I was, still am, a huge fan and it had been my childhood ambition to play for them.”
But those hopes and dreams were dealt a dashing blow when, at the age of 15, he was released. (Of course, he would have no way of knowing that he’d get another chance at Anfield later in his career.)
“I was devastated, but managed to get signed on by Blackpool as a trainee,” he said.
Rickie made his senior debut for the Tangerines at 17, coming on as a substitute on August 7, 1999 in a 2-1 win over Wrexham. He would make two more appearances, both from the bench, before being released by manager Steve McMahon in November 2000.
For four months Rickie was lost to the sport and worked on a farm, bottling beetroot to earn a wage. “That seems so long ago now,” laughed Rickie.
Back into the game
A chance to get back into the game came when Third Division Macclesfield Town took an interest.
“That took me a while to get a contract, but I got a deal and loved it there,” he explained.
“They were a good bunch of lads and we’d often enjoy a drink or two. Those were very different days, when the drinking culture in football wasn’t frowned upon.”
A return of ten goals from 49 appearances alerted other clubs of Rickie’s potential and in April 2002 a cash-strapped Macclesfield couldn’t afford to turn down an offer of £300,000 from Second Division (now Championship) Stockport County.
“I had something of an up and down time there and the third year was a nightmare. We were playing badly, I was having a bad time and the crowd were quick to express their displeasure. It was definitely the worse time of my career,” admitted Lambert, whose final tally showed 19 goals from 110 games.
Eager to get away and start afresh, he dropped down to League Two, when Rochdale paid an undisclosed fee for the striker, the day after his 23rd birthday, on February 17, 2005.
“After Stockport, Rochdale was really good for me and I got my appetite for the game back,” he said.
A regular in the Rochdale line-up from then on in, Rickie bagged 28 goals from 68 appearances. Happy with his lot with the Dale, he played in three of the 2006-07 opening fixtures for the Lancashire club, before being faced with a dilemma as the end of the August transfer deadline day arrived.
Move to Bristol Rovers
“The boss called me in and said Bristol Rovers had made an offer for me and to go down and talk to them,” he said.
“I wasn’t sure about the move and I’m not convinced I was even their first choice as a new striker, though they probably remembered that I’d scored against them for Macclesfield and Rochdale.
“I was negotiating terms on my hands-free ’phone in the car as I drove down the M6 and, after talking to ‘Trolls’ (Paul Trollope) and Lennie (Lawrence) when I got there, I decided to make the move.”
Initially, Rickie found the transformation from Rochdale to Rovers tough going and it took him until November to get off the mark, scoring in a 2-0 win over Barnet, after coming off the bench.
“Looking back, it was a funny first season. I wasn’t playing that well and neither was the team,” said Lambert.
“The turning point came when we beat Bristol City 1-0 in the Southern Area Final of the JPT (Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) and I got the goal. Then everything clicked, we were flying and my career really took off.”
That local derby victory certainly was the turning point for Rickie and Bristol Rovers. A fantastic run that saw them lose only three games after that City win; reach the final of the JPT, going down 3-2 to Don- caster Rovers at the Millennium Stadium, and then that never-to-be- forgotten 3-1 Wembley promotion play-off win over Shrewsbury. “Fantastic,” summed up Rickie.
The next season was always going to be about consolidation in League One, a target achieved fairly comfortably, with virtual ever-present Lambert top scoring with 19 goals.
The 2008-09 campaign saw them finish in a highly respectable 11th place, again Rickie topping the charts with 29 goals (47 appear- ances).
Lambert had now racked up 59 goals for the Gas, averaging a goal every two-and-a-half games, a strike rate bound to attract the attention of other clubs.
Rickie’s story concludes next week with league and international success and a dream return to his old Liverpool stomping ground. Make sure you don’t miss it!