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Rickie Lambert and Southampton was a perfect match

The ex-Saints striker hangs up his boots after what has been a fine career

Manchester City v Southampton - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As he waves a fond farewell to a career across all four tiers of the English Football League, Rickie Lambert has admitted he has accomplished things 'beyond his wildest dreams'; it would be fair to say they were beyond anything Southampton fans would have imagined when he joined, too.

The Scouse striker has hung up his boots at the age of 35, having enjoyed a career that took him from a beetroot factory to the World Cup in Brazil and a boyhood dream of playing for his boyhood club of Liverpool 17 years after they released him as a teenager.

But by his own admission his best years were on the South Coast, and in many ways Saints and Lambert were a perfect fit. On the face of it, Southampton needed a striker to get them out of League One and the man who scored bucketloads for Rochdale and Bristol Rovers was just the solution.

Yet it goes far deeper than that. Lambert was more than just a lower-league targetman, he had the vision and the technique that meant he could play a perfect pass, or whip a ball into a top corner whether it be from a freekick or the penalty spot.

But the way the then-27-year-old handled himself off the pitch in terms of diet meant that the third tier would be his limit unless he could change his ways. By his own admission, Southampton and their new manager Alan Pardew showed him how to act like a professional footballer.

The £1m fee paid to Bristol Rovers was seen as a huge fee for the division, but Lambert paid it back in some style. He was the spearhead striker to lead from the front that St Marys hadn't seen since James Beattie, and the first player to really justify being handed the number seven shirt since a certain Matthew Le Tissier.

Lambert was the man for the big moment. He scored in two of the three South Coast derbies he played in and scored all 34 penalties he took whilst at Southampton, including the deadlock breaker at Wembley that led the way to the Saints lifting the Johnstones Paint Trophy just 263 days after being rescued from administration.

Across the two seasons in League One the striker scored 51 goals as he led the team from starting 2009/10 with minus-ten points to winning promotion back to the Championship in 2011, but the following season was arguably the greatest he had in a Saints shirt.

At 29 Lambert had never played in the top two tiers of English football but that did not matter one jot as he and Saints crushed all those in their path on their way to a second straight promotion (well, bar Bristol City, but we can forget that...). The Scouser was in the shape of his life and scored 27 goals on his debut season in the Championship.

There was the hat-tricks against Nottingham Forest, Millwall and Brighton. There was the winner against Leeds at that game at Elland Road, and the 94th minute equaliser to rescue a point against Blackpool and the double in front of the 6,000 strong travelling army at Selhurst Park.

He showcased both sides of his game that season, both as the main goalscorer in front of David Connolly before providing the perfect foil for Billy Sharp. It was the latter role as a support act he had to get used to somewhat in the Premier League, especially under Mauricio Pochettino, but there was no doubt he was still the talisman.

He may have been into his thirties when he finally made his debut in the top flight, but he made up for lost time in some style. He was the first Saint to score in the Premier League since 2005 after stepping off the bench to score away at the Etihad against the champions; the goal against Manchester City was the first of 28 across his two Premier League seasons whilst at St Marys.

Again Lambert was the man for the big moment; against the traditional top six, only Arsenal stopped him scoring. There were vital goals at Villa Park, Loftus Road and Craven Cottage too, all helping towards keeping Southampton in the league and got him into the England squad.

It led to the moment beyond his and thousands of Saints' fans dreams. Stepping off the bench against Scotland in front of a sell-out crowd at Wembley with the score at 2-2, the striker crashed in a header from a Leighton Baines corner to send everybody bar some with a PO postcode into absolute bedlam.

His second Premier League season with Southampton started with a 90th minute winner from the spot at West Brom and ended with the opener against Manchester United and making the World Cup squad. Before the tournament had even started he was off; a move back to Liverpool and a chance to play for the club he was released by in 1997.

The following three seasons saw Lambert represent as many clubs, with season-long spells at Anfield, West Brom and Cardiff. The reality was he was on a downward curve in his last few months at St Marys and realistically was never a striker to bring on for a few minutes here, few minutes there. Graziano Pelle replaced him well on the pitch but for all the Italian's fiery passion he never came close to his predecessor's talismanic status on the South Coast.

Even the way the statement has arrived three months after being released by the Bluebirds is a sad indication of the way Lambert's career has gone since his dream move to Liverpool. No one can blame him for wanting to pull on the red shirt and play in front of the Kop, but there can be no doubt his best spell came in red and white. There wasn't many weeks when "Rickie Lambert Southampton's Goal Machine" wouldn't ring around stadiums across the country wherever the Saints were playing, not least in SO14.

Lambert retires as the highest scoring Englishman so far this millennium, with his 117 goals for Southampton meaning he basically scored one in every two games for the club. He was the goal machine Saints needed to get back to the top flight and they were the club Lambert needed to reach his potential as a player.

When he joined, the thinking from outside may have been Lambert would only be good enough to take Southampton out of League One; the reality for him and Saints fans would end up becoming far beyond anyone's wildest dreams.