Sad though it is, there usually comes a point in every Football League player’s life when he no longer dares to dream.
Ignoring any knockbacks that have previously befallen them, young professional footballers will still believe they’re one good season away from changing their life forever.
And they’re right. A long shot it might be, but the Premier League in all its shiny glory remains within touching distance for any pro with a date of birth which fits the profile of the top flight scouts who flock to watch them play. Many decide to take notes on the under-24s only.
So, at around the age of 25, when the promise of youth is no longer their ally, a lot of footballers reluctantly accept that superstardom and international football just wasn’t meant to be. Instead of looking forward, the neck turns and their thoughts wander to those creeping up behind them. How long can I stay in the game? The battle for survival begins…
It is clear England hero Rickie Lambert never had that mentality.
When the Southampton striker confessed he’d been “dreaming probably all my life” about scoring for England on his debut last night; he truly meant it. Even at the age of 31, he still hadn’t given up hope. Yet looking back, an international call-up never looked on for him.
After being ruthlessly released mid-season by Steve McMahon at League One Blackpool, as a raw 18-year-old, Lambert spent the next four months frantically striving for a chance to stay in the pro ranks. Macclesfield Town eventually gave him an opportunity in March 2001.
After scoring eight goals in 44 appearances for the League Two minnows, the 20-year-old left for League One Stockport County in 2002, bagging just two goals in his debut campaign, and 16 in the following two.
At 23 Lambert took a step down to English football’s fourth tier with Rochdale, scoring 28 goals in 64 matches. He was beginning to blossom, but few took a great deal of notice. A year later at 24, he was on the move again, this time to Bristol Rovers. Playing for his fifth club in six years, and past his young player sell-by-date, a journeyman’s career was taking shape.
I’ve known many footballers who have subconsciously settled for what they’ve had. With a family to feed they’d concentrate on one contract at a time, and hope for some kind of stability. Knowing the bills were going to get paid was priority number one. Anything beyond was a bonus. I’ve seen this anti-climactic reality extinguish the fire out of many a footballing belly.
The burning ambition and drive to ‘make it’ that every youngster has inside them is quietly replaced by a clinical need to protect what they have. Players will think they’re training hard, they’ll think they’re giving their all, but knowing their career is unlikely to scale the heights they once dreamed of they’re in reality doing little more than going through the motions.
Rickie Lambert pondered that scenario, and said ‘not for me thank you’. Instead, he worked even harder at his game, and he continued to improve. His fine form at Bristol Rovers, earned him his move to Southampton in 2009 at exactly the right time. Then, aged 27 and joining a club on the up he refused to rest on his laurels. As a result his form and fortune has grown ever since. This season, he could easily be even more successful.
The Saints striker is a terrific example to every aspiring footballer in the country, and to every mid-20s Football League player that thinks he’s missed his chance.
If you can shrug off the disappointments, believe in yourself, strive to get better, and find the perfect environment for you to thrive; anything is possible, even if you are getting on a bit. Then you just have to do what Rickie Lambert did, and dare to dream.
Read Adrian Clarke's "Professionally Speaking" column every Thursday on Unibet.