The former Southampton, Liverpool and England forward has been without a club since July when he left Cardiff by mutual consent and although reports had linked him with a short-term move to Crystal Palace, Lambert has called time on his fairytale career.
He is known as being “the top league goal scorer in all of English football this millennium” with his 218 goals in 607 total career league appearances.
From working in a beetroot factory and playing for Stockport County, Macclesfield, Blackpool, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers in the lower leagues, Lambert made his name at Southampton as he scored 117 goals in 235 appearances for Saints in five seasons from 2009 as he fueled their rise from the third tier back to the Premier League.
That led to an England call up and Lambert scored three goals in 11 appearances for the Three Lions and appeared at the 2014 World Cup.
In a statement, Lambert had the following to say about his retirement from the game.
“I feel lucky to have been involved in this sport for as long as I have. I have had some ups and downs in my career, but to have represented clubs like Southampton and Liverpool and playing for my country in a World Cup were beyond my wildest dreams. Playing and scoring for England is probably my proudest professional moment and I will look back at every aspect of how I got there with fond memories.
“I would like to thank the fans of all the clubs I played for but especially Southampton where I enjoyed the my best years as a footballer and had a special relationship with everyone connected with the club. Thank you to all the players I have played with and all the managers I have played for throughout my career, it was an honor to work with you all. Thank you to my family and friends who have always been there for me and especially my gorgeous wife Amy.
“I will be taking a break for a while to spend some quality time with my family just being a husband and father. In the future I hope to give back as best I can to the game that has given me so much.”
After sealing his dream move to boyhood club Liverpool in the summer of 2014, Lambert struggled to make his mark at Anfield as he scored three goals in 36 appearances before a move to West Brom and then Cardiff where he suffered multiple injuries.
Lambert will always hold a special place in the heart of Southampton’s fans as he was instrumental in back-to-back promotions and then stabilizing them in the Premier League. It would be no surprise whatsoever to see him handed an ambassadorial role at Saints in the coming weeks.
Seven years later they’re preparing for their first major final since 2003 and just their fourth in the past 41 years, as they face Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
Like a host of mid-size clubs in England, Southampton have historically felt they deserve to at least be in the top-flight and to each season challenge the established elite to win a trophy or at the very least reach a Wembley final. Now, after a humbling journey, they’re back to that.
Back in March 2010 Markus Liebherr (pictured, below) stood alongside the Southampton players lifting the JPT trophy in front of the Royal Box at Wembley. Liebherr single-handedly saved the club from extinction in 2009 when he bought them after they plunged into administration and were languishing in the third-tier of English soccer.
The billionaire businessman sadly passed away at the age of 62 in August 2010, leaving the club in the hands of his family, but as he took photos on his small personal camera of his team celebrating with the JPT trophy, over 44,000 fans celebrated in a sea of red and white at Wembley chanting his name. They knew the journey back to the top-flight, where they had previously spent 27-straight seasons, had begun.
Roll the clock forward seven years and a lot has changed, but a similar sea off red and white will adorn half of Wembley on Sunday as Saints requested a kit change to a special third-kit of white with red. Comparisons to the JPT final of 2010 will be made by many.
The trophy they’re competing for may be different this time around but the same feelings are present. Optimism is in the air for what lies ahead not just this weekend but for the future.
Liebherr’s legacy lives on (his name is still sung at every game by Southampton’s fans) heading into just the second League Cup final in their 131-year history. Their last appearance came back in 1979 when they lost to Nottingham Forest 3-2, just three years after they stunned Manchester United 1-0 to win the 1976 FA Cup as a second-tier club. Up until this point that was Southampton’s finest hour and the current squad would be held in the same regard if they could beat Man United for another famous final win.
All week Saints legends of that 1976 team have popped up on TV, only too happy to acknowledge and talk about Southampton’s one and only major trophy which was won in remarkable fashion due to Bobby Stokes’ second half goal.
For generations of Sotonians that famous win against Manchester United has defined the club. They’ve grown up hearing about tales about Lawrie McMenemy, Nick Holmes, Mick Channon, Stokes, Peter Osgood and Peter Rodrigues. That underdog spirit from ’76 will be in full force once again among their 33,000-plus fans at the home of English soccer this weekend.
Saints are back where they feel they belong.
“It’s about time we should really get to a final,” club captain Steven Davis told Pro Soccer Talk after their quarterfinal win at Arsenal in December, which then led to a semifinal against Liverpool which Saints impressively won over two legs.
Their journey to the EFL Cup final has been just as impressive as they’ve beaten Premier League opposition on every step of the way without conceding a goal, just the second team in history to reach a League Cup final doing so.
Their journey from a third-tier team in 2009 to a team now consistently finishing in the top 10 of the Premier League and aiming for a third-straight season with European qualification has been arduous, even if it has seemed rapid.
It has been riddled with high-profile departures, changes and lofty expectations. Saints have met most of the latter and dealt with the former admirably.
Behind-the-scenes many have worked tirelessly to drive them back to become an established Premier League team, with Executive Chairman Les Reed taking over the leading role and putting in place an envious scouting network and academy system which consistently produces gems.
Heading into Sunday’s clash against powerhouse Manchester United, the fans, players and current manager, Claude Puel, know that Jose Mourinho’s superstars are the heavy favorites.
They’re fine with that.
Of course, Liebherr’s investment in Southampton brought financial wealth and the ability for Saints to build a stunning new training center (the main building of which is named the Markus Liebherr Pavilion) to house its world renowned academy, but it also allowed them to step back to where the fans and club felt they belonged. And then some.
Saints splash middle-range cash to sign stars from Europe others don’t want to take a risk on (see: Sadio Mane, Dejan Lovren, Graziano Pelle) then spend time developing them before often selling them on for a huge profit. Their model is admired across the world and both financially and on the pitch it has created great success for a club of Southampton’s size and stature within the Premier League. It’s true that they spent most of their previous time in the Premier League from 1992-2005 battling relegation but now they’re back, they’re hungry to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the club.
Southampton are determined to make the most of their second chance after nearly ceasing to exist.
Sure, this season they’ve slumped a little in the Premier League, with the rigors of their disappointing Europa League group stage exit, an EFL Cup run and untimely injuries thwarting the progress of Puel’s men in the Frenchman’s first season in charge. Yet, they’ve carried on progressing in other ways off the field with huge commercial deals with companies such as Virgin Media, Under Armour and others continuing their impressive growth, plus talk of huge investment from China ongoing.
On the pitch the signings of attackers Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini look like very shrewd investments, once again, while they possess hugely profitable talents in Virgil Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu and Dusan Tadic as a smattering of academy products continue to develop into steady PL players.
Saints have locked down top talent (Tadic, Shane Long, Van Dijk, Davis, Ryan Bertrand) to new deals and the future is looking steady and secure. Yet, there’s just been one thing missing in their rise through the leagues and into Europe over the past few years: silverware.
Speaking to journalists in the tunnel at the Emirates Stadium earlier this year after Saints had beaten Arsenal in the quarterfinal on their march to Wembley, England international Ryan Bertrand explained that the players knew it’s about time the club got back to a final.
“It would be massive [to win the EFL Cup]. For the club, the massive rise that they’ve had from League One, as soon as the switch has turned they’ve seen success after success,” Bertrand said. “It’s not something that’s overdue, the silverware, but it is something that’s about the right time.”
It has taken them time but now they’re back where they believe they should be, a team which can finish just outside the perennial top six and challenge for trophies. On their day Saints can beat any team in the Premier League and they’ve done it in this cup run, dispatching Arsenal and Liverpool in the last two rounds to get to this point.
Whatever happens on Sunday at Wembley, Southampton’s progression into a top 10 side in the Premier League that can challenge for trophies should not be overlooked.
Just under seven years on from winning a trophy solely consisting of teams from the third and fourth tiers of English soccer, Southampton can secure their first piece of major silverware since 1976 and just the second-ever in its history.
It will be a big ask to beat a Man United side which has lost just once in their last 25 games in all competitions, especially without team captain and star central defender Virgil van Dijk and top scorer Charlie Austin who both miss out through injury. But then again, Southampton are used to upsetting the odds and proving everyone wrong.
They’ve spent seven-straight years doing just that.
Sunday’s final represents the biggest stage yet for Southampton to show just how far they’ve come since their second-coming began almost seven years ago at Wembley Stadium.
Ronald Koeman will be readying himself for a bevvy of abuse, boos and jeers at St Mary’s this Sunday from supporters who adored him just a few months ago.
Koeman left Southampton in the summer to manage Everton in a move which angered the vast majority of Saints fans.
When Everton and Koeman come to town on Sunday (Watch live, 11:30 a.m. ET CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) the home fans are ready to show their former manager how they really feel as Koeman returns for the first time since leaving.
There’s a pub not far from St Mary’s called the “Flying Dutchman” and in the aftermath of Koeman’s departure the name of the bar was photo-shopped to become the “Lying Dutchman” with Koeman’s face on the outside of the pub.
That image has stuck and most Saints fans have had this Sunday’s clash against Everton circled on their calendar since the schedule was released.
Why exactly did Koeman’s departure hurt Saints fans so much?
After all, with the constant sales of star players, plus managers like Mauricio Pochettino choosing to move on to larger clubs in recent years, Saints’ fans should be used to seeing quality depart St Mary’s and then welcoming the new wave of faces arriving as their rapid ascension from the third-tier to the top six of the Premier League in the past six years has shown.
When it comes to Koeman, though, it’s personal. For the second half of last season Koeman was asked constantly by the media about his contract situation at Saints and for many fans he went back on his words.
He had a deal at Southampton which ended in the summer of 2017 and he repeated time and time again that he wanted to remain at Southampton until at least 2017 and hopefully beyond that.
He literally said he would stay multiple times to journalists when asked and this is what he said after Southampton’s 4-1 win against Crystal Palace on the final day of the 2015-16 season which sealed sixth place in the Premier League and a Europa League berth.
“I still have a one-year contract,” Koeman said. “I spoke to the board and we had the meeting and it’s always my wish to stay because I like the club, fans and players.”
Yet, just a few weeks later he was gone.
Talks with the club were going well, everyone behind-the-scenes at Southampton thought Koeman would sign a new extension which had been offered to him (as we detailed in this piece at ProSoccerTalk) but then he changed his agent and his mind at the last minute and wanted to move to managerless Everton. He got his wish and has a reported $8.5 million per year deal at Goodison Park.
Saints’ fans were livid. They have since been further angered and confused by comments from Koeman stating he was handed an ultimatum by Saints’ board about signing a new deal and that Les Reed, the executive director of football, basically ushered him out of the club. Yet, that’s something those behind-the-scenes at Saints refute as they claim Koeman simply wanted to move to Everton.
It’s all a bit messy.
However, when he’s becoming one of the best paid managers in the Premier League thanks to the billions of Everton’s new owner Farhad Moshiri, can you criticize Koeman for making the leap and trying to be ambitious and lead a team clearly ready to invest heavily?
Southampton’s fans do. The main issue is more about how the situation was handled. The disdain from that remains and the fans will let him know what they truly think this weekend even though his replacement Claude Puel has called for respect for the work Koeman has done at the club.
Ahead of their UEFA Europa League defeat at Sparta Prague on Thursday, Saints’ fans congregated in Prague’s Old Town square to eat, drink and sing as the Christmas market was in full flow around them in the capital of the Czech Republic.
In that idyllic setting ahead of one of the most memorable games in club history, there were plenty of songs about Koeman, all of which I cannot print here. The animosity is real.
Yet, it’s not as straightforward as saying every home fans at St Mary’s on Sunday will hurl abuse at Koeman.
Many, whether they like to admit it or not, will applaud Koeman for what he managed to do in his two seasons in charge at Southampton.
The Dutchman transformed Saints into a top six team by the end of his time on the south coast and that was despite the likes of Adam Lallana, Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert, Dejan Lovren being sold just before he arrived and then Morgan Schneiderlin and Nathaniel Clyne being sold in the summer of 2015. This summer Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane followed Koeman out of the door and their departures, couple with Koeman’s, leave Saints in a slightly more precarious position than they’d wish for after the opening third of the season under new manager Puel who is still finding his feet in his first-ever season in England.
Both Southampton and Everton need the points on Sunday and the former could be just one point off the relegation zone before kick off if results go against them earlier in the weekend. That fact is adding something extra to the plot too, because Saints’ fans feel like the club would’ve kicked on again and challenged for a top four spot if Koeman had stayed and more money was spent.
For the fans, Koeman was a likeable figure. He spoke the truth. He interacted on Twitter and was seen in bars and restaurants in the south coast city embracing their lifestyle. He seemed genuine. He really was one of the nice guys in the eyes of Southampton’s fans. Together, they believed he could lead them into they unknown to challenge the perennial big boys in the Premier League.
Abruptly, Koeman didn’t want to be a part of that any more.
He is hoping for respect this weekend but he knows that isn’t likely.
“I can not change opinions and feelings of the fans,” Koeman said. “I hope they will respect me. We had a great time and after my career I will look back. Of course I understand the different opinions and reactions and I am not afraid of that. It’s time to think about Everton. I chose to make the move and am happy with that. What happened in the past is the past.”
Koeman isn’t expecting to get widespread respect. In truth, he will get the complete opposite from most inside St Mary’s on Sunday.
Three big money moves occurred early with Marcos Alonso signing for Chelsea, Didier Ndong heading to Sunderland in a club record deal, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou arriving at Tottenham and Burnley have broken their club-record transfer fee for Jeff Hendricks.