There's nothing like a little break to allow the mind to relax enough for some clarity to shine through. Calamitously, such clarity may be in short supply over the course of the following paragraphs, as the interval your scribbler has spent away from the comforting environs of TLO Towers has been nothing like a little break. Instead, the period was spent wending an often dolorous path through the tragi-comedy that passes for my current existence. Irascible old duffer that I am, however, for every kick life has delivered to my Hibernian rump, I have replied in kind with a Gerrardesque right-footed volley to its nether regions. Mama didn't raise no quitter. All of which indulgent autobiographical bellyaching leads in the most tenuous of fashions to the point of today's offering, which concentrates on the suffering of another old duffer.
The pitiful travails of Rickie Lambert, since his popular signing last summer, have been a mix of both the tragic and the comical. Having arrived buoyed on a wave of good will, there remained a fuzzy haze of fondness for this local lad, even when his early appearances were less than stellar. He would come good, we all mumbled. However, his marked lack of mobility was more of a concern and harder to explain as the man himself had made a conscious effort to return early from his post-World Cup break in order to be in the best shape possible. In a fashion that betrayed both mortification and professional indignation, Lambert admitted a couple of weeks into the campaign that he needed to work harder on his fitness and vowed to do so.
Still, the goals did not flow and the contribution of the England man to general play was massively disappointing. With a couple of notable exceptions, the season had become a waking nightmare for the big Scouser, and also, it must be said, for those of us who were watching all hopes of a title challenge evaporate as surely as the impressive Southampton form which had encouraged the club to bring Lambert to Anfield in the first place. It is here, however, that we must pause for a modicum of context.
There is little doubt, given the timing of the signing, that the erstwhile bearded forward was bought with the idea that he would provide support for not only Daniel Sturridge but also Luis Suárez. Many Liverpool fans forget that the Uruguayan went to the World Cup as very much a Liverpool player and all the signs are that Brendan Rodgers believed he would remain so for at least this campaign. When we then factor in that Sturridge has effectively missed the season to date, Lambert has found himself under tremendous pressure from the start, a pressure with which he is entirely unfamiliar. An emotional man, as evidenced by his interviews on signing for the club, the striker has seemed genuinely overawed by the task of finally representing Liverpool Football Club.
The comparative failure of last minute big-money punt, Mario Balotelli, has compounded the loss of the Premier League's two finest strikers, whilst Fabio Borini, who simply will not accept that he is not fancied by the Antrim man, has been the only other recognised striker in the squad. Ponder that scenario for a moment and shelve your grievances at the committee and the manager and you must agree that it was a perfect storm of misfortune. In the atmosphere of often needlessly vitriolic criticism that has been all-pervasive this season, Lambert, whose Scouseness probably spared him some of the mindless media guff directed at Balotelli, has nonetheless endured some harsh appraisals from fans and pundits alike.
Last Saturday's match against Aston Villa may prove to be a watershed moment in both the late career of Rickie Lambert and for the flimsy hopes Liverpool have of attaining Champions League football for a second successive campaign. After replacing Borini, who himself scored a redemptive and badly needed goal despite a poor showing, Liverpool's number nine took to the field, laboured a little in the fashion with which we have become familiar and then, suddenly, scored a beautifully taken goal, arrowed expertly to the bottom corner. The explosion of relief and joy from the player and his teammates (Hi Lucas!) was a thing of beauty in itself and spoke to a degree of cameraderie which the manager acknowledged as he lavished praise on Lambert in now classic Rodgersian fashion.
"He's making the contribution we want him to make, starting some of the games or coming off the bench to have an effect," Rodgers insisted, blithely ignoring the rest of the season. "There's been a big spotlight on Rickie, which has been unfortunate for him, because of the unavailability of other players and what we haven't had. But he was always brought in to perform a role which is to play in games, come on in games and make an effect . This [Aston Villa] was the perfect example of that. It was a great contribution, a great finish and he will score goals. I could see that in him as soon as he got the ball. I was delighted for him. I'm so pleased for Rickie, for a Liverpool boy to come on away from home and score in front of your own supporters must be a really special feeling."
It must have been special feeling indeed but you'll forgive a little authorial digression here, dear reader, for when Brendan Rodgers, a man only a little older than myself, refers to Rickie Lambert in that avuncular if vaguely condescending way of his, as a "Liverpool boy," your scribbler is drawn once more into a vortex of angsty and familiar ruminations on mortality, before feeling that all too familiar desire to administer a playful but solid slap to the back of the managers bonce. You're only 41 Brendan. You do not remember the Noachian flood and frankly mate, after your impressive self-improvements, you look younger than the "boy" Lambert, so stop the nonsense!
But let that go, for if, at Villa Park, we have witnessed the moment both player and club truly relaunch their halting campaign, no amount of Brendanspeak will dampen our ardour. Perhaps true and complete redemption can come for Lambert in the form of a memorable winner against the charges of the Portuguese preener tonight, or a medal or two, or better yet, in the shape of next season's kit bedizened with that coveted Champions League badge. In the interim, here's a thematically linked Marley classic, because, well, it's good to be back.