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The Price of Loyalty

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The Liverpool travails of Rickie Lambert have tested even the most romantic of fans and further hardened the bitter and cynical hearts of others. As the season picks up momentum, will Lambert have his moment of redemption?

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Go on...be cynical about that image. I dare you.
Go on...be cynical about that image. I dare you.
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

I don't care a damn about men who are loyal to the people who pay them, to organizations...I don't think even my country means all that much. There are many countries in our blood, aren't there, but only one person. Would the world be in the mess it is if we were loyal to love and not to countries?

Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

The world is full of cynical types these days. One expects a certain degree of suspicion from the average adult who has spent a life being buffeted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune but it's rare to come across wide-eyed optimism even amongst the young. We all have too much information, you see. We see too many angles. A simple act of kindness is followed not by grateful acceptance but rather by dubiety, as our embattled minds wonder what exactly our benefactor wants in return.

The strain of world-weary scepticism runs deep in the modern person and it is particularly evident amongst football fans. We are a damaged lot, schooled in our sardonic negativity by incessant displays of proof that selfishness rules in professional sport. From the con artists who buy clubs with other people's money, to the parasitical charlatans who drain fortunes from the game's stars, to those same pampered prima donnas, whose wealth and talent convinces them that they can drive a coach and four through normal societal conventions -- the reasons to be wary are manifold and undeniable.

It's not often, therefore, that we encounter a story that reminds us of the simple values of joy, honour and loyalty, that for all our cynicism, we still seek out in sport. When Rickie Lambert signed for Liverpool at the age of 32, before flying out to join England's World Cup squad, it seemed that we had found a rare oasis of simple, uncomplicated contentment, a happy confluence of a club's needs and a a player's almost reliquished dreams. Liverpool had almost won the title, driven in the main by an absurdly talented force of nature. It was time to consolidate and the addition of an experienced footballer who could score a goal or two, and at a comparatively low fee, seemed eminently sensible.

It was wish fulfillment writ large. The local boy, once rejected, now returning to his first love, as both rode the crest of a wave. Lambert was understandably and openly emotional and fans embraced the signing with something approaching uniform positivity. Even those not given to sentimentalism could see that the big forward would be a useful addition to a formidable attack, an option for the rare occasion on which when the redoubtable duo of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge were not enough.

Within a few short weeks, however, England had been Hodgsoned, Sturridge was broken, the departure of Suárez had etched the furrows deeper in jaundiced brows and Rickie Lambert, finding himself thrust to the fore, was looking a shadow of the player who had so impressed with Southampton the season before. It had morphed from a fairy tale into a horror story and the likable Scouser was the unfortunate living it.

Even those of us who pride ourselves on comparative even-handedness could not suppress our disappointment in the performances of our new number nine. Early on, after a string of appearances in which he appeared to be almost comically static and perpetually offside, the player himself was moved to admit to a lower fitness level than he would have liked. He vowed to work on this side of his game and while there were occasional glimpses of the assured touch that had adorned his previous season's form, the lack of mobility remained an issue and for all his undoubted effort, there was a disappointing ineffectiveness about his play. Circumstances had dictated that Liverpool fans needed too much from Lambert and the burden was an albatross around his neck.

Against this backdrop of overly harsh judgement, transfer deadline day arrived and, as the tumbleweed blew around Sky's lavish studios, a rare deal emerged for them to pontificate about. Aston Villa, a club whose season was in tatters, were flailing about for some impetus and apparently they believed that a move for Lambert might provide a mutual spark. There was a kind of logic to the proposed move and the most cynical of Liverpool fans were positively gleeful at the prospect of moving the target man on and recouping the money spent on him. Only now are we discovering how close to happening the transfer really was. The player himself has given a remarkably honest insight into his feelings as the deal became a possibility -- the kind of frankness that will cause some to reassess their hard-boiled attitude and entrench others more firmly in theirs.

"I got a phone call from the gaffer saying Aston Villa had come in," Lambert offers. "He said he didn't want me to go. He basically offered me the chance if I wanted to play football, which is fair enough. The phone call was about four o'clock on that day. I spoke to my agent, I spoke to my wife, spoke to Aston Villa and it was close. But it was something I just couldn't do. It was too short notice. I'm at Liverpool and I didn't want to leave after six months. That's something I might have looked back on when I'd retired and regretted more than anything really.

"In the end, it came down to the amount of time I had to think about it and the thought of leaving Liverpool after six months," he continues revealingly. "I knew I wasn't going to stay and start playing and start being the main striker, but I knew that there would still be moments -- and there are going to be even more moments coming up where I can help the team and hopefully get a few more goals and memories. It was something that I would have probably looked back at a few years down the line and regretted if I moved too early. It was nothing [negative] towards Aston Villa. They're a very good club and it was very close.

"We were speaking throughout the day and I was asking him for his help. I spoke to everyone who is close to me and it was a big decision. It was too big of a decision to make in the short amount of time I had. The manager was offering me the chance to go and play football and I respected that. He said, 'it's up to you'. He wanted me here but couldn't guarantee me starting time. The team is playing well at the minute and I'm not going to be knocking on his door demanding to play. I know it's down to me to make the most of the moments I get between now and the end of the season."

We can only take Lambert's version of events at face-value, such is the disarming honesty with which it is presented. He admits that he understands his role will be even more limited if Sturridge and Balotelli continue to fire but he heartbreakingly insists that he's "not the type to make a fuss anyway." For him, Liverpool is the pinnacle of his professional attaimnent -- "a great club, a massive club with great players" -- and because it has always been the team of his dreams he is "not willing to give up that easily." If you can read the Liverpudlian's words and not be even slightly moved by his passion and earnest hope, well dear reader, you are harder of heart than this scribbler. Cynicism be damned. I hope this most genuine of men gets his moment of Anfield triumph and hoists a pot or two at the end of this campaign. That way, everyone's a winner in the short-term, and y'know, he'll be worth more in the summer transfer market. Don't look at me like that. You know you were thinking it.