Rickie Lambert admitted his headed winner against Scotland was beyond his "wildest dreams" after the debutant left the bench and – only 166 seconds later – summoned an emphatic first touch in international football to secure England's success at a raucous national stadium.
The Southampton striker was buried by joyous team-mates in celebration, the 31-year-old departing at the end with a smile plastered across his face as he acknowledged his family in the stand. The goal thumped in from Leighton Baines's corner capped a remarkable rise for a player who had been released by Liverpool as a schoolboy and, via a part-time job working in a beetroot processing plant, gone on to forge a career as a journeyman striker in the lower divisions before rising up the leagues as a Saint.
"That's what I've been dreaming about all my life," he said in the aftermath. "It means so much to me. I'm trying to explain my emotions but I can't … I didn't know it was my first touch until afterwards. Unbelievable. Actually, it is all beyond my wildest dreams. Obviously I fancied myself before the corner was taken and was hoping to lose my marker, but the delivery from Leighton was superb, exactly where I wanted it to be. I caught it sweet. It was probably the best header of my career, and to see it in the back of the net was unbelievable.
"It's been a whirlwind this week but I've been trying to play it cool, as if it's not a big deal to be called up. But the kid inside me wanted to scream out loud. I've tried to focus and do well – that has been my main goal – and hopefully I've done OK. I have to say a big thank you to the lads for making me feel welcome. I had respect for them anyway but being with them for a few days I have a lot more respect."
Lambert only learned of his first call-up last Thursday after a sleepless night as his wife gave birth to the couple's third child. The adulation he enjoyed post-match was fine reward for a nomadic career that has taken him from Blackpool to Macclesfield, Stockport to Rochdale, then prolific spells with Bristol Rovers and over four years at Southampton. "I know people will remind me every day about the beetroot factory [where he worked part-time for £20-a-day to supplement his income while with Macclesfield 12 years ago], but I don't mind that," he said. "It shows how far I've come, so it's superb."
Roy Hodgson had been without Daniel Sturridge and Andy Carroll through injury for this fixture, players whose inclusion might have denied Lambert his chance, though the debutant has now staked a claim to be included in the squad for next month's qualifiers against Moldova and Ukraine. His 23-minute cameo also saw him strike a post and force a low save from Allan McGregor in stoppage time. "Obviously there might be a bit more competition next time," said the England manager. "Sturridge is hopefully back again after playing 45 minutes in a behind-closed-ball friendly [against Newcastle], and Andy Carroll is not far from fitness. We'll see in the next three weeks, but Rickie won't be being struck off my list very lightly. It's up to him to go out for Southampton now and do what he did for them last year, with his goals and assists, putting that ball in the back of the net. But this win is all the more satisfying because it was won by such a fairytale goal. He's been a breath of fresh air while with us, so happy to be part of the squad. He's so enthusiastic, like a young boy with a new toy ever since he joined up with us.
"We believe in him and, funnily enough, the first thing [the coach] Gary Neville said to me was: 'He's going to get us a goal.' What a wonderful story that he crowned it with the winner. He could have gone away with the match ball, with the shot against the post and another that had to be palmed away. But maybe he was saving a few others for a later date. He's a man who has worked very hard for this chance and did it the hard way."
Lambert's winner actually capped an England comeback, the hosts having twice trailed to goals from James Morrison, a former England Under-20s international, and Kenny Miller, with ripostes mustered by Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. The Southampton striker had been called on to replace Wayne Rooney, who managed 67 minutes after a hugely disrupted pre-season. The match-winner is now determined not to go the same way as the likes of Kevin Davies, David Nugent and Jay Bothroyd, each of whom won solitary caps in recent years, and play some part when the World Cup qualifying campaign resumes next month.
"I'm just focussed now on doing well for Southampton," he added. "If that's my only moment I couldn't have wished it to have gone any better. But the whole thing is a massive confidence boost. It made me feel superb. Hopefully it will make me even more confident for what is to come."
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image: © Ben Sutherland