MIAMI (AP) — Preparing for his first trip to the World Cup, Rickie Lambert epitomizes the player who never gave up on his dream.
Calling him an England striker would have been unthinkable before the last World Cup four years ago when he had just completed another season in the third tier of English football.
But the 32-year-old Lambert is now in Miami as part of the 23-man squad heading to Brazil, and is getting ready to represent his country on the sport's biggest stage. Enriching the fairytale aspect, Lambert on Monday completed his move from Southampton back to Premier League giant Liverpool, the club he supported as a boy but that discarded him as a player when he was 15. Out of football, Lambert found work in a beetroot factory, earning just 20 pounds a day.
"It was absolutely devastating," Lambert recalled Monday. "I can remember at the time thinking I wasn't going to be a footballer — I'd been dropped from Liverpool and it was the end of the world for me. I was so devastated.
"At the time, I thought nothing was ever going to feel worse than that, but I can tell people now life goes on and you shouldn't let it hit you too much ... but I never thought I'd manage to get back."
Following the pain of being rejected, Lambert forced his way through the lower leagues of English football, away from the glamor and riches of the Premier League, playing at Macclesfield, Stockport, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers before ending up at Southampton in 2009. On the south coast, Lambert established himself as a prolific scorer, helping power Southampton from the third tier to the Premier League and an eighth-place finish last month.
By that point England coach Roy Hodgson had taken note, calling Lambert up for international duty for the first time last August. It was a dream debut at the age of 31, scoring the winning goal in a friendly against archrival Scotland with his first touch at Wembley Stadium.
"It's an unfortunate truth if you want to get recognized at the top level you have to be playing at the top level," Hodgson said recently.
Lambert is likely to see limited playing time at the World Cup, where Wayne Rooney and Daniel Sturridge are expected to be the first-choice strikers. But he is likely to earn a fifth cap against Ecuador on Wednesday at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, but England could be relying on him for penalties in Brazil, having scored all 34 spot kicks for Southampton and only missing two in his career.
"I'm living a dream," Lambert said. "There is a buzz about the group at the moment and there is a lot of confidence."
Whatever happens at the World Cup, Lambert is likely to make his debut soon in club football's biggest competition, the Champions League, after completing his 4-million pound ($6.7 million) move to Liverpool.
"It's going to be hard to keep my emotions in check the first time I pull on the Liverpool shirt," Lambert said on Liverpool's website. "It's going to be very emotional, not just for me but also for my family. These kind of moments are driving me on. When I get these moments, I seem to produce my best performances and I'm able to use it to my advantage."
Lambert will provide competition up front for Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, with Liverpool needing more strikers in its squad after qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in five years.
"There isn't much sentiment in football and I don't think this move is anything to do with that," Lambert said. "I've loved this club all my life. I left here 17 years ago — and I haven't stopped loving it since."
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris