Southampton forward Rickie Lambert has picked up the trophy for Championship Player of the Year at the Football League awards in London.
Lambert, signed from Bristol Rovers for £1 million in 2009, has played an integral role in Southampton's rise from League 1 to top of the Championship table. The 30-year-old striker has netted 25 goals in 39 appearances this season as Saints seek to follow Norwich in securing back-to-back promotions.
The Scouse frontman has been prolific since joining the south-coast club two and a half years ago, scoring 82 goals in 149 appearances. Lambert's 21 league goals this campaign saw him edge out team-mate Adam Lallana and Cardiff midfielder Peter Whittingham for the coveted prize.
Having plied his trade in the lower-leagues with Macclesfield, Stockport County, Rochdale and Bristol Rovers, Lambert earned his big-money move to Southampton when Nigel Adkins' predecessor Alan Pardew took a chance on the striker. Firing the club to promotion in his second season, Lambert has dispelled any doubts about his ability to step up a level by dominating defences in the English second-tier this season.
A seemingly telepathic connection with fellow award nominee Adam Lallana has allowed Adkins' men to march up the table and they currently sit three points clear of West Ham at the summit.
The 6ft 3in striker wears Matt Le Tissier's famed number seven shirt and like the mercurial Saints legend, Lambert acts as a focal point for most Southampton attacks while boasting a similarly formidable penalty taking record.
Often labelled as a target man on account of his height, Lambert combines physicality with subtlety. Equally capable of battling in the trenches with the league's most bruising central defenders, Lambert often does his best work linking the play with Southampton's attacking midfielders.
Adam Lallana, Guly do Prado, Jason Puncheon and new signing Tadanari Lee often provide the ammunition for Lambert but more often than not he returns the favour with neat lay-offs and knock-downs for late arrivals into the box.
Saints have been widely praised this season for their expansive style and ball-playing midfielders Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork keep the team ticking over, often receiving the ball short from Kelvin Davis at goal kicks.
However, the presence of Lambert up-front stretches defences, offering Southampton an alternative if they feel the need to play it long. This allows Lallana and other wide players to raid forward, operating in space off Lambert and the tactic has seen the Saints storm the Championship as they look to return to the top flight for the first time since 2005.
Lambert picked up his award at the Football League ceremony held in London, an awards show curiously staged well before the season's most crucial period. With two months of the season still to go, the Football League risks overlooking a player whose form in the run-in leads his side to promotion.
However, even now there was little doubt to the recipient of the League 1 award as Jordan Rhodes' remarkable goal-scoring form has seen scouts flocking to the Galpharm to watch the Huddersfield frontman. 31 goals in 30 league appearances has led to rumours of a Premier League switch and although this failed to materialise during the January transfer window, should The Terriers fail to secure promotion their star striker will surely move on.
Highly-rated Crystal Palace youngster Wilfried Zaha put last weekend's red card against Burnley behind him as he collected the Championship Young Player of the Year award. A series of eye-catching displays on the wing at Selhurst Park has sparked whisperings of a possible move to Anfield but the England under-21 international may benefit more from first-team football in south London.
League Two Player of the Year went to Swindon Town's Matt Ritchie and while Peter Whittingham may have been overlooked for Championship Player of the Year, his stunning strike against Barnsley last March saw the midfielder pick up Goal of the Year.
Other winners on the night included struggling Portsmouth, who set aside their troubles for one evening as the club collected the award for Best Family Club and long-serving Shrewsbury Town manager Graham Turner was honoured with the Contribution to the League Football award.
Brighton and Hove Albion manager Gus Poyet shrugged off competition from Dougie Freedman of Crystal Palace and recently sacked Huddersfield Town manager Lee Clark to collect the Outstanding Managerial Achievement award. Brighton currently sit fifth, unbeaten in 2012 and well placed to secure a playoff place in their first season back in the Championship.
But the night's big winner was Rickie Lambert. The frontman may have taken well to life in the Championship but there remains one step to go for the striker.
Should Saints achieve promotion, the club would follow the path set out last season by Norwich, and Lambert would continue his slow rise through the divisions, in the process following the route previously travelled by ex team-mate and friend Grant Holt.
The two strikers had similar career paths until Holt's jump to the Premier League. It remains to be seen if Lambert can mirror Holt's success and climb up to the Premier League to join the Norwich striker one year on.
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