WHENEVER he has been asked about his long-term future, Rickie Lambert has always stated his desire to end his playing career at Southampton.

That may yet happen, but speculation linking him with a move to West Ham this month is not going away.

Time will tell if it is merely agent talk, but, in an open letter supporting manager Sam Allardyce in the wake of West Ham’s 5-0 FA Cup defeat at Nottingham Forest, the club’s owners have fuelled the Lambert rumours by revealing: “January is not an easy time to do business but we are pleased to confirm we are close to securing one of our key striking targets.”

Lambert would be the perfect fit for Allardyce’s relegation-threatened team.

A skilful, goalscoring target man, he could do for West Ham what Kevin Davies did for a decade at Bolton Wanderers, after Big Sam signed him from Saints.

And, crucially, the regular first-team football that Lambert would get in the absence of the injured Andy Carroll, would give him a better chance of scoring the goals he needs to make England’s World Cup squad. But selling Lambert now is the sort of dilemma likely to polarise opinion amongst the Saints support. The pragmatists in favour will point to the fact that Lambert is 32 next month and the sort of player who needs to be playing week in, week out to be at peak fitness.

While the hip injury that forced him off after 35 minutes of the win against Burnley is not thought to be serious, it was a reminder that he is not getting any younger.

So, with Lambert under contract till 2016, Saints may be tempted to cash in now, rather than see his value depreciate.

A replacement would be needed, but with Jay Rodriguez capable of playing as an out-and-out striker and Sam Gallagher pushing for a place, Saints already have options in the absence of the suspended Dani Osvaldo. If Saints decide to sell their much-loved No. 7, they will surely wait until Osvaldo serves the rest of his three-match ban, against West Brom and Sunderland, in the next 11 days.

But, while there is no room for sentiment in football, and Lambert has not hit the heights of last season, he has three goals in his last four starts.

The romantics amongst the Saints support will be distraught if Lambert goes this month.

Players care little for statistics but Lambert still needs one league goal to join a seven-man pantheon with 100 or more, including the likes of Mick Channon, Matt Le Tissier and Terry Paine, which would cement his place as a club legend.

So would winning the FA Cup, which Lambert dreams of doing with the club he has scored 110 goals for in all competitions since his arrival in August 2009.

After being given another home tie against lower-league opposition in the fourth round, Saints have an excellent chance of going all the way and having some silverware to show for the progress made over the last five years, other than the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Winning the FA Cup would breed more confidence, help attract more players this summer and see the current team confirm this as an exciting new era by emulating the achievements of 1976. It would also provide Lambert with the opportunity to go out on a high or the chance to fulfil another dream – playing European football.