Frank Lampard: the last legend of a dying breed

Frank Lampard: the last legend of a dying breed

If ever there was a time for Harry Redknapp to effusively proclaim a player as “triffic”, it was when describing Frank Lampard. The year was 1996, the venue was a West Ham fans forum in East London, and an 18-year-old, baby-faced Lampard sat amongst some of the club’s most superior figures. When a clearly disgruntled West Ham fan challenged the level of publicity the youngster had received since his breakthrough, and claimed “I don’t think he’s good enough”, Redknapp was quick and assured in his response. “I did not want to say this in front of him. But he will go right to the very top. Right to the very top,” he said.

It’s not often that Redknapp, often ridiculed for what some perceive to be his overly simplistic take on the game, has been labelled a visionary, although in the case of Frank Lampard, it appears he was something of a clairvoyant. “He’s got everything that’s needed to become a top class midfield player,” he added. Retiring 21 years later, bringing to an end a career that was inclusive of a Champions League medal, Premier League titles, and a runners-up place to none other than Ronaldinho in the 2005 Ballon d’Or, Lampard has emphatically proved Redknapp right, and those that were unconvinced wrong.

Though it might seem now that such a prediction was far from speculative, there were more than a few that doubted Lampard’s potential to ascend to the top level of the game. As a youth player, he was overlooked by England schoolboys, with Redknapp unbeknownst as to why a youngster he considered to be such a prospect was earning so little recognition. But Lampard, for what he may have lacked in natural ability, progressed as a player through sheer determination and indefatigable dedication, working tirelessly to improve any attributes that may have been lacking in order to reach the very pinnacle of his own potential.

“You were the best trainer by a million miles every single day, inspiring me and everyone at the club,” John Terry wrote in tribute to Lampard after his retirement. “You stayed out [after training] working on your finishing – 20 goals a year wasn’t good enough for you; you wanted 25, 30 goals. I will miss you getting four cones and doing sprints after training – setting the example for the academy kids.” Clearly, then, that unceasing work ethic was something he continued throughout his remarkably successful career.

But in the early days at West Ham, his reputation had not yet been established. Accusations of nepotism were rife, due to the fact that his father Frank had featured so prominently for the club, and that Redknapp was his uncle. Indeed, after his first full season was cut short due to a broken leg sustained against Aston Villa in March 1997, Lampard claimed to have been jeered by his own supporters, something which he later revealed prompted considerations of quitting the game.

He persisted with the Hammers, and it soon became apparent that he was far more than a typical midfielder. In his penultimate season with the club, he found the net 14 times, although this notable development had hardly lessened the element of animosity felt towards a player often considered nothing more than a ‘daddy’s boy’. Redknapp left West Ham in 2001 and Lampard followed shortly after, joining the club that would become home for £11 million, Chelsea.

The move was hardly looked upon favourably by the fans he had left behind at Upton Park, particularly with the controversial nature of a move to a prominent London rival. Motivated and driven, he was not one to dwell on past experiences and arrived at his new club with an ambition that would soon be echoed by the arrival of oil-rich chairman Roman Abramovich. Lampard had a solid if unspectacular beginning to life at Stamford Bridge, but the affluent Russian instigated a change at the club, overseeing an influx of talented players and in the 2004-05 season, a new coach in José Mourinho.

Read  |  José Mourinho: the early years

Mourinho was clearly full of admiration for Lampard, a player who would prove pivotal in the Portuguese coach’s Premier League-winning debut season. In a season in which he scored 13 goals and provided 16 assists, it was fitting that he would ultimately be the player that secured the club’s first league title since 1955, ending a 50-year wait and establishing himself as something of a legend even before the unparalleled success that was to follow.

A trip to Bolton Wanderers was all that stood in the way of an imperious Chelsea outfit, that had lost just once and boasted an almost impenetrable defence. After a goalless first half, a typically dogged Lampard found himself in the box. Shrugging off his first opponent with impressive strength, before cutting onto his right foot, he drilled the ball low into the bottom left corner, prompting raucous celebrations in front of the enamoured away supporters. Then, with a late counter-attack, Lampard found himself one on one with the Bolton goalkeeper, and rounded him with all the assurance of a prolific striker to perfectly sign off an almost perfect season. “It’s the best day of my life,” he proclaimed later, amid the celebrations.

It was that season in which Lampard marked his arrival on the world football scene. The construction of such a talented and well-coached team around him had enabled him to utilise his unerring anticipation and ability to adopt the right positions to become a regular goalscorer. That ability only increased as his career progressed, to the point where other sides of his game went largely unnoticed. There was an assumption that Lampard, at times, ghosted through games, before popping up with a vital goal or assist, though the more combative, battling aspect of his game – essential in Mourinho’s incredibly compact 2004-05 team – was often underappreciated. Considered almost a midfield poacher, his exceptional passing ability was another attribute that was oft overlooked.

A season later, Chelsea were champions again, Lampard had increased his goal tally to 16, and a Ballon d’Or nomination had presented itself. It was a season in which his performances reached new heights, as apparent by his inclusion amongst the nominees to be named the world’s best player, and one in which he had broken the Premier League record for the most consecutive appearances (164). That was an achievement that encapsulated his ingrained reliability and consistency, and helped him appear in the World XI for 2005.

Unfortunately, he was to miss out on the Ballon d’Or at the expense of the brilliant Brazilian, Ronaldinho. Mourinho though, saw things differently. “He is the best player in the world – because he plays every game,” he said. “There are other great players in the world of football but they play well once a month. This man is top every game and I wouldn’t swap him for any other player in the world. I don’t know a weak point where he can improve – I just hope he carries on playing like this.”

Lampard did carry on. In fact, his career was probably best summed up as one of remarkable consistency. After Chelsea’s back-to-back title wins under Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United responded with three successive championships, resulting in the eventual dismissal of the Special One, and a sense that English football had been taken back into the hands of the Red Devils. Lampard’s goal tally remained above double figures each season, and success was narrowly missed out on by virtue of a missed John Terry penalty against United in the Champions League final of 2008. Even Sir Alex reserved some praise, claiming in his 2013 autobiography: “Lampard was incredibly reliable and consistent from box to box. He was end to end and hardly missed a game.”

Read  |  Didier Drogba: a man of peace

By the time reputable Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti took control of Chelsea in 2009, Lampard was an undisputed part of the furniture at Stamford Bridge. The former AC Milan tactician proved to be the perfect fit for Lampard, and indeed the club as a whole, as a prolific Chelsea edged to their first title since 2006, scoring an emphatic 103 goals in the process. Incredibly, Lampard scored 22 of them, only bettered by Didier Drogba. For a central midfielder to score over 20 goals is generally unheard of, and he had established himself as unarguably one of the greatest in the game’s history at finding the net from such a position.

Of course, there were those (myself included, as a bitter Arsenal fan) who jealously claimed that his prolific goalscoring was a culmination of lucky deflections and penalties. As frustrating as it often was for opposition fans to watch, Lampard continuously appear in the right place at the right time, arguing that his achievements were in any way a fluke would be naive and unfair to say the least.

Off the back of his prolific title-winning season, there was heightened expectation on Lampard ahead of England’s 2010 World Cup campaign. He had impressed at his first international competition – Euro 2004 – scoring three goals, but the subsequent World Cup of 2006 had been a disappointment, as had his involvement in England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008.

Under Fabio Capello in 2010, England nervously made their way through a group containing USA, Slovenia and Algeria as runners-up, before meeting the might of Germany in the last-16. Famously, Lampard was denied a goal that would have levelled the score at 2-2 by a lack of goal-line technology, when his effort struck the underside of the bar before clearly landing over the line. Germany capitalised, although Lampard’s strike may have proved futile anyway, such was the dominance of England’s historic rivals as they swaggered to a humiliating 4-1 win.

His England career, which incidentally was far less prolific than his club career, was shaped predominantly by the endless debate over his partnership in midfield with Steven Gerrard. There was a regular thesis amongst much of the English media that the two could under no circumstances work together, that a choice must be made between one or the other. Bearing in mind that a similar assumption was made when Xavi and Andrés Iniesta first appeared together at Barcelona, it begs the question as to whether more should have been done to find a solution, particularly considering two of the country’s most successful midfielders were available alongside an England squad that possessed considerable talent.

Lampard managed 29 goals in 106 caps, a ratio which pales in comparison to that of his Chelsea record. Surpassing a century of appearances internationally is by no means a small feat, although there remains an overriding sense that his abilities could have been utilised far more effectively.

For Chelsea and England, Lampard has been plagued by comparisons with the country’s greatest midfielders, many of which seem to be insistent that one must be revered above the others. Ask fans across the country who is the very best, and answers will vary from Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Really, though, they should all be appreciated as the uniquely talented individualists they were, and not measured against each other.

Read  |  Steven Gerrard: the captain before and beyond the armband

In a way, Lampard’s relatively insipid England career was an irrelevance, such was the inherent underachievement and often mismanagement of the sides he played in. Certainly, his failure to reach the standard set at club level was symptomatic of a national team lacking an identity and self-belief. On the night of 19 May 2012, however, an international legacy was far from at the forefront of his concerns.

Somehow, Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea had reached the Champions League final and, with John Terry suspended, Lampard was captain. Domestically at least, this was arguably one of the weakest teams of the 11 years he had been at the club – they finished sixth in the Premier League – but they had reached the final through a combination of fortune and dogged resilience. Both of those traits would be necessary when facing Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, with the odds emphatically stacked against them.

The Bavarian club dominated throughout, and led through Thomas Müller after 83 minutes. Didier Drogba equalised with two minutes of normal time remaining, and Chelsea held on through extra-time to take the game to a penalty shootout. Though it was the Ivorian forward who stole the headlines, and understandably so, Lampard was as prevalent as ever. With his side 3-1 down in the penalty shootout, he stepped up and, typically dependable, dispatched clinically and powerfully down the middle and into the roof of the net. If he had missed, it would likely be the case that this section of the article would be looking back at a heartbreaking missed opportunity for a player so deserving of Europe’s most esteemed success.

But he didn’t miss. Ivica Olić and Bastian Schweinsteiger subsequently did, leaving Drogba to make history, and Lampard to lift the continent’s most prestigious trophy. There remains an element of romanticism that it was to be his last major success with the club he had so served so unwaveringly for over a decade. He won the Europa League the following season, before the club confirmed in 2014 that his contract would not be renewed.

A lucrative move to Major League Soccer with New York City came next, although it wasn’t long before he made a fleeting return to the Premier League. Clearly the allure of a loan offer from Manchester City was too appealing to turn down, and he scored his first goal for the club against Chelsea – who else? There were no celebrations, Lampard later admitting that the occasion was an emotional one, probably even more so with the peculiar sensation of scoring against a club he had become an immortalised part of.

Lampard left New York in November 2016, and after three months without football, announced his retirement. The list of his achievements alone is enough to give him iconic status in English football. With 609 Premier League appearances, only Ryan Giggs and Gareth Barry can boast more impressive longevity. He is the fourth-highest scorer of all-time in the Premier League, his 177 goals only bettered by Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Andy Cole. In total he scored 211 goals in 649 games for Chelsea.

Lampard was certainly not the most elegant midfielder – no Andrea Pirlo or Xavi – nor was he as technically gifted as the likes of Zinedine Zidane. But a case can be made that he was the most dedicated, prolific and painstakingly professional midfielder of his generation. As for his legendary status at Chelsea – no case needs to be made for that.

By Callum Rice-Coates  @callumrc96

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