In the summer of 2001, Frank Lampard left West Ham and moved across London to join Chelsea. In those days, any thoughts of a Russian oligarch taking control of the Stamford Bridge club – “parking his tanks on our lawn and firing £50 notes”, as Arsenal’s David Dein famously opined – hardly entered the realm’s fanciful caprice. Chelsea were under the charge of Ken Bates, managed by Claudio Ranieri – very much in his Tinkerman incarnation – and plunging headlong into a financial morass.
Lampard had served the Hammers since joining their youth setup in 1994 but, for many fans, he was never to find a place in their hearts. When he began to challenge the first team, with uncle Harry Redknapp as the manager and father Frank as his assistant, nepotism was always likely to be levelled at the young midfielder, and it was a cruel barb that he never truly shook free of until he left the club.
Perhaps the rift was best illustrated at a fans’ forum. One fan asked of the manager why Lampard was being preferred to another academy product, Scott Canham. Redknapp, seldom known for his courtly manner when faced with such challenges, gave the questioner short shrift, famously asserting of Lampard, “He’ll go right to the top.” The manager would be proved correct, but it would be wearing Chelsea blue rather than the Hammers’ claret shirts.
The inevitable move finally came when the club dispensed with the services of his uncle and father. A statement from his agent, Steve Kutner, left little doubt. “As far as he is concerned, the sooner he is out of West Ham the better.” It was an acrimonious move, and West Ham fans would carry the resentment for many seasons. The ‘Fat Frank’ tag was pulled out every time the clubs faced each other afterwards, but West Ham would be relegated two seasons later, while Lampard’s career would soar upwards, winning three league titles, a Champions League, four FA Cups, a Europa League, and more than a century of England caps.
Initially, under Ranieri, Lampard was often the Jack-of-all-trades midfielder, and hardly given an opportunity to be the master of any. Never really threatening to break into the top echelon of clubs fighting for the league title, Chelsea were a best-of-the-rest sort of club, with the only true opportunity of glory coming in cup competitions, and as the Italian manager rolled the dice to select his midfield options, Lampard flitted around the engine room of the team, sometimes left, sometimes right, and sometimes in the middle; often multiple times in the same game.
It gave the young midfielder a rare opportunity to appreciate a team’s many different roles, something that may well have had a beneficial long-term effect on his career. It was, however, when the Abramovich tank rolled into Stamford Bridge, with a special manager waving from the turret, that things truly took off for Lampard.
It may well be an apocryphal tale but, before he had even played a game for the incoming Portuguese manager, at least one version of the oft-related story goes that José Mourinho visited the England camp where Lampard was ensconced, telling him that he would make him the best midfielder in the world. He may not have achieved quite that level but, over the coming decade, under a succession of managers, many would argue that Lampard became the best English midfielder of his generation.
Now, before we get into any kind of heated argument about such things, it’s important to mention that there are a million and one ways of looking at things, and the way you slice a cake always decides who gets the cherry on the top. In a decade, however, when Liverpool could boast Steven Gerrard and Manchester United fans would argue for Paul Scholes, even to have Lampard mentioned in such company speaks volumes of his ability. To then look at the statistics of each and be able to draw a coherent case for Lampard being the first among such equals only underscores his worth.
Domestically, looking at the players in isolation, rather than the achievements of their respective clubs, Lampard looks a clear winner. Both Gerrard and Scholes played for longer, the former for 17 seasons and the latter 19, since making their first-team debuts. Lampard was at Chelsea for 14 seasons, applying the same criterion. Understandably, therefore, both Gerrard and Scholes made more appearances, but deflating those numbers to average games-per-season is perhaps more informative.
Gerrard averages 42 while Scholes averages 38. Incredibly, Lampard averages a mere trifle under 50. It’s a total that Scholes topped only three times in his career, appearing 51 times in the 1998/99 season, the same in the 2001/02 season, and one game more the season after. Gerrard broke the half-century of appearances five times for Liverpool, his top number being 54 in 2002/03. Lampard, though, achieved the same level on no less than eight occasions, topping out at an incredible 62 in 2006/07. It means he only fell below 50 season appearances during his Chelsea career on four occasions, and in two of those his total was 48 and 49.
Of course, turning out regularly for your club is all well and good but it’s what you do on the pitch that matters. In terms of goals, arguably the most telling contribution any player can make, Lampard is streets ahead. Despite playing in fewer games, his 211 goals for Chelsea comfortably eclipse the totals of Gerrard and Scholes. In league goals, his 177 is 50 more than Gerrard. In fact, at the time he retired, only Alan Shearer, Wayne Rooney and Andy Cole had scored more Premier League goals. He had outscored the tallies of such renowned goalscorers as Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler, Jermain Defoe and Michael Owen – and all this from a midfield.
Official Premier League figures reveal that Gerrard scored 120 goals and provided 92 assists in just over 500 league appearances for Liverpool. Scholes made five fewer appearances and bagged 107 goals and 55 assists. However, Lampard comes out on top with 177 goals and 102 assists in 609 Premier League appearances. On the international stage, he also scored more goals for the Three Lions – 29 strikes beating Gerrard’s 21 and 14 for Scholes – and in World XI nominations, Gerrard and Lampard come out on top with eight nods each compared to Scholes’ two.
This isn’t an attempt to convince others who may take an alternative view. It’s certainly true for instance that, as part of Fergie’s trophy-hungry Old Trafford squad, Scholes picked up more silverware than Lampard, and others would point out that Gerrard was a more influential and motivational figure at Anfield than Lampard was for Chelsea. This is also to say nothing of any discussion about where Lampard’s career may have gone had Abramovich not turned up.
Conversely, though, it was the Russian’s money that nearly brought Lampard and Gerrard into the same team at Stamford Bridge, when every England manager that had the pair at their disposal seemed unable to form them into a cohesive partnership. Had the move gone through and Mourinho made the pair work together in midfield harmony, the benefit to England could have been enormous. Ifs and buts and flights of fancy may fuel many football debates, but the reality was that it never happened, so all that’s left are laments of what might have been.
There’s surely little doubt that Lampard was one of the outstanding English talents of the first decade of this century. Figures can say so much but he more revealing evidence is that which is perceived by watching games, not reviewing stats. Lampard moved to a club that was, at best, a top-six side. It’s to his massive credit that, when the big names and silverware started arriving in copious quantities, no-one took his place. No big money signing was required to fill his role. The club already had the best in place.
Did Mourinho make Frank Lampard the best midfielder in the world? Perhaps not. But was he the best English midfielder of his generation? I’ll leave you to make your own judgements on that, though there is a particular Danish lager out there, you might’ve heard of, whose original slogan may just suggest an answer many would concur with.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze