So, farewell then Frank Lampard. The news that he intends to leave Chelsea, with Major League Soccer his most likely destination, brings down the curtain on one of the Premier League’s most constantly fine, gracefully conducted and yet somehow still, for some, oddly undervalued careers.
Lampard turns 36 this month. He was a Premier League player for 18 years, in which time he scored 250 goals for Chelsea and West Ham, won three Premier League medals, four FA Cups, two League Cups, the Champions League and the Europa League. In 2004-2005, his best season, he scored 22 goals as Chelsea won the league title for the first time since the days of Ted Drake; he was voted Football Writers’ Player of the Year and came second in the Fifa World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or.
A year earlier he made the Euro 2004 team of the tournament. Six years ago he scored in the Champions League final in Moscow. Four years ago he scored 30 goals for Chelsea and England in a single season. Between October 2001 and December 2005 he featured in 164 consecutive league games, without actually, at any stage, looking very tired. Basically stick a pin in it, over the last decade or so, and you’ll find Lampard doing something quietly, methodically extraordinary.
It is a story of overachievement more than anything else. Not the most obviously gifted athlete, not the most technically refined footballer, Lampard has been a relentlessly effective, relentlessly versatile, brilliantly intelligent midfielder of enduring heart and spirit. Really, what’s not to like here? And yet, of course, there has always been something in Lampard’scareer that brings out the sour side.
Oddly, for a player who conducts himself well and is hardly a strong-arm on the pitch Lampard has always been the subject of carping right back to his first seasons at West Ham. Footage of Harry Redknapp aggressively defending his decision to play the 18-year-old Lampard in favour of Scott Canham at a fans’ forum (“There will be no comparison between what Frank Lampard will achieve in football and what Scottie Canham will!” Redknapp almost shouts at one point) surfaced a couple of years ago. Poor Frank. He looks mortified. And yet, for some reason he has always drawn this peculiar skein of venom and resentment. At West Ham there was a suggestion at first he was only in the team because of nepotism. Perhaps he seemed a little too well-groomed and middle class-ish (check out that GCSE in Latin). There is a story in Rio Ferdinand’s autobiography where Ferdinand describes going around to Lampard’s house as a teenager and being reduced to awestruck silence by the sheer quantity of jumpers Lampard owned.
Knitwear was not his only youthful indulgence. For a while at the turn of the century it seemed Lampard might have been heading down a brattish road after a couple of grisly, if not exactly fatal, incidents made the newspapers. Instead, after moving to Chelsea for what seemed at the time a colossal a £10m fee, he became the model of an English player with the wit and the will to learn from the Premier League’s elite overseas influence.
Playing alongside Gianfranco Zola and Marcel Desailly in his first season – and managed thereafter by Claudio Ranieri, José Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guus Hiddink, Carlo Ancelotti, Roberto Di Matteo, André Villas-Boas and Rafael Benítez – he might have shrunk or got lost in the flux. Instead he became a model of an adaptable domestic footballer: superbly fit, superbly aware of his team-mates, exploring season after season the outer limits of his narrow but brilliantly effective talents.
English players are often criticised for failing to go abroad and challenge themselves more. Lampard is the most complete example of an English player doing exactly that by staying at home and engaging successfully with the similarly nuanced and cosmopolitan challenges of a league where the world comes to your door instead.
Never a player for show, Lampard still moves about the pitch with that dogged, cross-country runner’s gait, shooting on sight – master of the favourable deflection – and generally providing a relentless, low-throttle, often decisive presence across the midfield. Straddling the fault-lines of billionaire owners, overseas players and the mushrooming out of the Champions League, it has been one of the great English careers of the modern era.
He will be a fine addition to the MLS, though there is still talk of Premier League clubs making a bid for a final sprinkling of late-career Lamps. “He will go right to the very top, right to the very top!” Redknapp ended up yelling out at the slightly chastened West Ham fan all those years ago. And so he did.