When Roman Abramovich became the owner of Chelsea FC back in 2003, he inherited a squad that would go on to etch its name in the Premier League’s history books. That team consisted of players such as Gianfranco Zola, Claude Makelele, John Terry and Hernan Crespo among others of considerable quality. But it was Frank Lampard, a hard-working box-to-box midfielder known for his late forays into the box, who would make himself synonymous with the idea of a successful Chelsea - a new, unpredictable, resurgent force that would take the English game by storm.
Frank Lampard and the tumult surrounding his early years at Stamford Bridge
If John Terry wore the captain’s armband at Chelsea, it was Frank Lampard who truly led the team on the pitch, a player who was not only known for his professionalism but was also lauded with universal respect. However, success did not come immediately for Frank Lampard and Chelsea, as is often the case with many success stories.
Other teams in the Premier League had become much more powerful than Chelsea. London rivals Arsenal were at the forefront of the English game. They won the 2003-04 Premier League title with the glory that comes with being the Invincibles: a season-long run that saw them finish unbeaten and reign supreme. Arsene Wenger seemed to have forged a formidable outfit, and it seemed as if Arsenal would go on to dominate the world of English football at least for another half a decade.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, renowned for his tremendous powers of recovery and title-winning acumen, also could not come up with a solution. Things were about to get more unpredictable when Jose Mourinho joined the English game as Chelsea manager in 2004, buoyed by his recent success with Porto in the Champions League. Calling himself ‘a special one’ during his presentation at Stamford Bridge, the Portuguese manager would add yet more unpredictability to the Premier League.
This is the kind of tumult that Frank Lampard found himself in during the initial Abramovich years at Chelsea.
Frank Lampard’s early struggles at Chelsea and England
In the world of sports, like in life itself, permanence is a myth; stability is an oft-desired but far-fetched dream in the ever-tremulous commercial business of the beautiful game. This is why we are astonished by the longevity and consistency of players such as Francesco Totti, Steven Gerrard or Lionel Messi.
These players have weathered the storm of greed that often comes in the form of lucrative offers from other suitors, choosing to remain at their respective clubs throughout their careers and emerging as legends.
Frank Lampard came to Chelsea in the summer of 2001 from fellow London club West Ham United. His father, Frank Lampard Sr, was also a footballer of reasonable repute, having represented the Hammers on more than 500 occasions. Frank Lampard Sr’s son, however, would become the more famous of the two Franks.
Frank Lampard’s debut game for Chelsea was against Newcastle United, but the match showed little evidence of the young player’s great abilities. He took his time, tucking in nicely into the team, before showing his true class and consistency. In the 2002-03 season, Frank Lampard scored the winning goal in Chelsea’s league opener against Charlton Athletic. This is how the young Frank Lampard began his Chelsea career.
The 2004 European Championship in Portugal was the ideal stage for the Stamford Bridge midfielder to endear himself to the English fans. In a 2003 The Telegraph article, the renowned British journalist Henry Winter documented what he called Frank Lampard’s ‘coming of age’:
"Lampard has blossomed into a box-office attraction over the last 12 months. An increasingly dynamic force with Chelsea, Lampard has now begun excelling for England, particularly since coming off the bench to shine against South Africa in Durban last June."
Therefore, expectations were high from the Blues midfielder. In the same article, Winter quotes Frank Lampard’s penchant for going forward and scoring goals, a role that he would be deeply associated with, in the coming years:
"It's nice if you have solid players around you who give you the chance to do that. I do like to get forward, influence the game, create and score goals". - Frank Lampard, 2003
Frank Lampard’s place in the English national squad has not been without its fair share of challenges. He was left out of the England roster for the World Cup in 2002, a fact that bothered the then 24-year-old Englishman:
"After I didn't go to the World Cup, I took it upon myself to become more of a pivotal figure rather than someone who doesn't control the game…" - Frank Lampard, 2003
He also took a cue from the other greats of the English game:
"The top midfielders in England, like Patrick Vieira and Steven Gerrard, really take games by the scruff of the neck and drive their teams on and I want to get up to that level." - Frank Lampard, 2003
Frank Lampard’s self-proclaimed desire to become a ‘pivotal figure’ and the willingness to incorporate elements from other top professionals in the game was instrumental to his development as a player. He did not take England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson’s rejection as a negative, but instead worked hard to raise his standards. This resolve to emerge stronger than before won him Eriksson’s favour. It also made him a much more valuable asset for Chelsea to have at their disposal.
Frank Lampard’s love for Chelsea, coupled with his desire to prove his doubters wrong in the national setup, infused a new lease of life to his career. This was the beginning of his road to greatness. He went on to become a key player for England in the 2004 European Championship in Portugal, scoring a crucial goal against Croatia. His header against France gave England the lead before Zinedine Zidane’s brace turned the game on its head and knocked England out.
Like so often throughout his career, that night should have been Frank Lampard’s to savour. Instead, that match will always be remembered for David Beckham’s missed penalty or Zidane’s spectacular stoppage-time free-kick. Recognition for Frank Lampard came in the form of his inclusion in the Players of the Tournament list. But it could have been so much more.
How Frank Lampard blossomed into a Chelsea legend
Jose Mourinho’s arrival at Chelsea proved to be a blessing for the English midfielder. The seasons 2004-2006 cemented Frank Lampard’s position as one of Chelsea’s greatest-ever talents.
During this period, he won two consecutive Premier League titles for the Stamford Bridge outfit. His spectacular performances saw him become the most valuable player for Chelsea, and discussions about him being a generational-talent soon followed.
Frank Lampard’s on-field exploits also won him a place in the FIFA World XI team, which was a spectacular accomplishment. However, his biggest singular recognition came when he finished runner-up to Barcelona’s Ronaldinho in the 2005 FIFA Ballon d’Or rankings.
Frank Lampard would have to wait many more years, however, before he could lay his hands on the UEFA Champions League trophy. Bitter disappointments came in the form of two back-to-back losses in the competition; first in the 2008 final against Manchester United in Moscow, and then in 2009 at the hands of Barcelona in the semi-final.
In the Russian capital, Frank Lampard’s equaliser just before half-time swung the momentum in Chelsea’s favour, but the Blues could not manage another goal against Sir Alex Ferguson’s side. Not for the first time, the spotlight belonged to his teammate and captain John Terry whose fatal ‘slip’ in the penalty shootout, literally and metaphorically, compounded Frank Lampard and Chelsea’s pain on a cold Moscow night.
It is, therefore, befitting, and nothing but a divine conspiracy, that Frank Lampard captained the Blues to their first-ever Champions League title, in the unlikeliest of circumstances. Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in their own Allianz Arena in a penalty-shootout, and this time the London club would not be denied.
In an inversion of the natural order, German penalty-taking expertise was for once usurped by English determination. It was a historic night for Chelsea and Frank Lampard, who in 2012 finally claimed European club football’s biggest prize. Frank Lampard lifted the trophy together with club captain John Terry, an iconic moment in the annals of Chelsea folklore.
Although Frank Lampard never managed to win any national honours with England, he did finish as the Three Lions’ top scorer in the 2006 FIFA World Cup. It was a commendable achievement coming from a midfielder in a team that had no shortage of attacking talents.
Later, Frank Lampard would go on to take crucial strides in initiating Goal Line Technology in the game of football, albeit indirectly. Lampard's legitimate goal against Germany in the 2010 FIFA World Cup was incorrectly ruled out as the referee thought that the ball did not cross the goal-line.
In 2014, Frank Lampard left Chelsea to join Manchester City, and as luck would have it, scored the equaliser against Chelsea in the 85th minute, taking just seven minutes to get his name in the scoresheet for his new club after coming on as a substitute. In the process, he denied his former club, a team he had played for since 2001, the opportunity to continue their winning run. Once again, it was a compelling narrative in Frank Lampard’s Chelsea story - the stuff of scriptwriting fantasy.
Frank Lampard, the Chelsea manager
It is a recurring pattern in the lives of great personalities that they are often called upon to repeat their own historic feats after they have enjoyed some distance away from the spotlight. A 38-year-old Paul Scholes came back from retirement to play a season for Manchester United, guiding the club to the 2012-13 Premier League title.
Pep Guardiola, a mainstay at the Barcelona midfield for over a decade, led the Blaugrana to unprecedented success during his four-year spell as manager at Camp Nou. Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool’s Scottish hero, was asked to emulate his successes from the touchline even while he continued playing the game on the pitch. Later, Dalglish also managed Liverpool, doing so during the 2011-12 season.
A similar pattern unfolded for Frank Lampard, who at 42 years of age, has much to give to the Stamford Bridge faithful. His arrival as manager at Chelsea has seen the club bring in the freshness and energy of young talent. Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Mason Mount, Reece James and other youngsters waiting in the pipeline have reason to believe that their new coach will hone and nurture them into better players.
Frank Lampard’s legend will only grow with time, and if his tactics can manage to dislodge the Guardiola-Klopp duopoly in the Premier League, history will remember Frank Lampard as Chelsea’s living icon. He has already earned glowing praise from one of his rivals Pep Guardiola:
"Frank Lampard was an extraordinary football player and he will be an extraordinary manager. He did a really good season and I am delighted to watch his team. They are the elite of European football." - Pep Guardiola on Lampard
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Such praise from an accomplished and successful tactician like Guardiola at such an early stage of his managerial career is undoubtedly something that would make the 42-year old Frank Lampard very proud. It remains to be seen what further glories Chelsea have in store from their once mercurial midfield master.