It’s rare that one can refer to Big Brother to illustrate anything other than the general decline of Western civilisation, but back in the summer of 2001 it – perhaps unwittingly – provided a fairly telling comment on Frank Lampard’s transfer from West Ham to Chelsea.
The reality show was in its second series and much of the nation was transfixed (I just had it on in the background, honest). Paul ‘Bubble’ Ferguson, a Chelsea fan, was evicted and amidst a good deal of squealing and vacuity from Davina McCall, he was reunited with family and friends. One briefly updated him on recent developments down at Stamford Bridge.
“Chelsea – Frank Lampard’s in, Petit’s in – Wisey’s out!”
Bubble’s response was, I suspect, similar to that of many Chelsea fans.
It’s as much as I can do to remember what I was doing last week, let alone thirteen years ago, but that conversation struck a chord because it summed my feelings up perfectly at the time.
Not elation or indeed any kind of strong emotion, in fact; just indifference. We’d support him, of course, but as new signings go it just didn’t seem that exciting.
Frank Lampard. He’d been a decent player at West Ham, but in any conversation with a regular at Upton Park you didn’t have to wait long to hear murmurings of favouritism from his Uncle Harry as the sole reason young Frank was in the team.
And in all honesty, at £11m, the signing seemed expensive and arguably unlikely to fill the void left by the departure of Chelsea’s most successful captain. Homegrown players were, as ever, attracting something of a premium – Chris Sutton was Chelsea’s previous English acquisition for just £1m less than we paid for Lampard.
Anyhow, as well as Emmanuel Petit, Barcelona sold us Boudewijn Zenden that summer too. He looked the part – tricky Dutch chap, very exciting.
(No more needs saying here, I feel.)
I have to confess – the indifference continued for a while. Perhaps predictably, Claudio Ranieri played his summer acquisition from the Hammers out wide, rendering him largely ineffective. All I can really remember about Frank during his first season were a handful of goals – and I don’t think any of them were decisive – a few half-decent performances and a red card at White Hart Lane (we still won, obviously).
He certainly improved in his second season with us and I gradually warmed to him. But there was one particular game where I – and I’m sure many others – thought that we really might have a player on our hands; one cold Tuesday night at the Bridge in late January 2003 when Leeds came to town.
The game itself was memorable for Eidur Gudjohnsen’s outrageous overhead kick (from Lampard’s cross) and Dominic Matteo’s comedic late own goal that gave the Blues a cracking 3-2 win back in the day when Leeds had more goldfish on the wage bill than they did players. Frank got the second equaliser and it was his shot that Matteo diverted past Paul Robinson for the winner.
The conversation on the way back to Fulham Broadway can be broadly summarised thus: “That boy Lampard – he can play a bit, can’t he?”
From indifference to a master of understatement; my skills as a pundit and identifier of truly great players know no bounds.
With the arrival of Abramovich and his millions, we saw midfielders with serious price tags and bigger reputations come and go, many of whom were predicted by the hacks to be the tolling bell that spelt the end of Lampard’s time at Chelsea. How wrong they were.
This is the thing about Frank Lampard, if I had to offer some kind of précis of his career. He’s spent the best part of two decades as a professional footballer quietly making his point and proving people wrong. It was Mourinho’s arrival that really lit the fire under him – the goals flew in and the trophies piled up, as did the personal accolades and awards. Records tumbled and the doubters who dubbed him ‘Fat Frank’ gradually fell silent and looked more ridiculous as time went on.
I’m not going to regurgitate his career with us – you’ve read it all countless times in the last day or so and have your own memories; I simply can’t do it justice anyway. We sadly have to get used to the fact that when he disappeared down the tunnel at half time against Norwich in the penultimate game of last season, it was the last time Frank would wear a Chelsea shirt in a competitive game for us.
I don’t doubt that next season I’ll be walking to the ground and I’ll pass someone with his name and the number 8 on their back. It will make me think about an extraordinary player who straddled the Bates and Abramovich eras and helped to define a period of time at a football club in a way that only a handful of players have done before or ever will do in the future. Drogba and Zola provided many unforgettable moments, as have others but Lampard stands alone with an incredible, untouchable legacy – we won’t ever see anyone like him again.
But let’s remember – in those thirteen glorious years, he played a huge part in kicking the door open to the private dining room that contained European football’s old boys’ club and we’ve been there ever since, stubbornly refusing to leave.
He took home every domestic and European trophy that mattered and scored against them all in the process – Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Barcelona along with landmark goals against West Ham and Aston Villa.
He regularly tormented Spurs – and more importantly understood why that meant so much to us – and was always there when it mattered, from Bolton to Munich via Amsterdam and the Nou Camp and six hundred odd other games somewhere in between.
We just happened to be lucky enough to be there to see it all happen – he really was that good, wasn’t he?
Cheers, Frank. It’s been a real privilege.