In the summer of 2001, Frank Lampard left West Ham United 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 started firing £50 notes” as Arsenal’s David Dein famously opined, hardly even entered the realms 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 set up in 1994, but for many Hammers’ fans, he was never to find a place in their hearts. When he began to hit the first team, with uncle Harry Redknapp as the manager and father Frank Lampard senior 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 increasingly inevitable move 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.”
Inevitably, 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 – and often multiple times in the same game. It gave the young midfielder a rare opportunity to appreciate the different roles, something that may well have had a long-term beneficial 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 Frank 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 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, and 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’s 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 at their one and only clubs, 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. Scholes averages 38. Incredibly, though, Lampard averages a mere trifle under 50. It’s a total that Scholes topped only three times in his career under Ferguson, 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 however 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.
Turning out regularly is all well and good of course, but it’s what you do on the pitch that matters, and in terms of goals, Lampard is streets ahead. Despite playing in less games, his 211 goals for Chelsea comfortably eclipse the totals of Gerrard and Scholes, and looking at total league goals, his 177 is 50 more than Gerrard. In fact, at the time he retired, only Shearer, Rooney and Andy Cole had scored more Premier League goals. He had outscored the tallies of such renown goal scorers as Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler, Jermain Defoe and Michael Owen—and he wasn’t even a striker! 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 netted 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. His 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. Is it a compelling case?
Of course, this isn’t an attempt to convince others who may take a different view. It’s certainly true for instance that, as part of Fergie’s trophy hungry Old Trafford squad, Scholes certainly picked up more silverware than Lampard, and others would point out that Gerrard was a much more influential and motivational figure at Anfield than Lampard was for Chelsea. This is also of course 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 eleven at Stamford Bridge when every England manager that had the pair at his disposal seemed unable to form them into a 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 Frank Lampard was one of the outstanding English talents of the first decade of this century. Figures can say much but, often, the more revealing evidence is that perceived by watching games than reviewing stats. He moved to a club that was, at best, a top six side and barely that at times. It’s to his massive credit however 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? Probably not, but was he the best English midfielder of his generation? I’ll leave you to make your own judgements, but there’s this Danish lager out there that originally had a slogan that may suggest an answer.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘A-Z’ series on the ‘These Football Times’ website).