Watching football fans watching the football
On Friday, hours before England’s 3-0 victory over Bulgaria, one of the
English game’s best servants of recent times was dropped from Fabio
Capello’s starting line-up.
It was refreshing, to some extent, to be reminded that the Italian doesn’t pick players solely on reputation. It was even a cause for optimism that England appeared to be evolving after a decade or more of rigid, uninspiring football, to briefly hold the belief that there’s more on offer than Frank Lampard, and that something more potent may be about to emerge.
Some of the best managers in the game – Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Capello (albeit not for England) – repeatedly show that there is no room for sentiment in the ruthless pursuit of success.
To see Rio Ferdinand left out of the squad, and for Chris Smalling to play, Gary Cahill to score, and for Phil Jones to also be involved was also promising. Lampard shouldn’t be included unless he earns the right, but it’s difficult to understand exactly why news of him being dropped was met with such glee.
Over the last decade, Lampard has been one of the best English players in the game. For a period of over five years he was a truly world-class midfielder who was crucial to a side that won back-to-back Premier League titles and reached a Champions League final.
The mere fact Lampard was regarded as world-class is a great achievement. Other elite midfielders during this era – Steven Gerrard, Paul Scholes, Michael Ballack, Xavi, numerous others – dwarfed his natural talent and appeared destined for the very top the moment they started playing first-team football. Despite looking like a very good player for West Ham, the same can’t be said for Lampard.
Instead he grafted, staying after training and practicing when the others had finished, gradually and steadily improving. He then improved his fitness to a level whereby he came to be considered a box-to-box midfielder and an almost permanent fixture in the Premier League. Lampard once managed 164 consecutive Premier League appearances and, in the 2006-2007 season, played 62 times for Chelsea in all competitions.
The player that had once been overlooked for an England cap in favour of Lee Hendrie by no less a football purist than Glenn Hoddle worked so hard, and improved so much, that he forced Sven-Goran Eriksson to change his formation and switch Paul Scholes to the left wing in order to accommodate him on the eve of Euro 2004.
In an era when others are rightly criticised for wasting their talents and not fulfilling their potential, Lampard’s desire should be admired.
Jermaine Pennant, Wayne Routledge and David Bentley are among those once hailed as key to England’s future, but have all lacked the application or mental strength to reach the top. Lampard has already achieved more than all three ever will.
His critics are right to point out that a midfield partnership with Gerrard failed to ever reach a level close to that which it should have done, and they’re also right to recognise that Lampard played a role in some of England’s biggest disappointments, but it’d be far too simplistic to dismiss him so easily.
Those disappointments – World Cup 2006, the failure to reach Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 – were not solely Lampard’s fault.
Wayne Rooney aside, Lampard was England’s best player at Euro 2004. He was the only member of that star-studded midfield not to tire in the defeat to Portugal and he even scored the equaliser that took the game to penalties when all had seemed lost.
The 2006 and 2010 World Cups failed to see anyone regularly perform to their potential for England, while Steve McClaren’s incompetence was largely to blame for the failure to reach Euro 2008.
Regardless, it’s disappointing that such a dedicated player has been dismissed with such delight. Since 2008, Capello has been criticised for so callously treating David Beckham and Michael Owen, two great England players, and rightly so.
Before that, Alan Shearer and David Seaman were criticised for their contributions to the national team, though both would walk straight into the current side and are rightly highly regarded for their contributions.
The calls for Lampard to be dropped from the England side have, until now, never made sense. The emergence of Jack Wilshere and, with age, the decline of Lampard’s abilities mean it is right that he won’t always make the starting line-up, but his discernible status as a public enemy to England’s fans is unfair and wrong.
There’s a reason why three England managers have selected him so regularly. There’s a reason why Chelsea have so frequently challenged at the very top, and there’s a reason why Lampard has seen off the threats posed to his club position by the illustrious trio of Juan Sebastien Veron, Ballack, and Deco.
The mental strength shown by Lampard to be such a consistent performer, to so memorably return from the death of his mother in 2008, even to score a penalty at the third attempt despite the pressure piled on him in a fixture against West Ham after continually being ordered to re-take it is rare in the modern game, especially amongst English players.
If the hostility towards him stems from the fact that he is vastly overpaid, then the majority of footballers should be receiving the same treatment.
The example set by Lampard on the field and training pitch is unrivaled. He is one of the most decorated English players of the modern era, and he continues to dedicate himself to staying at the top of the game.
Unlike so many others – Emile Heskey, Ben Foster and Wes Brown included – Lampard wants to play for England, and will refuse to take the easy route of international retirement.
He is declining, of that there is no question. But if his time with England is coming to an end, it should be a cause for concern of where his replacement will come from, not a time for schadenfreude.
Twice Jose Mourinho attempted to take Lampard from Chelsea, to both Inter Milan and Real Madrid, and twice his loyalty ensured he remained.
A model professional, a prolific midfielder and a proud international, perhaps Lampard will only be appreciated once he’s gone.
Follow Declan Warrington on Twitter @decwarrington
1) Contrite Tractors trundle to the seaside You can tell there's a recession on if clubs are feeling
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