‘We’re not quite in that situation this time but we have an opportunity to get a position that maybe people didn’t expect us to be in...'
There is not as much on the line today as the final day of the 2002/03 Premier League season, when Chelsea faced Liverpool in a draw-or-bust clash for Champions League qualification which had significant consequences for the financial health of the football club, though Frank Lampard can draw some parallels with the tension of that day 17 years ago as he prepares his Blues side to face a final-day decider of their own this afternoon.
The Blues host Wolverhampton Wanderers at Stamford Bridge with our top-four fate in their own hands; avoid defeat against the Midlanders and a place at the top table of European competition next season will be ours.
We have an insurance policy too in that a Manchester United win at Leicester City will also secure a finish in the top four for Lampard’s side, though the boss is not considering that possibility as he seeks the three points that would complete the delayed and doubted objective of Champions League qualification.
The stakes were undoubtedly even higher back in 2003 as Lampard the player looked to help Chelsea back into the Champions League for the first time in four years. Back then, it wasn’t just competing against the European elite on the line. The club’s finances were in a bad position and the injection of Champions League revenue was essential.
The players were gathered for a pre-match meeting with the then-chief executive Trevor Birch, who explained to them the significance of the game on the club’s finances and future. A motivational talk from the military was also arranged to eke out even more from the team ahead of such a crunch clash.
Lampard, aged 24 at the time, recalls it being the most high-pressure moment of his career up to that point, perhaps a feeling his young players can relate to in the modern day.
‘It was the first time that I had felt tension to that level because of what was at stake,’ he remembers.
‘It was made very clear to us at the club that if we didn’t qualify for the Champions League then the club would have gone in a very different direction so I remember the build-up and I remember the feeling.
‘It was pretty shocking because in a footballer’s life you strive for success but you’re also very aware that we’re lucky to do the things that we do and play for a club like Chelsea.
‘We were all enjoying it and we felt very proud to do so but then when you hear that one game could determine if the club goes out of business or into administration or whatever it was at the time, it was a huge deal. I was loving playing for Chelsea so the idea that it might turn on one game was very hard-hitting.’
Lampard admits the talk from a member of the military before the game was quite impactful and we can look back now, almost two decades later, with fondness because of the result and the way things have turned out since.
‘It was quite inspiring and the story ended well because we managed to get the result that we needed,’ he continues. ‘I remember we had an army general come to the hotel and speak to us in a motivational talk, which was actually really good, and then we went out and produced.
‘It was a huge day for Chelsea Football Club as a whole and something really interesting to be part of - one of the big experiences of my life because of what it meant going forward.’
That sliding doors moment will remain a defining chapter in Chelsea history, leading to the new ownership of Roman Abramovich that summer and the subsequent unprecedented level of on-field success and off-field investment in infrastructure throughout the club.
Lampard does not believe we are at the same juncture now but he does acknowledge the stakes are high.
‘I’m not sure we should relate that feeling to now at Chelsea,’ he says. ‘That was a huge moment but now we’re in a different place. If we make it into the Champions League, it is financially a big deal for us but I still think we are a club that will look to push on next year and onwards.
‘What is driving us right now is that we work all year to try to be successful. If we can get the right result on Sunday, we can say it has been a really positive step forward.’Frank Lampard
The boss has no plans to bring in special motivational speakers today and admits that there is a fine balance to strike between inspiring and paralysing a group of players ahead of such a big test.
‘That’s the balance you strive for and we all have our own ways of doing it,' he explains. 'My experience is that it has to feel very real and the right moment. If you try too hard to over-play something or over-motivate and you go completely out of the box, you have to be quite careful.
‘It was a very good tool at the time to have the Army general and when we played in the Champions League final with [Roberto] Di Matteo we had videos of our children saying good luck, which was a completely different tone so it just shows you the spectrum and how it can work.
‘We’re not quite in that situation this time - the club was on the line in 2003 and the Champions League final was a huge moment. Now we’re in a moment where at the end of our season we have an opportunity to get a position that maybe people didn’t expect us to be in.
‘It’s not the ultimate achievement but it would be some sort of achievement so I’ll let the players know that in very straight terms. They have to feel it, that’s the most important thing.’