Henry Winter is the chief football writer for The Times and here, in an exclusive column for the official Chelsea website looking back at the 2019/20 season, the respected journalist evaluates Frank Lampard's first term as a Premier League boss...
People often ask why the media respect Frank Lampard so much. So here goes. It’s more than his achievements as a player, the glorious Premier League campaigns and Champions League triumph, which we enjoyed covering. It’s more than his humour, and the fact that any conversation with Lampard is accompanied by wit as well as good anecdotes and insights.
It’s more than admiration for a footballer who made absolutely everything of his talent through dedication, the years spent as a teenager pounding the streets of Romford to strengthen his stamina or the decision to buy spikes to work on his sprinting. It’s more than the memory of his 29 goals in 106 games for England, and his honest appraisals after frustrating World Cup tournaments.
It’s more than a desire to see somebody who served the game so well, at club level and international, now succeed in management. His first season at Chelsea has been well-received for the infusion of youth, the attractive style and qualifying for the Champions League.
It’s more than all this as impressive as it undoubtedly is. Journalists also respect the 42-year-old because of his substance as a man, as well as a manager of clear drive and talent and as a midfielder who graced the game for two decades.
Lampard’s character has always shone through. Rewind to 2005 and he was this vibrant, powerful force driving Chelsea’s mission to land a first title in 50 years. Looking on was a 10-year-old Chelsea fan called Lucy. She had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, and was determined to see Chelsea win the league. She showed such bravery to hold on, because she wanted to watch her favourite player, the man in the No 8 shirt, be crowned a champion.
Lampard delivered, as usual, sought Lucy out afterwards, embracing her and thanking her for her support. Even in this special moment for him, Lampard thought of others. When Lucy, sadly, passed away shortly afterwards, Lampard made sure he was at the funeral in Kent. He cares for people, treats them with respect. He was raised with good principles by his parents and his beloved grandad, Poppa Bill.
The evening of Lucy’s funeral, Lampard was due to collect the Footballer of the Year trophy from the Football Writers’ Association at a dinner in London. He had played so well that season that it was a straight duel between him and John Terry for the individual awards.
Terry received the PFA gong, with the media voting for Lampard. The stage was set, the Royal Lancaster Hotel the other side of Hyde Park to the Bridge, and everybody awaited the guest of honour. It was tight, time-wise, rushing back from Kent, but Lampard made it.
The room was packed, and not every player finds it easy to talk about themselves in front of such a large audience, including so many managers and players, past and present. But words have always come easily to Lampard and he spoke powerfully, thanking those who helped him on his way to the top.
Lampard then paused and said: 'I would just like to talk about a girl called Lucy. I went to her funeral today. She was 10 years old. She came to the game against Charlton where we lifted the Premiership trophy. She had a tumour on the brain, really she should have died the week before that game. But she was so desperate to come and see that game, to watch us play. The character and strength she showed made me put everything in perspective.'
Lampard dedicated his Footballer of the Year award to her and added more comforting words for her family. In a moment of great personal glory, with the spotlight on him, and everybody celebrating his achievements, Lampard thought of somebody else. Class. He received a standing ovation.
So when Lampard moved into management, the instinctive press-box reaction was to wish him well. I rarely cover manager’s first press conferences, but I made sure I was at Derby County on 31 May 2018, to listen to Lampard deal adeptly with all questions and then again at Chelsea on 4 July 2019, when he spoke for the first time as their head coach, again eloquently.
He demonstrated his positive, ambitious character. Asked a question about Eden Hazard leaving for Real Madrid, Lampard praised 'a great player' but focused on opportunity for others, 'good players, at a good age, who have the talent, not to fill Hazard’s boots, but who can be huge players for this club'. None of those stepping up felt they were being burdened with an unfair comparison.
Those of callow years but exceptional promise have since vindicated Lampard’s belief in them. Mason Mount’s passing and movement have been superb, bringing seven goals and five assists in 37 Premier League appearances, all but five of them starts. Christian Pulisic has responded to Lampard’s training and coaching, scoring nine times and making four assists in 25 Premier League games.
The American has grown in confidence and Lampard deserves part of the credit for that. Both Mount and Pulisic are 21 and are Chelsea’s future. So is the 22-year-old Tammy Abraham, who responded to Lampard’s belief by scoring 15 times, and assisting three, in 34 Premier League games. Throw in strong performances under Lampard by the likes of Mateo Kovacic and his influence at Cobham as well as the Bridge is obvious.
There have been some special moments, the wins against Ajax, Arsenal, and Manchester City, and home and away over Spurs, as well as the run to the FA Cup final, beating Liverpool and Manchester United on the way. Reaching the Champions League was good. To put that achievement into perspective, a year ago only six of the 24 ex-players polled by the BBC thought Chelsea would finish in the top four (22 of the 24 believed Spurs would and 14 of the 22 went for Arsenal).
He waved away congratulations on finishing fourth, replying, 'It's Chelsea. We need to be competing for titles.' He’s right. He can see the gap to City and Liverpool, speaks of improving the defence which conceded an unacceptable 54 goals in the league. He’s already shown himself to be decisive, dropping key players after below-par displays.
Chelsea are vulnerable to teams who counter-attack sharply, and also need work combating opponents’ threat from set-pieces. Lampard knows all this. There’s no agenda with him, as there often is with managers. Frank Lampard just wants to win for the club he loves.
Don't miss an all-new exclusive boxset coming to the 5th Stand app next week telling the inside story of Super Frank's first season back at the Bridge