The 35-year-old has been the epitome of consistency, professionalism and excellence for the best part of a decade at Stamford Bridge and there can be no replacing him.
Andy Wilkinson had felled Mohamed Salah and a familiar sense of expectation gripped Stamford Bridge. Lee Probert pointed to the spot and Frank Lampard stepped up. Asmir Begovic saved the first shot, low to his right, but could do nothing about the rebound. It was goal number 211 and secured a win which took Chelsea back to the top of the Premier League. Beyond that it did not seem particularly significant. But it was. For it was and will remain Lampard’s last goal for Chelsea.
The article announcing his departure on Chelsea’s website read more like a eulogy than a press release. Few players and no manager – not even Jose Mourinho – have been granted such a heartfelt sendoff in the Roman Abramovich era. It was extraordinary and yet utterly fitting.
Everyone will have their own view on Chelsea’s greatest-ever player debate. Peter Osgood was the star of a thrilling team responsible for an entire generation of Blues fans in the 1960s. Gianfranco Zola enjoyed similar status 30 years later. In the Abramovich years, Petr Cech has established himself as the club’s greatest ever goalkeeper, John Terry the club’s greatest ever captain and Didier Drogba the ultimate match-winner, including the biggest match of all.
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Yet Lampard outshines them all. This is the level of his legacy. He will retire as Chelsea’s greatest ever goalscorer – how many other midfielders can boast that status at elite clubs? – as well as the most consistent member of the Blues’ greatest ever team.
It is amazing to think that when Chelsea splashed out 11 million pounds to pull Lampard away from West Ham in 2001, more than a few – this writer included – were unconvinced that he was worth the investment.
While young and industrious, he appeared to have limited athletic gifts and no outstanding technical attributes. It was difficult to see how he could drive Chelsea in an age when the targets were the biggest prizes in English and European football. Lampard was slow to silence the doubters, blowing hot and cold, going missing against top opposition and failing to dominate games from the middle of the pitch. But then Abramovich arrived and everything changed.
Many credit Jose Mourinho for the transformation, but while the 'Special One' followed through on his promise to turn Lampard into the finest midfielder in Europe, the arrival of Abramovich and subsequent spending presented existing squad members with a stark choice: step up or be shipped out. Lampard chose the former and enjoyed his breakthrough season under Claudio Ranieri, scoring 20 goals for club and country.
Goals soon became Lampard’s currency of choice. The comparisons with Steven Gerrard were persistent and tiresome but the truth is that he molded himself into a midfielder unlike any other, armed with the uncanny ability to find space in the penalty area and score with either foot from almost any angle.
Over the years he has scored goals against all kinds of opposition, from Blackburn to Barcelona. He has scored goals everywhere, from Manchester to Moscow, and lots of them – at least 20 in seven of the last 11 seasons, and over 10 in every one bar his final campaign. There have been plenty of important goals, too.
Drogba largely owns the narrative of Chelsea’s greatest era with an astonishing record of goals in finals but it was Lampard who secured the club’s first league title in 50 years with a double against Bolton, as well as strikes in FA Cup and Champions League finals. He is a unique weapon, and Chelsea has reaped rich rewards from gearing its teams around him for the best part of a decade.
The record-breaking goal 203, scored against Aston Villa in May 2013, exhibited every quality that will define his legacy. Starting the move 20 yards out, he jogged into the area, checked in front of Fabian Delph, then timed his dart into the six-yard box to perfection. It was a tap-in, but the movement to set it up was as artful as any jinking run or defense-splitting pass. It looked easy only because he made it appear so.
There is no grand secret to Lampard’s success - hard work has been the key. He was never blessed with the natural talent bestowed on Gerrard and many other of his peers, a fact that enhances his achievements rather than denigrating them. Along the way there have been minor blips but none of the petulant moments which characterized much of Drogba’s early Chelsea career, nor the scandals which have plagued Terry. It is Lampard, always eloquent and uncontroversial, who has been the perfect ambassador for the club.
And so it will remain. Wherever he goes from here Lampard will always be associated with Chelsea, and the club will feel his absence. For all Abramovich’s millions there can be no replacing him.
The piece on Chelsea’s website said it best: “…we have never seen his like in our midfield before, and we will be very blessed to again see his equal.”