England were 3-0 up against Estonia at Wembley on 12th May 2007; cruising to victory and playing well under a new manager. But suddenly, midway through the second half, boos rang out around the home of English football. The reason? Had an opposition player put in a deplorable challenge? Had an overexcited fan ran onto the pitch? Not quite, Frank Lampard was coming off the bench.
A section of the England fan base still held a grudge when it came to Lampard, with his poor showing at the 2006 World Cup still clearly fresh in the memory. Under then boss Steve McClaren, the Chelsea midfielder had lost his first team place to Gareth Barry, and having been somewhat unfairly cited as a major factor in the nation’s poor performance in Germany, you could have forgiven Lampard for calling it a day with England. Especially when just two years previously, he was named the supporters player of the year.
But as you would expect from a player of Lampard’s calibre and character, he persevered. Fast-forward to the present day, supporters of the Three Lions have a wholly different opinion of their once maligned midfielder. That is because Lampard now stands alone as England’s highest scoring midfield player ever, and on the verge of winning his one-hundredth international cap against Ukraine tonight.
With the future of the English game currently a major talking point in football circles, the current crop of up-and-coming stars have no better example to aspire to than Lampard’s. He has made himself available for England despite the jeers. He has given all despite being used poorly by every almost England manager he has played under. Other players in the same situation, as we have seen down the years, would much prefer to focus on the preservation of their club careers.
And his desire to succeed with England still burns bright. Lampard has spoken this week of how he would love to take part in another major tournament, and as luck would have it, his hundredth game donning the national jersey will go a long way to determining whether or not he will get the opportunity. Put bluntly, Lampard and England need a result in Ukraine to stand a chance of qualifying automatically for this summer’s showpiece.
You can see why Lampard is still so desperate – even at 35 years-old – to get one last shot at glory. For he has endured massively mixed fortunes in them so far.
Arguably, his best ever form for England was at Euro 2004, when the tactical shackles that eventually came to bind him were nowhere to be seen. Back then, Steven Gerrard was seen as the more natural holding player and Lampard was given license to bomb on. He scored three goals in that competition and was named in UEFA’s team of the tournament.
They remain his only major tournament goals for England. The emergence of Gerrard as arguably the world’s best attacking midfield during Liverpool’s Champions League winning campaign in 2005 put pressure on Sven Goran Eriksson to facilitate the attacking talents of both players. But as we all know, neither ever looked comfortable as a midfield duo.
But the manager persisted with it, and ultimately this lead to a frustrating World Cup for both players. Calls to sacrifice either Gerrard or Lampard in favor of the more defensively minded Gareth Barry were beginning to gather pace, with the view that one of Lampard or Gerrard at their best was better than the two struggling in tandem. It was the former who was dropped and despite not kicking up a fuss and despite vowing to regain his place, he was inexplicably targeted by the England boo boys.
After England failed to qualify for Euro 2008, Lampard was given a much more significant role under new boss Fabio Capello, and has kept his place in the side more or less ever since.
This England campaign looks set to be Lampard’s last and for it to end without one last crack at the World Cup would be a real travesty. The Chelsea man has suffered only tournament heartache since 2004; playing in an unfamiliar role in 2006 and seeing that goal chalked off against Germany in 2010. Arguably, for the first time since 2004, he is part of a system that allows him play his natural game. Not too dissimilar to 2004, Gerrard operates from a deeper position, whilst Lampard is given license to get forward from a deep position.
His bursts forward might not be as frequent, but they are made with the purpose of a man who has scored 265 goals for club and country. Last season he scored 17 goals for Chelsea from what was essentially a holding midfield position.
It’s for that reason that If England do qualify, Lampard will still be a prominent figure next summer. It would be wonderful to see him finish his England career with a strong showing at Brazil 2014. But first and foremost, England need a big performance in Ukraine from their latest centurion. I suspect they’ll most probably get one.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball