Thursday 4th July 2019: Chelsea Football Club’s very own Independence Day.
Shackled by a transfer ban and burdened by a disgruntled fan base out of love with Sarri-ball, the powers on the Fulham Road turned to record goal-scorer Frank Lampard, or ‘Super Frankie Lampard’, to give him his full title.
There were whispers that this could perhaps be a watershed moment for a club synonymous with big-money signings and swift managerial turnover. Two months on, Chelsea has indeed been liberated, freed from a thirst for trophies that had sidelined all other concerns.
A 4-0 loss to a Manchester United side still papering over their own cracks and a 1-1 draw at home to Leicester marked a humbling start to 2019/20 for Lampard’s Chelsea. Yet there were no boos, no heated press conferences, and, most importantly, no calls for the dreaded P45 that Abramovich must have saved to drafts, always ready to send. One would hope these matters are dealt with face to face, or, at least, if the email is saved to drafts that Lampard can have it moved to junk.
Respect, respect, respect is all that runs between Lampard, his squad and the 41,000 who regularly turn up at Stamford Bridge.
Why? Because Lampard – not that the transfer ban gave him too many other options – is moving Chelsea back to SW6. And who better to do that than someone who made 648 appearances for the club?
It may sound like some tribalistic Brexit-driven desire for players ‘born and bred’ in England and then honed in Chelsea’s academy, but having local faces to cheer has always been a priority for football fans. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, Reuben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are providing just that.
After scoring his first goals for Chelsea against Norwich, Tammy Abraham tweeted that ‘Dreams do come true’. Nowadays, footballers’ use of that phrase is often suspect – take Henrikh Mkhitaryian for example, whose moves to Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and Arsenal were all a ‘dream come true’, to use his own phrasing – but Abraham is qualified to say this. Joining a club aged five makes those first senior goals that bit more special, not just for Abraham, but for the fans as well.
The photograph that recently went viral of Callum Hudson-Odoi, then just a young ball boy, celebrating with Samuel Eto’o after the latter had scored a hat-trick against Manchester United in 2014 allows the romanticism that football fans are so longing for to truly flourish. That thirteen-year-old is now an England international and one of the most exciting members of Lampard’s squad. He bleeds blue.
Frank Lampard himself represents this authenticity. Barring Graham Rix, Steve Holland and the late Ray Wilkins – who oversaw four fixtures between them as caretaker managers – Lampard is Chelsea’s first British manager since Glenn Hoddle over two decades ago. This would be understandable if, say, like their North London rivals Arsenal, they had had two managers in that period, but Chelsea have had twelve on a permanent basis. Rafa Benitez and Guus Hiddink are not included on that list and no, neither of them are British.
Ironically this liberating of footballing philosophy has only been possible because of restrictions put on the club.
Admittedly, the arrival of £58 million man Christian Pulisic and the permanent £40 million signing of last year’s loanee Mateo Kovacic ensured it was not a summer totally parched of business or fresh faces. Add to this Chelsea’s extensive loan army and one could go so far as to suggest that Lampard has been able to shape his own squad.
That would be going too far: none of these signings were his. Yet, in selecting sides full of academy graduates and carefully-recruited youngsters, Lampard has managed to please the masses, even if results have been somewhat hit and miss.
In their recent 3-2 away win against Norwich, Lampard fielded the youngest Chelsea side since February 1994, with an average age of just 24 years and 208 days in the starting eleven.
This record was then broken a week later, in thier match against Premier League new boys Sheffield United. The inclusion of 21-year-old Fikayo Tomori made this Chelsea side the youngest of the Premier League era, stretching back to 1992. Much like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer at Manchester United, Lampard is receiving praise for doing this. It is a shame that Nissan got to the tagline ‘Innovation that Excites’ before Chelsea did.
21-year-old Tammy Abraham, at the club since 2004, has been starting despite the presence of international goal-scorers Olivier Giroud and Mitchy Batshuayi in the squad. 20-year-old midfielder Mason Mount, who joined aged six, has also starred in the early part of the season.
Both of these starlets were plying their trade in the Championship last season. Abraham fired Aston Villa to promotion whilst Mount impressed under Lampard at Derby County as they reached the play-offs.
The signing of successful Championship players is usually reserved for those teams at the wrong end of the Premier League table. Again, this is where Lampard and Solskjaer are similar, as the Norwegian brought in Daniel James from Swansea over the summer. James, like Abraham and Mount, has shown through his performances that such recruitment can reap dividends.
Then comes the catch. Lampard’s Chelsea are not widely being tipped to finish in the top four this season, and many do not expect United to do so either. It goes back to Alan Hansen’s unforgettable adage of 1995, in the Match of the Day studio: ‘You can’t win anything with kids’.
Yes, you cannot win Premier League titles, Champions Leagues or Golden Boots with a team full of kids. But what Lampard’s appointment and early days at Chelsea have proved is that you can win plaudits with kids – both in the stands at Stamford Bridge and in the 2019 Match of the Day studio.
Many questioned whether the appointment of Lampard as manager came too early. After all, after just one season as a manager in England’s second tier, there was little to suggest Lampard was in a position to succeed amongst the Premier League big boys. But that is the joy of 2019/20 at Chelsea – it does not really matter. Lampard probably would not have got the role at such an early stage had the transfer ban not been implemented, meaning that it is not too soon for him to take on the role.
This leaves us with a conundrum. Just how much credit does Lampard deserve for what is currently going on at Stamford Bridge? Some, for sure. Abraham would not have had the opportunities he has been given; nor would Mount. Had Lampard been gifted Abramovich’s cheque book over the summer, the situation could have been very different, although many like to think Lampard’s focus on youth and hunger in his players is genuine.
Gone are the days of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard; this is Frank Lampard’s Chelsea. A liberated Chelsea.
Image: Александр Мысякин via Wikimedia Commons