It is the fate of the modern footballer that, like a politician ousted from office, the curtain falls on his career in a frenzy of sniping and revisionism in which the bleak times are all that are remembered and the good old days lost in a fog of blame.
If Frank Lampard was a prime minister, and his England career his term in office, then he would be at the stage now when the backbenchers were plotting and the ministers picking sides. His omission from the England team on Friday night was met with unrestrained glee in some quarters that a player who has divided opinion could be on his way out, although since then it has emerged there is a good chance Lampard could start against Wales tomorrow.
How has it got to the point that such delight is taken at the prospect of Lampard's England career ending? He is 33 and has 87 caps – including his late substitute's appearance against Bulgaria on Friday – during which he has scored 22 goals, placing him 12th in the all-time goalscorers' list. Of those goals a relatively high proportion, 16, have come in competitive games for England including three at Euro 2004 and five in qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. Even in the dismal qualifier against Switzerland in June it was Lampard who scored the penalty that began England's comeback.
Yet in the last five years, no England player seems to have attracted more sustained vilification from elements of the support. It was the conundrum of Lampard and Steven Gerrard's compatibility that confounded a series of England managers but it was Lampard who got most of the blame for it.
There is no doubt that, at times, Lampard has fallen short. The 2006 World Cup was a watershed. Going into it he had won successive league titles with Chelsea and, on the back of his breakthrough into the England team in 2003, the coming man of the midfield. His failure to score at all in Germany, and his penalty miss in the quarter-final shoot-out against Portugal, turned him into the poster boy for what came to be regarded as the squandered promise of the golden generation – a label Lampard himself has always railed against.
But we all know the backstory, a familiar tale of bright young English footballers overburdened by a football-obsessed nation jacked up on grandiose dreams. The same cycle of adulation and condemnation could yet afflict Jack Wilshere but as yet he is like Lampard in 2003: young, untarnished by disappointment at major tournaments and offering the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
The problem for Lampard, as he reaches the dusk of an England career is that he does not get a fair hearing. Even his staunchest advocate would accept he has been due his share of the blame at times for England's poor performances. He went from October 2005 to November 2007 without scoring a goal in a competitive international which, for a midfielder whose game is based on goalscoring, is a bad run. But 13 short of a century of caps, his legacy deserves a more rounded assessment than the current rush to bury him.
At Stamford Bridge, Lampard will always be the favourite, above even the home-grown John Terry, and is a creditable challenger to Gianfranco Zola and Peter Osgood as the greatest player in Chelsea's history. At Chelsea, they regard Lampard, third in the Fifa world player of the year awards in 2005, as a benchmark for excellence. With England, Lampard has been judged more on who he is not. And he is not Xavi Hernandez or Andres Iniesta or Kaka at his best.
There was his withdrawal from the England squad before their Euro 2008 qualifier against Andorra on March 2007, days after Lampard had been made the fall guy for a bad 0-0 draw with Israel in Tel Aviv.
When it looked likely he would be dropped for the Andorra game he pulled out with a wrist injury but still played for Chelsea against Watford six days later. Yet it tends to get overlooked that in October that year he was relegated to substitute against Estonia and Russia in the dog days of that campaign but came back as one of the few to have a decent game against Croatia in the final defeat in November, scoring from the penalty spot.
Selfish when he gets a sight of goal? You bet he is, but then you do not become a 20-goal-a-season midfielder without pulling the trigger. Does he have the gifts of Paul Scholes? No – but then Lampard never quit international football at 29, as Scholes did, although it must have crossed his mind to do so at times.
There are other factors at play in Lampard's relationship with English football fans that are less easily measured in goals scored and games played. Lampard, for instance, has never been one for the post-match confessional. He is unfailingly ready to speak after games for club and country but he is not contrite in the way that the mob so often demand. When England crash out of a tournament an apology can be the easy option, but Lampard often does not take it.
Lampard has never backed down in his mutual animosity with West Ham fans, which means he is guaranteed a quorum of England supporters who will never forgive him. At Upton Park they like to sing: "Big fat Frank/Big fat Frank/ Big fat Frankie Lampard," a peculiar choice, given so many of those who sing it could scarcely claim to be devotees of the lettuce leaf and the fruit smoothie themselves.
Lampard is just the latest English footballer upon whom the hopes and expectations of the supporters were projected and who, when England came up short, was in turn a lightning rod for that anger and frustration.
He has never won World Cup or a European Championship and, like every England footballer since the boys of 1966, that comes at a cost to one's reputation. But look at the longevity and the goals. They entitle him to a kinder farewell.Reuse content