Lampard defends reaching 50 not out

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The Independent Football

Many are the distinguished England internationals who have been pulled up short of a 50th cap, Sir Geoff Hurst and Sir Trevor Brooking among them. Frank Lampard, a later graduate of the revered West Ham academy, is therefore entitled to a sense of pride at reaching that milestone against Croatia this evening. Yet in the almost clear blue skies above Zagreb, there hovers a cloud of suspicion about whether his current form merits a place in the team that has effectively been automatic for the past three years.

Meeting the media yesterday - seven years to the day after an international debut against Belgium - the attacking midfielder was therefore forced further back on the defensive than he might have wished. "I'm pretty happy with how I'm playing," was his first defensive block, followed by the acknowledgment: "The last few England games, I haven't been in my top, top form."

In international terms, it is not easy to recall when he last was. A year ago, probably, when rounding off a fine performance at home to Poland by thrashing the late winning goal that ensured qualification for the World Cup finals.

Steven Gerrard was missing that day, but Sven Goran Eriksson - never one to grasp a nettle - denied all suggestions that the pair were ineffective together in central midfield and reunited them for the duration of the tournament with unhappy results.

Lampard's last kick in Germany was a woeful penalty against Portugal to conclude his worst performance, ensuring that he was in line for much of the criticism that followed. Publication of a book ("a tide of self-regarding tedium" - The Guardian) did not help and nor did a sluggish start to the new season for Chelsea. There was a feeling, too, that his reaction to the critics was overdone in one so experienced.

"A lot has been made out of that. When someone says something you don't agree with, I think it's a normal reaction to ... well, not to agree with it. Playing for England, it's something you have to take on your shoulders. You learn that very quickly along the way. It's very important that you don't let it go in and feel negative about negative criticism. You have to stay very level-headed and concentrate on yourself. That's what I'm doing."

Steve McClaren's solution to the midfield conundrum has been to shift Gerrard out to the right, but Lampard has not looked much happier with either Owen Hargreaves or Michael Carrick behind him. Now there is no Gerrard because of suspension, so he seems certain to be reunited with Scott Parker, briefly a Chelsea colleague and "a very good player who fully deserves it, a great kid and great character".

It has taken Parker a long while to return to favour after his first couple of internationals and Lampard can sympathise with that. Following that debut against the Belgians at Sunderland, he was not summoned to the colours again until Eriksson's first match 15 months later and did not establish himself in the team until scoring a first international goal - against tonight's opponents - at the start of the 2003-04 season.

"If you look at anyone who's got 50 caps, it's never a clear run of everything going great. Sometimes you have to work for the team, sometimes the ball doesn't go in the net for you, as it didn't at the World Cup, and that's just a part and parcel of being a footballer. There's never been a footballer who hasn't gone through [those] kind of phases. Maybe I'll score [tonight], maybe I won't but if I'm part of a winning team, I'll be happy."

On that basis alone, he should have enjoyed his international debut, in front of a proud father whose record of one cap he was matching. But despite a 2-1 win (the decisive goal being scored by cousin Jamie Redknapp), it was a day of mixed feelings, prompting the thought of whether he might even remain, like father like son, a one-cap wonder.

"It was a strange one for me. It didn't quite sink in and because it sat on its own for a while it stood out in not much of a positive way for me. There were times I did not think I'd get to this stage. I was sitting on one cap watching Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham being the mainstays of the team."

The most memorable of the 49 games so far, it turns out, was a defeat: "Probably the France game in the [2004] Euros, which was my first taste of a big competition. I'll never forget the atmosphere going to the ground and the atmosphere during the game. It was obviously a big disappointment in the end but that one sticks out in my head for realising what playing for England at the top top level is all about."

A big performance tonight would be a welcome reminder of what Frank Lampard is all about.