New model Lampard fired by the fearlessness of youth

Chelsea's marathon man puts the bit-part days behind him
Click to follow

Not so long ago, Frank Lampard would have regarded with trepidation the proximity of both Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. One as a Premiership opponent; the other as a potential rival for a Chelsea midfield shirt. In an otherwise surreal year, following Roman Abramovich's Stamford Bridge conquest, the England midfielder has eclipsed the former player - during that famous Champions' League quarter-final victory at Highbury in April - and outshone the latter in the Chelsea establishment.

Not so long ago, Frank Lampard would have regarded with trepidation the proximity of both Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele. One as a Premiership opponent; the other as a potential rival for a Chelsea midfield shirt. In an otherwise surreal year, following Roman Abramovich's Stamford Bridge conquest, the England midfielder has eclipsed the former player - during that famous Champions' League quarter-final victory at Highbury in April - and outshone the latter in the Chelsea establishment.

That's why you detect that here tonight, assuming Sven Goran Eriksson allows the genie to emerge from "Lamps", as he tends to be known, and selects him in his midfield, the Chelsea man will be undaunted by Jacques Santini's cultural collective, featuring Vieira and Makelele at its heart, and will express a fearlessness he believes is reflected in England's younger contingent.

It is Thursday lunchtime, after training, at the England base here, and Lampard arrives with a buoyant demeanour. You cannot help but ponder how close his physical-reserves tank may be to "empty". Even the Tinkerman's most excessive fiddling this season failed to set the Lampard engine to idling.

"I give everything I can in each game, and then try to train well, and live right in between that and the next," Lampard explains. "I'm not sure whether it's because I'm young [he will not be 26 until a week today], but I'm quite decent at recovering from a game."

As durable as one of those Duracell-powered toys, he possesses the poise and alertness of a gazelle. Not that he intends to be the ready prey of the eager predators Makelele or Vieira. You recall what the former has said of him: "Frank makes the play, directs the game and is often decisive in the final pass and even in scoring. But a good kicking, and I don't think he will be moving a muscle!" No doubt just heavy-handed Blues banter. Yet one suspects for all the aesthetic promise of the encounter in some quarters, several such skirmishes will be physical ones.

"We've got to strike the right balance," says Lampard. "We've got to be strong, keep to our formation and not be too open. But also we have to go at them, play with that English tempo, which is a strong point of ours, and get stuck in a little bit. We're playing for England, and we need to show, in the first 20 minutes of the game, what we're about."

Lampard has played at the base of the diamond, not altogether convincingly, against Japan, and in the centre of a flat 4-4-2 against Iceland, when he celebrated his liberation with the opening goal and a pleasing exhibition. The likelihood is that, assuming Eriksson can expunge too many negative thoughts from his mind, Lampard will again start alongside Steven Gerrard in central midfield. It conjures a potent image.

"We've got to believe that the four midfield players who play, whether it's me, whether it's Nicky Butt, and the others, that we're good enough to match them [France]," he says. "We have to respect them and understand how good they are. But we shouldn't worry too much."

The player who moved from West Ham for £11m in 2001 is grateful to the now-departed Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri for a valuable contribution to his education. "I phoned Ranieri and said thanks [when he left]. He bought me, and he's gone a long way to putting me where I am," says Lampard, who after this tournament wants to finalise a new, enhanced Chelsea contract. "The [Abramovich] takeover meant we bought six or seven top midfield players [including Makelele]. I had to pull my finger out and work that bit harder and make sure I stayed in the team. I've done that, and grown as a player, scored goals and played in the team week in, week out, which is an achievement in itself."

Ranieri leaves a considerable legacy. When he arrived, Lampard was a member of the England squad. Now he is an integral part of the England team.

"I think I'm taking charge of matches and making a big impact on them, whereas at West Ham, a game could pass me by," he says. "Since moving to Chelsea, I've probably grown up as a man, and as a player, and from then, forced my way in. The season that I've had has given me that confidence to come in to this England side and believe that I can be a big player rather than a bit-part player.

The son of Frank Lampard Snr, a former England full-back, alludes, albeit obliquely, to the occasion when he let himself down: the incident when he, together with Eidur Gudjohnsen, Jody Morris and John Terry, were reportedly drunk and abusive in an airport hotel bar near Heathrow in the presence of some Americans not long after 9/11. The repercussions were a club fine of two weeks' wages and being dropped from the England squad to face Greece. He experienced the shame of being deemed a feckless young footballer. Lampard now understands that the granting of such talent as he possesses bestows with it responsibilities as well as rewards.

"I've got a fiancée now [Elen, who is Spanish]," he says. "That has helped a long way towards settling me down. I don't think I ever went down the road of being a big-time Charlie. I was never crazy... just probably a bit naïve at times and did silly things, which probably everyone does as a 21-year-old. As a footballer you have to learn that you can't do that."

Back to tonight, Lampard argues, persuasively, that this England represent a cogent blend of youth and experience. "We've got some top-class players who have done a lot. Also, we've got this group of younger players, like [Wayne] Rooney, who are fearless in the way they play," he says. "Steven Gerrard is the same. He's not in awe of anyone. Once you get that mentality in your team, it can only help."

If nothing else, Lampard talks a fine game. Tonight will determine if his actions are as fluent as his words and whether he can help scheme a positive introduction to Euro 2004 for Eriksson's men.

Comments