Frank Lampard future: If former Chelsea midfielder stays at Manchester City it will dilute the New York brand

It is hard to believe that the mothership will be denied his services in the title race, writes Sam Wallace

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The Independent Online

The Frank Lampard New York City FC “$28 player tee shirt” is available to buy on the MLS franchise’s website at the reduced rate of $12.98, the ultimate football merchandise curiosity: a player who is still yet to arrive at a club which has never played a game.

Building a football club from scratch is a surreal exercise to say the least, but any chance of it being done in low-key fashion has been blown apart by the debate over NYCFC’s marquee player from London, England. NYCFC have a contract with Lampard that begins on 1 January, but their principal owners Manchester City, where Lampard is ostensibly on loan at the moment, have a Premier League title race to win.

An awkward conflict of interest this early in the relationship cannot have been what City had in mind. It begs the question, as far as the English side of the operation is concerned: what exactly is New York City FC for?

Lampard’s winning goal against Leicester City on Saturday was his fourth of the league season and his second that has been decisive in a game in which City have either won or drawn. Manager Manuel Pellegrini has at last been explicit that the club are trying to come to some agreement with NYCFC and the MLS in order that Lampard spends the rest of the season in Manchester.

Back in New York the show must go on. The NYCFC pre-season starts on 24 January, and then in March, the curtain goes up on a new MLS 20-franchise season. Beginning life without one of your two leading men is by no means easy. If this was Broadway it would be Adele Astaire without Fred on opening night. It leaves David Villa, the second of the two NYCFC designated players, having to improvise as best he can.

When Ferran Soriano, the Manchester City chief executive, launched NYCFC in May last year he talked in vague terms about the “synergies” between the two clubs and the possibility of loaning youngsters from Manchester to New York. It was about “building an authentic New York team”. “This is not a Manchester City team or a brand play or a marketing trick,” he said. “This is real.”

Real for whom? Lampard’s value to City in the Premier League and Champions League makes it inconceivable they would allow him to go to the US before May, especially given Yaya Touré’s African Cup of Nations absence. But what does that, in turn, say about their promises to make the MLS entity a separate, competitive organisation?

The curious aspect of Lampard’s current deal with City, which runs until the end of this month, is that the club say strictly speaking he is not on loan from NYCFC, even though that is how Pellegrini himself refers to the arrangement. City say that he was a free agent until 31 December, that he has been signed in that period by City, that they pay his wages and that no loan fee is payable to their New York project.

The notion that Lampard could have signed for anyone else in that period remains fanciful given the relationship between his prospective MLS employers and their English owners. Nevertheless, City are the Premier League champions, and there is no doubting the attractiveness of an offer to play there. Even so, keeping him at City beyond 31 December would relegate the importance of NYCFC before they have even kicked a ball.

The president of the New York Yankees, Randy Levine, was unequivocal about his expectations for NYCFC, who are part-owned by the baseball franchise and at whose Yankee Stadium the team will play their home games. In an interview last year at NYCFC’s launch, Levine said that “by us putting our name on this product we are about world champions. That’s the way we operate and that’s what this partnership is going to produce eventually – world championships.”

A world championship might be pushing it as far as the ambitions of NYCFC go, but what will the Yankees make of Manchester City cherry-picking the best for their European operations? The Yankees made much of the fact they turned down approaches from other Premier League clubs to build a partnership with Manchester City, and it is the Yankees’ commercial knowhow within New York that is regarded as crucial to the project.

As for the MLS itself, desperate to be considered a credible football league, the role of second-choice does not sit comfortably. The league has been here before with David Beckham after his extended loan to Milan in 2008 continued into the Los Angeles Galaxy’s MLS season. When the Englishman returned to LA he was faced with an array of marker-pen-on-cardboard admonishments from his own fans for abandoning his team.

Soriano has also talked of creating interest in Manchester City through NYCFC, a “brand City” as he calls it. It is an interesting idea given that the leading Premier League clubs have raised their US profile simply by dint of their own growing global fame and by playing summer friendly matches in America, some of which have attracted crowds far in excess of those that watch MLS.

Of course, NYCFC could yet be one more vehicle for the extension of Abu Dhabi’s sphere of influence, more of the reflected glory the state enjoys in Manchester where a banner expressing the heartfelt thanks of a city to Sheikh Mansour hangs in the Etihad Stadium. In the US, where attitudes might be more sceptical, what better than a gentle introduction under the guise of their successful English project?

 

All these are appealing long-term goals for an English club that has lofty ambitions, and saw an opportunity. Nevertheless, at some point Soriano is going to have to confront either Pellegrini or the MLS with news that one will not want to hear. NYCFC already plan to spend much of their pre-season at the new City Football Academy in east Manchester but Lampard will not be able to play for both of them come March.

It is hard to believe that the mothership will be denied the very useful services of the former England international as City go to head-to-head in the new year for the league title with his former club, Chelsea. And if it is the case that Lampard stays in Manchester, it will leave NYCFC in no doubt as to their place in the “brand City” pecking order.

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