Graeme le Saux: How Frank Lampard came to rule the world

When Chelsea signed an £11m midfielder in 2001 no one in the side could believe the size of the fee. His former team-mate Graeme le Saux tells the inside story of how hard work turned a fine prospect into a phenomenon
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The Independent Football

Among the Chelsea squad in the summer of 2001 there was one response that proved more common than any other when the news came through that we were signing Frank Lampard from West Ham for £11m. "How much?" we spluttered incredulously. He was English, he had a great football pedigree and there was good sense in buying a young player who could be developed. Spending that much money to sign him was the part that no one could quite believe.

How wrong we were. Frank will be at the Fifa World Player of the Year award ceremony in Zurich on Monday, nominated with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto'o. He has become a powerful forward runner from midfield, a tackler, a great passer of the ball and the man who, in my opinion, Sven Goran Eriksson should be building his England team around. But how Frank made it from the status of pricey young hopeful to arguably the greatest midfielder in the world is a development that few could have foreseen. And in doing so he has become a player like no other in world football.

When Frank arrived at Chelsea he did so as one of the first signings of the new manager, Claudio Ranieri; well, at least that was how it appeared. I was never sure whether it was Ranieri or the managing director, Colin Hutchinson, who was making the signings that summer - when William Gallas and Emmanuel Petit also arrived - but one thing was certain: the new manager wanted to shake things up.

Dennis Wise was one of the players most surprised at the scale of the fee paid for Frank, and he was sold to Leicester City 11 days later. Gustavo Poyet, another senior player, had already been sold to Tottenham that month. Our midfielder Roberto Di Matteo had badly injured himself the previous September and would never play again. A new regime was asserting itself, there was uncertainty about the place and, for an ambitious young player, it was an exciting club to join.

I found Ranieri's methods difficult to take seriously. He would have us train in one formation for five days and then change to another for the game on Saturday. You thought you were in the first XI all week and then on match day he would drop you. Our first taste of the Ranieri regime, and Frank's first experience of life at Chelsea, was the new summer training camp at Rocca Porena in Italy. As the birthplace of St Rita of Cascia it had religious significance but very little to capture the imagination of bored, tired footballers. A place so unpopular that on the bus to training the younger players would sing - to the tune of "Copacabana" - "Rocca, Rocca Porena/So shit we all went insane-er".

This was Ranieri's way: two training sessions a day under his fitness coach, Roberto Sassi, who was not well liked. It was a tough regime and we carried on the hard running into the season, so much that I dread to think how tired we often were in the last 20 minutes of games. But much as I disliked it, I can see how it must have helped Frank. Not only did his fitness improve immeasurably but, with all that tinkering Ranieri went in for, he also learnt to be adaptable. And when it came to learning and improving there was no one as determined as Frank.

Looking back, it's clear to see how Frank began to transform himself into the player he is now, and, although I feel Ranieri failed to move the club forward, he must take some credit for the development of Frank and John Terry. Frank started to become a very powerful runner over that first season and also a tough defensive player when he needed to be. Training was hard. In the past, Dennis Wise had been the leader in the running, and I wasn't far behind, but it didn't take Frank long before he was motoring past me in the sprints.

When I compare my introduction to the club from the unforgiving Chelsea squad of 1987 to the kind of characters who were there when Frank came in 2001, I can only think that there were better people around for him to learn from. The captain was Marcel Desailly, who was a very experienced player and had won so much. I would like to think that myself and Gianfranco Zola also offered a bit of wisdom and we all wanted to see Frank develop and progress.

Not only was there a supportive group of people but as the squad changed it allowed Frank to take on more responsibility as senior players left. Just as John Terry flourished when Frank Leboeuf left in July 2001, Frank seemed ready to assert himself within the group. Players such as Zola and myself, who were coming to the end of our careers, had clear, well defined roles within the team and there was no way we could take on more responsibility on the pitch. For that we looked to the younger players and Frank responded brilliantly.

That Chelsea team had not reached the heights that the current side have and yet, in spite of some of Ranieri's eccentricities, we were technically very good. Frank had good players around him. It was a team that passed the ball well, a good football environment and he learnt quickly. Terry had been out on loan to Nottingham Forest in April 2000 and when he came back he too seemed to benefit from the way the squad worked together.

Frank's natural peer group when he joined Chelsea included John Terry, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Jody Morris. It is fair to say that John got himself in some scrapes when he was younger, one of which, in September 2001, Frank was also caught up in. The incident at Heathrow airport after the terrorist attacks in New York was one in which Frank seemed to be implicated by association. The club could have protected those four young players rather than making them face the News of the World. As their Professional Footballers' Association representative, I was asked to sit in on the interview on behalf of the club - it seemed a strange way to handle an obviously difficult situation.

After that, Frank never got in any more trouble and you could see that, even as a young player, he was determined not to compromise his career. That takes some willpower when there is such a strong temptation for young players really to cut loose and enjoy their money and fame. He knew that playing for a bigger club than West Ham meant that he would be under greater scrutiny and he reacted by focusing purely on his football He developed under Ranieri but it took a manager of Jose Mourinho's calibre really to polish him into a truly great player.

Mourinho spotted the kind of player he had in Frank from a very early stage and built his team around him. The deployment of Claude Makelele as a holding player freed Frank to go forward, score goals and play to his strengths. What frustrates me about Frank's treatment under Eriksson is that, unlike Mourinho's Chelsea, England do not get the best out of him.

I think that Frank's development has meant that he has leapfrogged Steven Gerrard and David Beckham in the pecking order of the England midfield and his role should be amended accordingly. That midfield should be built around Lampard instead of occasionally moving him out to the left of the diamond formation or asking him to do a defensive job in front of the back four. Anyone who understands football can see that to play his true game he needs the freedom he is given at Chelsea.

He is a confident player but not the type to moan. He is a very strong character who has worked hard to improve himself and laid the foundations for a great career without ever allowing himself to be sidetracked. That's why he never misses matches. He epitomises the new kind of Chelsea - the flair of Arjen Robben, the graft of Michael Essien - and yet with Frank it is embodied in one player. We always had that combination at Chelsea - it usually divided itself between the skilful foreigners like Zola and the hardworking Englishmen like Wise - but now Mourinho has found a perfect balance.

I just wonder sometimes if Frank himself can believe what he has achieved. When he gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror to see one of the best players in the world looking back at him, is it for him, difficult to comprehend? It's not just his success and the great financial rewards but the incredible accolades from his fellow professionals. The Fifa award is voted for by national team captains and coaches. The Real Madrid fans voted him as the player they most wanted their club to sign. When he arrived at Chelsea we knew Frank had potential, but to go from Rocca Porena to the best midfielder in the world in just four years tells us that there was always a lot more to him than we could ever have known.