Lamps still the heartbeat of the hard-to-beat

Central force for cherished club and grateful country aims to keep raising the bar

"I don't remember too much of what happened before that," he claims of life prior to his £11 million transfer from West Ham United. "I just remember the great times I have had here, and I will have the strongest of feelings for Chelsea for the rest of my life."

Lampard's antipathy towards West Ham is well-documented. He has never forgotten the abuse he suffered, the accusations of nepotism, because his father was assistant manager - and the chants of far worse. His feelings were evident when the two sides met at Upton Park on Boxing Day. His ironic clapping, his slow walk off the pitch made a heartfelt point. It is safe to say that no footballer is less likely to make the return journey that Robbie Fowler has done, back to the club he started at, than Lampard.

Liverpool are Chelsea's opponents today. Fowler will probably be on the bench and Lampard, like the rest of football, was pleased to see the most unlikely move of the transfer window. "It's great to see someone who is such a hero at a club, a fantastic player, go back. To see the happiness he had and the fans had when he ran back on to the pitch," Lampard says of Fowler's second Anfield debut. "It's a great thing for football."

The player, too, is one whom Lampard rates. "He's one of those who will score when he's 50 years old, just playing with his mates," he says. "He's a natural." That's something Lampard is not. He has had to work at his game, hone his technique, his discipline, and use every ounce of his ability.

It was not so long ago that he wasn't in Chelsea's plans. Fresh with the first barrowloads of Roman Abramovich's cash, Claudio Ranieri went out and bought Juan Sebastian Veron, Damien Duff, Gérémi and then Claude Makelele as his first-choice midfield. And Lampard knew it. Not that he accepted it.

On the flight home from the Champions' League qualifier against MSK Zilina, a tie that Chelsea reached by beating Liverpool on the final day of the Premiership season in 2003, Lampard stood at the back of the plane explaining how he felt about the Abramovich takeover.

"I would like to think the likes of myself, John Terry and the others who were regulars last season are the heartbeat of the team," he said that August night. "And that we are going to be given the chance to help take the club forward." His face betrayed his concern. "I have heard the rumours of Makelele," he added when he was asked about Chelsea's latest expected signing. "It's a lot of competition," Lampard added. "It will be difficult to get into the team but that is where we are - our club is unique at the moment."

It is still unique. And Lampard - along with Terry - is still the "heartbeat". Indeed, nine months after that game in Slovakia and Jose Mourinho is sitting in Stamford Bridge after being presented as Ranieri's replacement. It is the June day that he calls himself the "Special One". He refuses to speculate on players. But what of Lampard - does he want him to stay? "Sure," Mourinho, speaking away from the glare of the cameras, said. "I love him as a player."

When Mourinho gave a lecture in Tel Aviv last Easter about his footballing beliefs, about teamwork and management, he illustrated it with a photograph which he described as "happiness". He was with Lampard. The two had their arms around each other celebrating the Carling Cup victory over Liverpool.

Mourinho immediately recognised Lampard's qualities and his thirst for self-improvement. Before every game a Chelsea player is asked to give a speech. Assistant manager Steve Clarke decides whose turn it is. For the big games it is Terry or Lampard. What is said? "The same point every week," Lampard replies. "To try and make sure everyone is on the ball."

Football, he claims "is an obsession". "For anyone who plays the game, and I grew up with it, it's always in the back of your mind." Mourinho grew up with it too, of course. His father, like Lampard's, was a footballer, and Mourinho claims he has given "big doses of ambition" to the 27-year-old. But it was there already. "All the best players are determined and hungry to do their best every week and if you don't you are not going to get to the top," says Lampard. "So there's nothing wrong with having a bad performance and going home and dwelling on it and thinking you should do better next time. The best players do that."

Except things have changed. He has not lost his drive but is perhaps less likely to arrive home and "beat myself up about not playing well". What changed is that he became a father. Last summer Lampard's fiancée, Elen Rives, gave birth. Their daughter, Luna, is now almost seven months old. "I feel the difference," says Lampard. "It's been a great change, the best change you can have. It's nice to have a bit more perspective. I've always been completely a football man and the baby does bring something extra to your life." Now, after a poor performance, "I don't feel so bad. It's always easier when there's a little smiley face".

The truth is there have been very few reasons to feel bad. Chelsea, like Lampard, their player of the year, England's player of the year and the runner-up as both European and World footballer of the year, are developing. They have raised the bar so high that a couple of draws provoked talk of a crisis. "We concentrate on ourselves," Lampard says. "What we wanted to do was improve even more on last season. There was a possibility of doing that and I think we have done that with our record of wins and our points tally. The rest is up to the other teams."

Being champions has made Chelsea's rivals "desperate" to beat them. "There is that little bit extra against you and it's hard to conquer," Lampard says, recognising the adage, which Chelsea have now made redundant, that the title is more difficult to retain than win in the first place. But then Chelsea have been the team everyone has wanted to beat ever since Abramovich arrived. "We've had it since the injection of money because teams, straight away, were trying to prove a point," says Lampard.

Playing Liverpool adds another dimension - and not just because, under Rafael Benitez, they are shaping up to be Chelsea's closest challengers in seasons to come. "We aspire to be a team that doesn't win something once," says Lampard. "We aspire to be what Liverpool were [in the 1970s and '80s], what Manchester United were after that.

"That's what we want to do, and it means not just winning for one or two seasons but over a period of time. We have that plan at Chelsea." And Lampard is central to it.

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