To those who don’t understand or who just aren’t interested, the joys and gratification that comes from following football, or any professional sports team are nigh on impossible to explain. I find it completely understandable (even rational) how a person would wish to avoid investing any emotional wealth in events beyond their control; for those of us already capitalised however, the high that comes off the back of a positive result or performance is something we could never sacrifice or ignore.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of being a supporter, or member of a fandom, is how in spite of the fact a huge percentage of football fans have never met their clubs players or even been to their stadium, there is something inexplicably and inexorably personal, both in the victories and defeats of your team. Your club’s players are so much more than just agents/employees, on a certain level they are your friends, safeguarding your happiness with their efforts, and capable of individually educing such profound emotions of both passionate appreciation and even shattering betrayal.
There are certain players however who form a relationship with supporters that goes much deeper. Player’s whose contributions leave a legacy and touch a fan-base in ways that are impossible to forget. The composure and confidence of the teenage Jimmy Greaves instantly immortalised the England legend at Stamford Bridge; the powerful athleticism of Kerry Dixon helped light up a difficult period throughout the 1980s whilst the exquisite touch and artistry of Gianfranco Zola established the Italian as the most popular and perhaps the greatest player of the clubs first 100 years.
There then exists a type of player however whose impact goes even deeper still, whose character and achievements, over time, become utterly inseparable from the narrative and the tradition of a club. Such players define eras and inspire generations of players for decades to come. They also, crucially, manage to transcend the petty tribalism that scourges fan culture across the globe, demanding respect through the integrity and the sheer brilliance of their work. This week, Chelsea FC said ‘goodbye, for now’ to such a player.
In 13 years at Chelsea Frank Lampard has crafted one of the most outstandingly complete legacies in the history of English football. He leaves having engrained his name into the fabric of the club, in a manner only a very select few professionals ever manage. In our centenary year it was Frank who scored the winning goals to end a 50 year wait for the league title (his first of three); in 2009 it was Frank who scored the winning goal in the Cup final against Everton (his second of four); it was Frank who scored the penalty to send us to Moscow on the most emotional night of his career and on the 19th May 2012, it was Frank who captained us to victory in Munich, on the greatest night in Chelsea’s history.
What is more stunning than any of these individual moments however has been the famed ruthless consistency of his goal-scoring down the years. He has been and shall remain for some time, totally without peer in this discipline. Even in their most prolific seasons, some of the greatest midfield players of their generation struggle to score as many goals as Frank averaged for almost nine years. I was fortunate enough to have been sat directly behind the goal at Villa Park last May when he finally broke Bobby Tambling’s all time goals record for Chelsea – his celebration was the most poignant moment of live sport I’ve ever seen, as he achieved the most deserved of accolades, and cemented his place as the greatest goalscorer and midfielder West London has ever seen.
What made Lampard truly exceptional however and what has now forever ensured his legend status wasn’t anything that can be taught or ascertained through hard work alone. It’s something that can only be elemental and deep seated within the character of a person – an interminable ambition to maximise the product of their talents whilst simultaneously deepening and broadening their skill set to the highest possible degree. This is how he became and remained the central component of one of the greatest midfields in Europe for more than a decade, despite almost always being surrounded by players far more gifted than himself.
No midfielder at Chelsea has ever come close to fine-tuning their talents so exactly or demonstrating the required focus and mental strength to produce such astoundingly consistent and prolific contributions. The impressiveness of his statistics is undeniable but only in comparison to those of his peers and fellow goal-scoring legends of the game, do they become fully comprehensible. Frank ends his club career at Chelsea with more goals than the likes of Michael Laudrup, Gianni Rivera, George Best, Youri Djorkaeff and Enzo Francescoli ever managed. And as for his modern Premier League peers, Frank will end his career with a goals tally closer to that of Roberto Baggio, Michel Platini and Diego Maradona than the likes of Steven Gerrard, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes will ever get to him. He is also currently only six away from scoring more club goals than Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane combined.
The serious attention given to research of fan culture this past decade by scholars and marketing academics has routinely produced the key finding that for fans, winning is not the most important thing and neither is the sport itself; rather, being a supporter is about being part of a community, united by a common love. But while Chelsea hasn’t always been the easiest club to love these past 12 years, Frank Lampard has been an endless source of pride. Throughout all of the manager sackings and media controversies, he has been a constant. A player of frighteningly rare eloquence and humility, and one who has done more to embody the determination and relentlessness this Chelsea side has shown in pursuit of success, for the duration of his career.
Now is the time to look back and recognise just how fortunate we have been to bear witness and be a part of one the most astonishing careers in the recent history of British sport. Over the last 13 years we’ve observed the extraordinary evolution of a young footballer from a promising but limited rookie, to a phenomenally accomplished professional and eventually a club legend and household name of European football. It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch and will forever be a powerful lesson and reminder of the virtue of hard-work and dedication to a practice. And though he might be gone for now, I have no absolutely no doubt, that it is a lesson yet to conclude.