Saturday, February 09, 2013

Lamps on, Lamps off?

“Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble. And if I stay it will be double. So come and let me know.” (Headon/Jones/Simonon/Strummer)

Plenty in life baffles me. Like, why it is that, at the slightest outbreak of anti-American snippiness, freshly-minted US flags are set alight in market squares througout the West-hating world. What efficient supply chain ensures this? Is it un-advertised inventory of the Mailboxes Etc. chain? Does every branch keep folded, fresh and flammable Stars & Stripes flags under the counter, next to the porn, just in case someone comes for a protest?

Then there's Frank Lampard. What is it about one of the most successful, prolific and naturally gifted midfielders England has ever produced that draws scorn from opposing fans and blinds his own club management to the value he can still bring to the game, even four months shy of his 35th birthday?

Is it is Lampard, himself? Perhaps each morning, on his 40-minute drive down the A3 from Kensington to Chelsea's Cobham training ground, he is playing The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go? over and over again on his Ferrari's 1000-watt JBL sound system.

The vexed truth of the matter is, no one seems to know. In any given week for the last several months, at least one newspaper has claimed, exclusively, that Lampard may sign an extension to his Chelsea contract, while in the same week, at least one newspaper has claimed, exclusively, that there will be no extension and Lampard will be free to take his current superb form elsewhere at the end of the season.

In January, Steve Kutner, Lampard's agent, made it clear that Chelsea had told him his contract would not be extended under any circumstances. Last week, Kutner was saying that there had been no change in the situation. And still, the claims of an Abramovich U-turn go on.

Depending on who you read or who you believe, it's either Lampard's fault for wanting, allegedly, a two-year extension, or Chelsea's fault for wanting to prune it's expensive roster of over-30s. Take another view, and he's been offered a one-year extension, like Ashley Cole (who accepted), but has rejected it wanting the 24 months.

Either way - and who am I? - there should be some grown-upness injected into these proceedings. Lampard's strike against Brazil on Wednesday was no fluke, but an example of the sublime quality Lampard has been demonstrating for Chelsea in recent weeks, a goal-scoring form that has only been undermined, seriously, by the general malaise surrounding the club under Rafa Benitez.

A couple of months ago, Daniel Finkelstein, The Times' political leader writer and hobbyist football statman, calculated that Lampard was, de facto, the Premier League Player of the Decade. His methodology, which involved  correlating various parameters of in-game performance, calculated a league table of individual players, based on their contributions to the games they figured in. Cutting a long - and, admittedly, mind-boggling story short - Finkelstein's conclusion was that, ahead of players of positional consistency (led by the base of Chelsea's spine, Petr Čech), or points generated for each minute they were on the field of play (Cristiano Ronaldo), general excellence (Steven Gerrard) or game-changing impact (yes, Darren Bent), there could be only one 'Fink Tank' Premier League Player of the Decade: Frank Lampard.

There is only one Frank Lampard. There is only one player who is just five strikes away from equalling Chelsea's club record of 202 goals, currently held by Bobby Tambling. And this is a midfielder we're talking about, not some prolific, hits-'em-in-for-fun show-pony striker.

Equally baffling, and frustratingly so, is the treatment Lampard receives from England fans. It's to be expected that West Ham fans, in their own little world of bile and steam, still consider it necessary to boo and hiss Lamps 12 years after he moved to Chelsea. But whatever cretinously petty issue exists behind this pantomime animosity, (and it is, sadly, as cretinously petty as the fact that he dared quit the club as it was taking one of its regular exits through the Premier League trap door), Lampard has gone on to be the most consistently effective midfield player in world football for more than a decade.

Yes, some of his England performances - with or without the Gerrard combination conundrum - have been disappointing, but his 94 caps have been totally justified. His goal against Brazil on Wednesday was his 27th in national colours, itself an achievement of prolific endeavour. And he has more to offer: "I understand where I am in my career," he said after the Brazil game, "but if I can continue playing for Chelsea then I am getting nearer to 100 [England caps]. It's certainly a target for me and, yes, I will try to keep playing at a good enough level to get there."

Which raises questions about where he plays next. David Beckham has demonstrated that a move to LA Galaxy, and a move to the US MLS, is the equivalent of dropping a couple of divisions in terms of quality, although it would probably be the equivalent of going up two in terms of wages.

The difference between Beckham and Lampard, however, is that Beckham has been able to build the 'brand' to maintain his profile. How else would a 37-year-old whose best years are long behind him manage to sign for Paris Saint-Germain in a blaze of publicity that managed to eclipse PSG's signing of Zlatan Ibrahimović not so long ago?

Frank Lampard has built a profile to fit Frank Lampard. He's an eloquent, intelligent footballer. Never the nightclub jockey, and now with a celebrity girlfriend who appears to have successfully mastered the art of being a glamourous WAG and girl-next-door TV sweetheart at the same time.  

Privately educated, thanks to father Frank Sr.'s desire for Frank Jr. to have a good foundation, this has been matched by Lampard's dedication to the game. While still a West Ham apprentice, Lampard was known to take extra training sessions, largely because of the discipline drummed into him by his father, and largely because he felt that with Frank Sr.'s brother-in-law Harry Redknapp in charge of the club, he had more to prove that he wasn't there through nepotism.

Even today, Lampard Jr. continues to put the hours in on the training pitch. It's an effort that kept him off the treatment table for successive seasons, a record that has only really started to unravel in recent years as age has inevitably started to catch up. And it is why I've never understood the 'Fat Frank' barbs: for a football crowd whose diet consists mostly of pies to call Lampard "Fat" is like Kim Kardashian raising questions about Paris Hilton's career aspirations.

Lampard insisted that he retains the fitness and drive to play at the highest level for another two or three years, suggesting he is not yet ready to accept a lucrative quiet life in America or the Far East. Publically, he has repeatedly stated his desire to end his career at Stamford Bridge. Privately, he may have accepted that if he can't have the deal he wants at Chelsea, he'll get the deal he wants at another club. And there certainly won't be a shortage of offers, be it LA Galaxy, PSG, China or - swallows something hard and jagged - even Manchester United.

"I’m not the kind of player to see out my time and sit with my bum on the bench too much," Lampard has said recently. "I want to be involved. That’s my character. I will keep trying to do that, whatever the circumstances."

Which comes back to the Chelsea question. I get the point that with rules on club finances coming in, you've got to tighten the belt accordingly. And a £160k a week for a player in his mid-30s is a lot of money. But then so is spending £50m on Fernando Torres, and how's that working out?

If Ryan Giggs at 39 is young enough for Manchester United, a relative whippersnapper like Lampard should - and obviously does - have a lot to still give Chelsea. Current form and history combined, it really would be madness to let him go. But, then, when has sanity played any part in the revolving door of managers at Chelsea under Roman Abramovich, let alone players coming and going?

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