Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lamps out

Frank Lampard has always been one of football's renaissance men, thanks mostly to a grammar school education that furnished him with the ability to string a sentence together in public without the monosyllabism of most of his peers.

That, however, hasn't prevented him from trotting out some A-grade football spin about his two-year contract with Major League Soccer arrivistes, New York City FC: "Having seen the vision of this club, I have seen a real long-term plan and I want to be involved and I want to keep on challenging myself." Isn't that what they always say?

I sound sarky and I shouldn't be. Lamps gave Chelsea 13 good years, joining as part of the 2001 West Ham fire sale that also brought in Joe Cole and Glenn Johnson. And he has, to be fair, been a genuinely brilliant servant of the club, even if his first year included that 9/11 incident at a Heathrow hotel, something New York City fans have already noted less than warmly.

Holding Chelsea's goalscoring record of 211 goals from 649 appearances should say something about Lampard, and especially for a midfielder. It's the main reason I remain, to this day, baffled by the way England supporters treated him, goaded on by moronic West Ham fans and their tiresome "fat Frank" bating (thought: you don't score over 200 club goals from midfield if you're out of shape...something Lampard has never been guilty of in any case, having been rarely injured, and possessing one of the most applied work ethics I've ever come across in a professional footballer).

He certainly leaves Chelsea with the club's goodwill, even if they weren't prepared to extend his contract and his club career to Giggs-length proportions. According to José Mourinho, his New York adventure is not seen as long-term, anyway. “I have a message for Frank: good luck and see you back at Chelsea in a couple of years.”

The Portuguese is sure that Lampard will return to Chelsea in some capacity. "The way Mr Abramovich approached the Frank Lampard situation is amazing," revealed the Chelsea coach yesterday. "'You go if you want to go, you come back if you want to come back. And you come back the way you want – to be an assistant, to be an ambassador, to be a director to be a coach, to be an assistant coach'. That is fantastic." True, though Abramovich is clearly not entraining having Lampard back at the same salary...

So, what of the new challenge which, for Lampard, "ticks all the right boxes"? There's no denying that New York City is an ambitious new club - brand new, in fact, as they won't play their first MLS season until next year. Owned by Manchester City, the New York franchise has also signed David Villa from Atletico Madrid, and has former Sunderland and City player Claudio Reyna as its sporting director.

It's certainly a sensible career stop for Lampard. He's smart enough to recognise he wouldn't get the same level of club away from Chelsea in the Premier League, or La Liga, the BundesligaSerie A or even La Ligue, and certainly wouldn't want to drop down a division in England, not that anyone could afford him. And if he was brutally honest, last season wasn't his best. Sadly, age was starting to creep up on even this diligent toiler.

© Twitter/Christine Bleakley
New York City FC are clearly putting enough money on the table to make it worth his while commuting between The Big Apple and his daughters and TV presenter fiancée, Christine Bleakley, in London.

Plus, he'll also probably 'do a Beckham' and spend the MLS close season training with or even on loan at a Premier League club (Chelsea are strong candidates, but don't rule out "Uncle" Harry Redknapp's QPR).

All that said, the question remains as to whether the US is a good footballing move for the 36-year-old, as he has so far not followed Steven Gerrard into international retirement. With Roy Hodgson's justifiable focus on youth, playing in the MLS might just take Lampard off the England selection radar.

For Lampard, however, the MLS certainly want be the footballing backwater the US league once was. Football is no longer just a hobbyist's interest by comparison to the NFL, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and the other über-franchise sports.

This year's World Cup run will have also given football the sort of exposure it rarely had when the Los Angeles Aztecs and Tampa Bay Rowdies provided career end-stage landings for George Best and Rodney Marsh, and the New York Cosmos signed up Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, also in the twilight of their careers. The Team USA World Cup squad also included a very healthy representation from the MLS, such as Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo) and Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake).

The MLS has long been rumoured to be Lampard's next - and final? - port of call in his playing career, though getting repeatedly papped with his fiancée in Santa Monica every time they were on holiday there only fueled speculation that he'd be following David Beckham to LA Galaxy. 

But, as he asked rhetorically on Thursday, "Why not chose New York City?". On top of the slightly better commuting difference between London, New York - like indeed Miami (where Beckham is setting up an MLS franchise) and Los Angeles - has a high catchment for football, thanks to its concentration of Hispanic communities and people of European background, which should ensure a positive and passionate playing environment.

After years of quiet derision from Europe, Lampard's arrival in the MLS coincides with the game starting to punch above its weight in America. And in joining the current crop of imported experience - Kaka will play next season for Orlando, Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill are already at the New York Red Bulls, Jermain Defoe's at Toronto FC, Nigel Reo-Coker is at Vancouver and Robbie Keane at Galaxy - this is as good a time as any for a professional like Lampard to join them.

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