Ken Early: Lampard’s presence helping to numb the pain of Chelsea’s decline
Fans will only continue to back youth policy project if it brings the required results
Frank Lampard applauds the Chelsea fans following the 2-1 home defeat by Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. The man overseeing the hoped-for miracle is Chelsea’s good old days in human form. Photograph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
An hour into the match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge, the crowd burst into another round of their favourite song: “Super, super Frank, Super Frankie Lampard!”
There was nothing unusual about this, except that the score was 2-0 to the visitors and Chelsea were firmly on course for their third defeat in eight matches under Lampard’s management so far. Since his homecoming, Chelsea fans have not seen a home win.
It would have been difficult to imagine a similar chant in similar circumstances in support of Maurizio Sarri last season. And you can only imagine how the crowd would have greeted being 2-0 down at home to Liverpool if the man in the dugout had been Rafael Benitez, Andre Villas Boas or Avram Grant.
Partly that’s your Club Legend Dividend in action, but mostly it reflects the overwhelming approval among Chelsea supporters for Lampard’s wider ‘project’. Handed lemons in the form of a two-window transfer ban, Lampard has decided to make lemonade by transforming Chelsea from a hive of experienced international mercenaries, as it was throughout his own playing career, into a side based around young players from the academy.
Such is the apparent goodwill towards this project that the most-mentioned Chelsea stat going into the game was “Chelsea’s first 11 goals of the season have all been scored by academy graduates” rather than something like “Chelsea have won only two of their first seven matches under Lampard”.
After N’Golo Kante threw them a lifeline with a remarkable solo goal Chelsea chased gamely for an equaliser but could not find it, and overall deserved to lose.
This time last year they had outplayed Liverpool at home, only to be thwarted in the last minute by a one-in-a-thousand Daniel Sturridge strike for an equaliser. Still the crowd applauded the team off the field. Objectively Chelsea have got worse, yet the supporters seem much happier.
The question is, how long can this last? The next few months of the Frank Lampard era at Chelsea will go some way towards telling us what football fans really want. Is it all about having a winning team? Or is the specific identity of the team just as important?
The evidence of the Premier League era seems fairly conclusive. Fans don’t care where players, coaches or owners come from, as long as they win. Manchester United fans have gleefully sung anti-England songs in tribute to Argentine and Portuguese stars. Arsenal pretty much became French for several years. Manchester City thanks Sheikh Mansour. Liverpool fans serenaded Mo Salah’s record-breaking 2018 season with lines like “if he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too”.
In a way, these successful teams have embodied the liberal dream – living proof that people of all races, cultures and creeds can come together with a common purpose, living, working and celebrating together like brothers. Just as long as they keep winning, at least.
The Premier League has seen at least two examples of teams including a group of young home-produced players whose vibrant and exciting football left a really lasting impression: David O’Leary’s ‘babies’ at Leeds 20 years ago, and Alex Ferguson’s Class of 92 group a couple of years before that.
Yet O’Leary’s team quickly disintegrated amid financial meltdown and personal acrimony, while Alan Hansen might have been right about Ferguson’s team if the kids hadn’t had experienced minders like Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Denis Irwin and Andy Cole.
Can having an exciting homegrown “core” make your supporters so happy that they’re prepared to accept bad results? The evidence is not promising.
Remember the famous 2012 photo of Arsène Wenger’s new British Core, with the beaming Wenger standing behind Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson as they signed their new long-term contracts?
That team soon had Arsenal supporters pining for the glory days when their matchday squad didn’t include a single British player.
Bobby Robson assembled a promising group of young British players at Newcastle in the early 2000s – Jermaine Jenas, Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy, Titus Bramble, Shola Ameobi, Darren Ambrose, etc. They failed. Robson got the sack and Newcastle have never been the same since.
So that’s how it works. Win, and they don’t care where you come from. Lose, and if you come from around here you’ll wish you came from somewhere else.
The lesson for Lampard is clear: talk about young players always goes down well, but don’t forget how hard it is to win matches in the Premier League without a few seasoned internationals to hold your team together.
Chelsea fans love Mason Mount right now, but all it takes is an unlucky run of missed chances, like the one he missed late against Liverpool, and the questions will start. Is Mount paying too much attention to that quiff? Is this guy fully focused on the club?
Maybe the biggest long-term factor in Lampard’s favour is a largely unspoken one: the diminishing expectations of Chelsea supporters. Roman Abramovich has been consciously uncoupling from Chelsea since at least 2018, when the UK government launched a range of new sanctions against Russia. Abramovich took Israeli citizenship and shelved the new stadium project. Without the sugar daddy Chelsea are no longer a superpower. And fading superpowers love nostalgia, sentimentality and magical thinking.
At this moment, the idea that Chelsea could compensate for the loss of their old financial power by harnessing the genius of their youth has huge sentimental power. And the man overseeing the hoped-for miracle is Chelsea’s good old days in human form.
As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has learned, that won’t keep the fans with Lampard forever. But for now, it’s helping to numb the pain of decline.