Despite the three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two European titles under Frank Lampard’s belt, this season appears to be his most defining in regards to how he will be remembered once he hangs up his boots.
Whereas in the past, the Chelsea man lived in the constant shadow of Steven Gerrard – his Liverpudlian counter-part often preferred by the neutrals for his all round game – this year, Lampard has not been privy to a whole team and methodology of play based around his specialist skill set, pushed back deeper into midfield and used sparingly to make way for the next generation of talent at Stamford Bridge in Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, but has still come up with the stellar performances and those all important goals, clinching his place in the history books as the Blues’ record goal scorer.
With the midfielder proving his longevity in regards to playing at the highest level and still being capable of single-handedly influencing the outcome of any given match, with 15 goals and 5 assists in 38 appearances for all competitons, it’s a glowing indictment of the club’s transfer policy regarding players over 30. As it stands, Roman Abramovich is only willing to offer players who’ve reached the optimum age before entering their theoretical decline as a footballer, a one year extension of their current contracts. In the past few days, Lampard has extended his stay at Stamford Bridge for another season, yet it I believe the strategy for the ageing veterans still remains short-sighted and impractical.
The 34 year old is not the only near-casualty of the policy, leaving it until the final weeks of the season to confirm he will not be making a summer departure. In January, interest from a number of European powerhouses, including the two Manchester clubs and PSG was centred around the Blues’ long-serving left-back, Ashley Cole. Unsurprisingly, the England defender was miffed about a lack of security over his future, implied by the short tenure of the new deal offered to him. He made the Chelsea board sweat a little before finally signing on the dotted line just before the end of the transfer window, quashing rumours triggered by his mother on twitter that he had agreed terms with the Ligue 1 Champions and had been looking for houses in Paris.
Chelsea kept their man, but is it really any way to treat a world class defender, whom by all accounts is still not too far off from being at the top of his game – remaining ever-consistent all year round and still able to keep up with even the speediest of wingers. Similarly, whereas 34 edging on 35 is near ancient for a midfielder, being just 32 and a defender implies you still have a good few years left in the locker.
But even if Cole’s form hit a serious blip for the first time in his career, surely his experience and pedigree alone assures that he is worth keeping around. His accolades in the game are unbelievable; claiming three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Europa League trophy and a Champions League trophy, in addition to Champions League runner-up medal, not to mention over 100 caps for England, with the possibility of overtaking David Beckham as the Three Lions’ most capped player.
Furthermore, he’s done it all with the press constantly breathing down his neck, and being one of the most detested figures in English football, with a media circus surrounding his adulterous ways and relationship with Cheryl Cole, and the reputation of him being money-grabbing mercenary, earning him the unflattering nickname of ‘Cashley’. It’s the kind of experience and temperament that is unattainable by finance, irreplaceable once it’s gone and priceless in on the big occasions.
Of course, Manchester United are the glowing example of how to get the best use out of older veterans. Whilst some of their most long-serving players were duly moved on upon becoming surplus to requirements – the likes of Mikael Silvestre, and Denis Irwin – the ones who live and breathe success, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes for example, have been kept on, not only for their abilities on the pitch but for their influence on the training ground and in the dressing room. It’s created a consistency and longevity which has now lived beyond several United sides constructed and deconstructed by Sir Alex Ferguson, and their wisdom, but more importantly their mentality, will now be passed on to another generation of promising Red Devils’ talent.
Lampard, Cole and John Terry – another long-standing member of the club, who has captained them to unprecedented success throughout his 14 year tenure, with question marks over his future as his contract is set to expire next summer- belong to the same mould as the old heads at Old Trafford. They are the final remaining relics of the Jose Mourinho era, the club’s most prosperous period in terms of trophies, and still carry with them that undying desire to win installed in them by the Special One.
If Abramovich is to forge Chelsea into a footballing institution in its own right, outliving his own tenure at the club, he should surely follow the Manchester model. It is not only the experience and ability they provide, with Frank Lampard proving he is still an asset within the squad this season, but the mentality they can enforce upon their team-mates, and the sense of consistency and identity it brings to the club.
The over 30’s policy in effect may not be a huge deviation from the norm; Ryan Giggs hasn’t been offered in excess of a one year deal since 2009, and there are always question marks over a whether a player reaching the end of their peak can remain cost-effective in terms of wages, and whether their influence on the pitch will overnight grind to a halt. Indeed, with John Terry playing a bit-part role this season, it may well appear by the time of his contract expiring that he will no longer be able to perform at the level required of him.
But the fact the policy exists in the first place is still the overwhelming issue. It smacks of disloyalty, impatience and short-sightedness, rejecting the notion that there are intrinsic, unquantifiable influences that experienced veterans and long-serving members of the club can only provide, whilst also not letting any room for individual circumstance in terms of level of talent and performance.
I’m not suggesting that the Blues begin giving every player reaching his twilight years a long-term contract just for the sake of it, there are those whom fit the mould and those who don’t, those whose wages remain cost-effective without infringing on the next generation of talent, and those who are simply looking for a continued pay out.
But the tag-line has to go – it only adds to the club’s current reputation of lacking any sort of long-term plan, constantly changing up their management and roster amid any sniff of underachievement, and from the humanitarian perspective, it is hardly an honorary or gentlemanly manner to deal with players who’ve brought the club so much success through their efforts on and off the pitch over the last ten years.