For me, talking about Chelsea is like discussing the weather; it is something I find myself mentioning everyday no matter how mundane it may be to others. I talk about my team so often that writing about them seems trivial because I have debated everything there is to be said a hundred times already. Yet here we are. And why? Well, the Israeli-Russian oligarch in charge of my club has just beheaded his tenth full-time manager since taking over in 2003. Only this time, it’s intensely personal.
It has been almost a month since Frank Lampard was sacked as Chelsea’s Head Coach and I am (just about) coming to terms with it. I was going to write this piece immediately upon hearing the news, but I feared that it would end up as no more than a page of swear words. At the time, it was all too raw. During his thirteen seasons as a player at Stamford Bridge, Lampard made 648 appearances, won eleven major trophies and ended his career as the club’s all-time top scorer with 211 goals. Simply put, Lampard is a Chelsea hero. My cousin even had a gerbil named after the guy. His swift appointment in July 2019 was met with pure excitement in South West London. Fans dug out old shirts as the megastore printed new ones bearing his name. With a transfer embargo in place for at least the next season, it looked like Lampard was going to be the figurehead of a promising new movement, one that had no choice but to support youth development (a marked difference from how the club have functioned for the past decade). Given the dominance of City and Liverpool, football fans were under no illusion that Lampard would win the title in his first season. Instead, this looked like the start of a longer-term vision for Chelsea Football Club. Still, nothing lasts forever – or more than three seasons if you are working under Roman Abramovich. Despite their incredibly low life expectancy, it seems Lampard the gerbil lasted longer than Lampard the Chelsea Coach.
Everyone knows it was a suicide mission, but it was a sentimental offer that was simply too good to refuse.
Losing 4-nil at Old Trafford to Manchester United was hardly the start that Lampard would have dreamed of, but he essentially had a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card to play in his first season. No Hazard, a transfer ban, and unprecedented COVID interruptions meant that Lampard just had to give it a go – see what happens. And as it happens, he finished fourth and successfully gained qualification into the Champions League. A commendable feat.
Following an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Chelsea had their transfer ban reduced which resulted in an inevitable spending spree that brought in some of Europe’s most talked about prospects in Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Hakim Ziyech et al. This was hardly surprising given that their omnipotent owner has splashed out over two billion pounds since purchasing the club ten years ago. Unfortunately, the £222 million summer spree was not a blessing, but a curse – the death knell for Frank Lampard.
After seventeen games unbeaten, questions were raised whether or not Chelsea were serious title contenders in what can only be described as a turbulent season following ‘Project Restart’. Yet, the pressure was mounting upon the forty-two-year-old and his star-studded squad. There was no disguising the fact that Lampard struggled against any opposition in the top half of the table; high-scoring wins against Palace, Leeds, West Ham, Sheffield and Burnley only papered over the cracks. Confidence plummeted further after back-to-back poor performances against Everton and Wolves. The defence looked disorganised again (a problem thought to be band-aided by the arrival of Édouard Mendy and Thiago Silva) and our attacking frontline, with a bigger budget than most countries spend on their armed forces, was surprisingly toothless. Lampard could never really find his favoured starting line-up either. It was like watching someone scrambling around with the pieces of the world’s most expensive jigsaw puzzle; progress was slow and, with just a few of the straight edges in place, it would soon be someone else’s turn to have a go. Amid rumours of dressing-room mutinies and disgruntlement among the club’s upper echelons, Lampard was treading on thin ice above a deep blue lake in which countless other managers, experienced and otherwise, have drowned.
Much has been made about Lampard’s comments that the job ‘had come too early’ for André Villas-Boas when the thirty-three-year-old was fired by the Chelsea board back in 2012. And perhaps, rightly so. The success of Pep Guardiola has made young managers fashionable; the ex-pro and former apprentice becomes the master – it sounds good. We now have Solskjær, Arteta, Pirlo, Zidane, Gattuso and Gerrard at the helm of some of the world’s biggest clubs – all of which have faced struggles and doubts. But was it too soon for Frank? A man in a somewhat privileged position, who had so quickly worked his way into management with a little help from his friends (and Uncle). Some argue that he would have been offered the job eventually, so why not wait? But Lampard made his stance clear: ‘I couldn’t turn it down, it’s my club’. There is no denying that his inexperience was a risk; the employment history on his managerial curriculum vitae pointed only towards a short, and altogether average spell with Derby County. Nevertheless, he looked like a good fit at the time and was possibly one of the only managers willing to take such a job with the club still bitching about a transfer ban, having to rely on the youth set-up and mourning the loss of Eden Hazard. Everyone knows it was a suicide mission, but it was a sentimental offer that was simply too good to refuse.
Lampard’s final Premier League game ended in a limp 2-nil defeat to Leicester, a game which was thought to have been the final straw. His departure came only a day after a fairly unemphatic win at home to Luton in the FA Cup fourth round – another example whereby a glamourous Chelsea squad failed to live-up to expectations. Representing the home crowd, and clung to the Shed End, read a banner: ‘In Frank We Trust. Then. Now. Forever’ – a touching gesture as well as a foreboding indication of what might follow. Even close friend and ex-teammate, Petr Čech could not stand in the way of Lampard’s exit using his new administrative powers at the club. Some say as ‘Technical and Performance’ advisor, Čech may have even had a say in the decision. Either way, with a win rate of just 49% and a points-per-game ratio of 1.66 (the lowest in the Abramovich era), nothing was going save Super Frankie Lampard.
Shortly after his dismissal, Frank’s young disciples (the likes of Mason Mount, Reece James, Tammy Abraham, and Billy Gilmour) sent emotive farewells on social media, thanking their mentor for giving them the chance to break into the senior squad. Recent acquisitions such as Silva, Ben Chilwell, and Christian Pulisic equally thanked him for bringing them to the club. Even Abramovich revealed that ‘this was a very difficult decision because I have an excellent personal relationship with Frank, and I have the utmost respect for him’ – this was more than the usual “thanks” a manager receives upon leaving Stamford Bridge. A whole host of pundits, ex-players, managers and journalists similarly gave their thoughts and well-wishes in a concoction of dismay and “I told you so”. And for a short while, I was convinced that I would never watch Chelsea ever again.
It is frustrating being a Chelsea fan. Relatively speaking, we became used to winning in a very short space of time. We have won sixteen trophies in ten years, but we have also swiftly outed ten (mostly) well-renowned managers. Many resent Chelsea for their “quick fix” approach. We are like that kid at school who does no revision until the night before an exam, the one who crams it all in at the last minute and ends up top of the class. It might make you feel great, but it certainly doesn’t make you many friends. Of late, Chelsea Football Club have been suffering from an identity crisis: we’ve parked Mourinho’s bus, we’ve tried “Sarri-ball”, and nothing seems to stick. But maybe that’s just it, sadly, our identity in the modern game is that of the disposable cup: drink your fill and then bin it. Granted, it is not very sustainable in the long term, but I am no longer thirsty. The Wenger or Ferguson farewells were a touching testament to the faith that a club can place in a manger, but football is a competitive business and, with Abramovich swinging his Gazprom-sponsored, Nornickel scythe from afar, I can’t see it changing for Chelsea any-time soon.
For a brief moment I thought there was a glimpse of promise. Rumours had circulated that Emma Hayes might be appointed as Lampard’s replacement – an unprecedented, but long-overdue, move towards equal opportunities in the world of football. She has since been linked with a move to AFC Wimbledon and it is easy to see why Hayes is attracting attention in the men’s game. Until narrowly losing to Brighton on 7 February, Chelsea Women’s hadn’t lost in two years in a thirty-three game unbeaten run in the Women’s Super League. They are boasting a side prepared for world domination. Alas, Chelsea had already gambled with Lampard; they weren’t about to take a bigger, headline-grabbing gamble with the first female manager in Premier League history. There were probably better odds on getting Avram back or José Part III.
However, it was ‘the tactical chameleon’ Thomas Tuchel who was quickly given the nod in what looked like the final chapter in the Frank Lampard Saga. Tiptoeing closely behind Jürgen Klopp, Tuchel has been successful at Mainz 05 and Borussia Dortmund before moving to Paris Saint-Germain. Having won silverware in both Germany and France, Tuchel was a shiny prospect that caught that Abramovich’s magpie-like attention. Famed for his intelligence and tactical prowess having graduated from the Ralph Rangnick school of thought, Tuchel was believed to be a reliable option to revive intensity and add structure to a fragmented Chelsea team. Although he comes across like some friendly Professor, it should not be forgotten that Tuchel has a darker side and is notorious for his fractious relationships with his employers. Like a morose evil genius, there is an unsettling comparison to be made between him and that creepy German doctor in the Human Centipede (2009) – both are notorious for their meticulous precision and fastidious attention to detail; they leave no room for mess, display an unflinching stubbornness, and have absolute faith in their own ideas and systems. This doesn’t exactly bode well.
Still, Tuchel has made an impact. His first game (just one day after taking over) resulted in a 0-0 draw with Wolves. We looked sharp in possession, albeit without any real attempts on goal. I’m not siding with the Chelsea Instagram that celebrated 850 passes like a victory, but it is a start. Since taking over, Tuchel has quickly moved Chelsea from nineth place to fourth, dropping just two points in five games. He seems to have regalvanised the squad, given neglected stars like Jorginho, Alonso and Rüdiger a second chance whilst displaying an equal enthusiasm in youthful prospects like Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount. Defeating Tottenham in your first London Derby is also a solid stepping-stone if you want to win over the fans. Tuchel has penned an eighteen-month deal with the Blues and, while I am not sure how long he will last, it seems that there is another new model being built here – let’s just pray the glue has time to settle.
Despite his dream turning into a living nightmare, Frank Lampard’s managerial career is certainly not over. He is determined to make it as a coach, and I am sure he will end up somewhere. For me, and many Chelsea fans alike, his time as Chelsea Head Coach was far from perfect but his reputation with the club should not be tarnished. At its worst, it is a shame that it didn’t work out. Frank needed time and you just don’t get that at Chelsea (he of all people should know). In my eyes, Lampard will remain a Chelsea legend. And who knows? Maybe one day he will get a second chance, José-style.
Ultimately, remembering Frank Lampard as a failed Chelsea manager is much more comforting than remembering him scoring against us in a Manchester City shirt.
…oh, and sorry to hear Jody Morris is gone too.