Posted 24 August 2012 - 10:10 PM
Lampard article in the Times by Oliver Kay:
Success? Its a fine line in this game ... I wasnt born like Lionel Messi
It is a wet and windy afternoon in the mid-1990s and, at West Ham Uniteds training ground, the apprentices are packing up to go home. All except one. For Frank Lampard Jr, as he is known at this time of his life, afternoons are for extra running sessions. And wet afternoons are even better since they allow him to extend his repertoire by slide-tackling an imaginary opponent.
Lampards team-mates emerge from the changing room, dressed for the weather, and laugh out loud. One of them, a much-heralded Scotland schoolboy player named Martyn Mullen, looks at him in disbelief and asks "What the f*** are you doing?" Lampard hesitates, stops and then, self-consciously, resumes totally convinced that what he is doing is right, but embarrassed at being caught in the act.
Lampard was 17 years old at the time. He and Mullen were equals. In fact, he regarded Mullen as his superior, much as he did Rio Ferdinand and Lee Hodges, let alone that precocious 14-year-old called Joe Cole. He coveted their skills and envied their lean physiques. If he was to become their equal, let alone surpass them, it could only be through hard work.
Another 17 years have passed. Lampard has made 757 appearances at club level, he has played 91 times for England and with Chelsea he has won three Barclays Premier League titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups and, most recently, one European Cup. There have also been many individual awards, but most special was the one he just missed out on finishing second to Ronaldinho for World Player of the Year in 2005.
Over coffee at a boutique hotel around the corner from Harrods this week he studiously avoided the salted cashew nuts Lampard reflected on what has, by any standards, been a remarkable career. It now has its crowning moment, in Chelseas extraordinary Champions League triumph last season. But its defining moment? Nothing, surely, defines Lampards story more than the afternoons spent alone, running and sliding around in the driving rain at his fathers insistence, while his peers, several of whom he considered more talented, clocked off.
"For me, football was work from a very young age," Lampard says. "That came from my dad [Frank Lampard Sr, the former West Ham defender] really. He always said he was a workaholic footballer, a self-made player. He instilled that in me to the extent that when I was 10 or 11, I was doing all these sprints and different exercises to make me quicker and more agile.
"At times it wasnt much fun. When it was the middle of the afternoon in winter and it was cold and wet, I didnt like it that much. When youre a kid, you want to have fun when youre playing. I used to train four nights of the week and I wouldnt say it was always enjoyable. My dad would drag me out to do it and wouldnt give me a way out. But thats no bad thing. If you give kids an easy way out, they take it more often than not. I didnt get that easy way out.
"That afternoon he [Mullen] was taking the mickey: What the f*** are you doing? That has stuck in my head. We were only kids and he might not have known what he was saying. He was a very talented player and when he came down from Scotland it seemed like he was the big show. It didnt work out. But I dont want it to sound like Im insulting him because I dont know what his situation was."
A few inquiries lead to the discovery that, after leaving West Ham without making a first-team appearance, Mullen had a brief spell on St Johnstones books and soon drifted out of football. Lampard looks disappointed, but not surprised. He does not say "I told you so." But the point is that there are thousands of cases like Mullens. Those who go on to enjoy long and successful careers at the top of the game are the exceptions, not the norm. And it is why, at 34, Lampard is well qualified to offer a lecture to those who he feels are being distracted by the fame, fortune and trappings that accompany their first professional contract.
Lampard expresses concern for the young footballers of today, suggesting that the extraordinary wages they command in their first professional contract often have an adverse effect. "Money is thrown at them, they get a bit of fame, they think theyve made it and its human nature that some take their eye off the ball in terms of training and discipline," he says.
Does Lampard stop to wonder what kind of career he might have had without his slavish devotion to training? Might he have found the Champions League or even the Premier League stage was beyond him? "I would bet my life on that," he says. "I wouldnt have made it to the level I have. Maybe I wouldnt have made it to the level below or even the one below that. I wasnt born like Lionel Messi. I was decent, dont get me wrong, but its a very fine line in football. The ones who dont make it can end up in non-League in six months. Im not saying I would have been one of those, but I certainly wouldnt have got to the heights I have."
And what heights not least in Munich last May. But there was a time, Lampard admits, when he allowed himself to become consumed by the lows. "As a footballer you have to very thick-skinned," he says. "I reacted inside very badly in 2006. I was frustrated it [the World Cup] hadnt gone well and I sunk into myself a bit and got the hump. It was hard to play for England for a while. At Chelsea I felt at home again pretty soon, but with England it took me longer to get my confidence back. I was getting a bit of stick at the time, which didnt help."
Here is the thing. Lampard is a prominent figure among a generation of English players who have performed extremely well at a high level of football for more than a decade. He does it week in, week out, barely missing a game, plundering 20 goals from midfield just about every season. For all that Britains footballers have been cast in an unflattering light by the heroics of our Olympians this summer, it is surely a little unfair for the court of public opinion to deem them failures based on what happens in international tournaments that come not at the peak of a four-year cycle but at the end of a gruelling season at club level.
"I suppose the World Cup is the nearest we get to that Olympic feeling of having to perform at the top level every four years," he says. "Its different for everyone, but when youve played a long season, youre not likely to be at your freshest. As for whether its fair or not, its just the reality. You get judged at these huge competitions. Ive been lucky enough to play in two World Cups, but neither of them have gone that well for me or the team.
"I understand the reaction. Its just the way it is. Theres a lot of rivalry between clubs in modern-day football. If you play for Chelsea, there are going to be fans of other clubs who dont like you. It has just become such a bit part in all our lives and I think theres been a cultural change where people associate with their team so much that it can send their opinion in a very strong direction. But I dont think its for a footballer to try to fight that battle because it would come across wrong, wouldnt it?" It probably would: "Lay off footballers, says multimillionaire Chelsea star." There are millions, he knows, who would gladly swap places with him, even if he would be entitled to remind them that he did not get where he is through sheer luck or pure talent.
"I know Im lucky," he says. "Ive got a very happy life, I live in London, I drive to training at nine in the morning and Im back some days by two.
"I dont know how people look at me. I think if you try to behave right on and off the pitch and keep trying to do the right things, people can identify with that. If you keep your head down and try to get on with your job the best you can, then maybe in the long term people will say You know what? Fair enough, he had a good career over a long period of time."
And far from squandering his talent, as the lazy characterisation of the English footballer dictates, Frank Lampard Jr is the embodiment, like many of those Olympians, of commitment and dedication.