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Frank Lampard’s move to NYCFC might be a money grab, or one last chance to put some shine on his legacy


Photograph by Graham Hughes

Photograph by Graham Hughes

When Frank Lampard appeared on the ITV quiz show Play to the Whistle in April, the footballer (who featured 429 times for Chelsea) was introduced as “Manchester City legend Frank Lampard.” It would have been an amusing gaffe if not for the expression of horror that crept over Lampard’s face, the look of a man staring into the mirror of his own career and realizing that the person looking back at him was older, slower, and wearing a lighter shade of blue than he remembered.

One wonders if, in that moment, Lampard regretted his decision to become a bit player in Manchester City’s quixotic quest to grind out another Premier League title with an aging squad. The highlight of Lampard’s season, as far as I could tell, was his decision to not celebrate after scoring a vintage Lampard goal against Chelsea in September. (Late run into the box? Check. Side-footed finish? Check.) After the ball snuck past Thibaut Courtois, Lampard held one arm out, just under shoulder height, to shield himself from an overeager David Silva. Lampard’s face remained as joyless as a Renaissance portrait, a look—I hope—he practiced in the mirror before the match to capture the antiquated essence of propriety that England’s football pundits expect of England’s footballers.

That one goal described Lampard’s entire season with City, a yearlong Premier League victory lap where he was forbidden from celebrating, an unneeded coda tacked onto an otherwise pitch-perfect song.

Now the 36-year-old Chelsea legend approaches the next (and presumably final) phase of his playing career with New York City FC in Major League Soccer. Three thousand miles away from the English public’s glare, Lampard will be free again to celebrate with a team that has not had much to celebrate about in its first season in MLS.

But Lampard’s arrival in New York, which should have been a moment of jubilation for the city and for the club, will be an awkward affair. Originally scheduled to arrive in online casino January after a half-season loan with parent club Man City, news trickled out this past winter that Lampard had not yet signed a contract with MLS, despite a summer signing ceremony indicating otherwise, and his apparent “loan” to City was, in fact, not a loan at all.

After some unpleasant press on both sides of the Atlantic, Lampard is finally set to make his NYCFC debut. Paradoxically, it’s a situation that demands that he—a player with nothing left to prove—prove himself again. His critics will be watching and waiting, hoping to catch Lampard in a moment of inattention or indifference on the field, anything to support their conclusion that the English star is more interested in his fat paycheck than NYCFC’s performance on the field.

In interviews, Lampard has said all the right things about his decision to leave England and come to MLS, ready to “be part of a new football club in one of the best cities in the world.” I hoped to get underneath the spin, but NYCFC declined to make Lampard available for an interview. So I decided to look into Lampard’s past, purchasing his autobiography Totally Frank (available used on Amazon.com for $3.00) to try and decipher his future.

In the book, I found a player burdened with self-imposed expectations. Lampard’s father, Frank Lampard Sr.—himself an England international—possessed a quiet intensity that he passed onto his son. Never one to yell, Lampard Sr. merely had to hint at disappointment to prompt his son to train harder. “He had a great knack of suggesting that if I didn’t do [extra workouts] then bad things would happen,” recalled Lampard in Totally Frank.

Lampard brought his father’s voice, a nagging sense that he could always be fitter, faster, and sharper, to his first club, West Ham. “Every time I looked, he’d be out there training. He’d be doing doggies, sprints, dribbling the ball in and out of cones. And shooting. Every single day. Without fail,” said his first manager, Harry Redknapp (Frank’s uncle, to boot).

Despite his discipline, the young Lampard still had to shrug off charges of nepotism. In a 1996 West Ham supporters’ Q&A session, a disgruntled Hammers fan asked Redknapp why he insisted on playing the young midfielder. Unflappable as ever, Redknapp fired back like a blunt hammer, “I’m telling you now, and I didn’t want to say this in front of him, but he will go right to the very top. He’s got everything needed to become a top-class midfield player.”

For a man who has often been wrong, Redknapp got that one right, leaving a sheepish looking Frank Lampard blushing beside him. Lampard featured 148 times for West Ham before booking an £11 million transfer to Chelsea in 2001 where he would paint his legacy in deep Chelsea blue. There, Lampard won just about everything a player can win in club football: three Premier League titles, four FA Cup trophies, and an elusive Champions League title in 2012, becoming Chelsea’s all-time leading goal scorer with 211 strikes in all competitions.

“He’ll have a statue where Peter Osgood is, on the side of the stadium,” said José Mourinho in 2014. “He’s one of the biggest players for this club.”

When asked how Lampard did it, just about everyone who has ever spoken about him says the same thing: his self-imposed work ethic. Mourinho said in 2008 that Lampard, though introverted, was “the best professional I have ever worked with.” Long time Chelsea teammate John Terry told the Independent in 2014, “I have never come across someone who works as hard as [Lampard] does to improve his game.”

There’s no doubt that Lampard will bring his drive to NYCFC. The team already features Spanish star David Villa and, soon, Andrea Pirlo. While the team could still use a center back or two, a trio of Lampard, Pirlo, and Villa will possess the attacking panache to rival the best teams in MLS.

With City Football Group bankrolling the team, it’s possible that Lampard could lift the MLS Cup trophy if he sticks around New York for a few seasons. Hopefully, he’ll be able to celebrate this time around, writing the final chapter to his career in NYCFC’s sky blue.

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