By Billy Allday
When Roman Abramovic fired Frank Lampard in early January, for the first time in his 17-year regime at Stamford Bridge, the oligarch publicly commented on his dismissal of a manager.
The owner, who seldom speaks out, preferring the shadows and a chequebook to conduct business, broke with tradition and offered a 110-word tribute to Chelsea’s greatest ever player and the Blues faithful most adored manager.
Clearly, Lampard and his sacking were different. The man known simply as Frank to the fans, their leader who thumped the crest after each game, built an emotional connection to the Chelsea supporters and began to change the culture of a club obsessed by money.
As ever, with gold gleaming before his eyes, Abramovic saw a dwindle in results as a cracking piggy-bank, with coins slipping out so rushed to buy a new one.
And so far with Chelsea unbeaten and a point off the Champions League spots, the replacement with Thomas Tuchel has been successful – statistically. Yet, this latest ride on the Chelsea managerial merry-go-round shows a darker side to Chelsea F.C.
With Abramovic as emperor, the people will never be the priority, but instead himself and his gold. And maybe this is another sign of the dark path our sport, perhaps our society too, is heading down. A path which demands express delivery of instant gratification and results headed by consumer culture. Lampard’s sacking and Tuchel’s replacement underlines the sad truth that we simply don’t have patience anymore.
In 2019, Lampard arrived back at the club which he led as a player to Champions League glory, at a time of testing flux.
Eden Hazard, arguably Chelsea’s best player of the decade, had just been sold, while the transfer embargo severely restricted any personnel movement to replace him and an aging squad.
However, Lampard did, in part through necessity, what no Chelsea manager had dared to do under Abramovic: rely on and invest in youth. Over the course of last season, Mason Mount, Reece James and Tammy Abraham, all graduates from the youth academy have flourished.
It was the opportunities given to them by Lampard, as well as his man-management – an experienced hand on the shoulder – that turned them into productive starters in the Premier League.
Given the speed with which results are demanded in the modern day, it is easy to forget that this inexperienced and inexpensive side qualified for the Champions League and reached the F.A. Cup Final.
Yet just as important as the results was the culture change at the club that came with Chelsea’s revival of youth, with places in the starting XI no longer guaranteed and competition eradicating complacency.
This wasn’t just a publicity-grabbing, opening press conference stock cliché ‘culture change’, but one that was clearly visible on the pitch with Lampard’s players energetic running, both pressing and tracking-back, becoming a feature of the new Chelsea.
Along with his cult status at the club, Lampard’s approach endeared every Chelsea fan as every player on the pitch now wanted to play for their club.
Abramovic is lucky he sacked Chelsea’s son during a global pandemic, otherwise, even from the cushy director’s box, his ears would have been stung from the undoubtedly vigorously articulated fans’ opinion of his decision.
Therein lies the true wound left by Lampard’s sacking: the feeling that it was the fans who lost out the most.
Since early January, the claims that his dismissal were inevitable, as just another failed club legend whose return went up in flames to add to the list, have been thrown about.
The culture of throwing legends in at the deep end, with no training, and leaving them to drown, with their ‘legacy’ as their only float does need to stop, but it does not seem fair to assign Frank Lampard to that category.
As proven from his first season success at the helm, Lampard had the tactics and managerial nous to lead a Champions League quality side. Although his only previous management foray was in the Championship, leading Derby to the playoffs, we too easily forget the managers and tacticians that Lampard honed his craft under; Ranieri, Mourinho, Hiddink, Ancelotti to name but a few.
Ultimately what Lampard lacked was experience of organisational faculty as the face of a multi-billion business, a skill ruthlessly crucial at a club run like Chelsea.
After the transfer embargo was lifted, Chelsea reverted to type, bringing in the latest European talents in Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, along with the commercial benefits this would likely entail.
Crucially, this jarred with the culture Lampard had formed at Chelsea which rewarded players with starts on meritorious effort rather than price tag.
Signings Lampard explicitly didn’t want or sanction, forced on him from upstairs, eroded his control as he was made to shoehorn the £90 million Havertz into a team that played better without him.
Lampard’s sacking is not another nail in the coffin of club legend managers, rather a warning that the experiment should never be repeated at a club whose priority is sales over supporters.
Wining five games on the bounce and only conceding once since his arrival, Tuchel has brought Chelsea back to winning ways.
Yet the German is known for his fractious relationship with ownerships. Doesn’t that sound like a cocktail, shaken, sampled, soured and ultimately spat out many times before at Stamford Bridge? Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri’s falls from Premier League and Europa League winning grace come to mind.
Ultimately, all Chelsea is to Abramovic is a stock to invest in and reap its financial rewards. Whoever best guards his investment with results, instead of a leader inspiring fans or creating a changing the culture for the better, will sit on the throne until the next cracks appear. At a job like Chelsea, every manager will always be interim with Abramovic running the show, and money running him
Image: Nathan Congleton via Creative Commons