Frank Lampard reflects as England cap 93 beckons
He is the oldest man in the squad at 34 years and two months and, with 25 goals for England, just two behind David Platt as the country's leading international midfield goalscorer of all time. Frank Lampard has come a long way since, as a 17-year-old, he lay on a single bed in a hotel in Swansea wondering how to initiate a conversation with the man sharing the same room.
Yesterday, in the rather more salubrious five-star surroundings of the Grove Hotel, England's Hertfordshire base for now, Lampard offered up this unusual story of the start of his playing career. Tomorrow at Wembley will almost certainly be his 93rd England cap, but 17 years ago he was on loan at Swansea and sharing a room "in a hotel on an industrial estate" with fellow loanee Robbie Dennison.
Dennison was coming to the end of a very respectable career at Wolverhampton Wanderers and had won 18 caps for Northern Ireland. Lampard had been sent to Swansea by his uncle, Harry Redknapp, from West Ham's reserves to toughen him up for the first team. He still remembers it vividly.
"We had two single beds. He was 32 and I was 17, at opposite ends of our careers. I didn't really know what to say to him when I lay in bed. He had two kids and I wanted to go out at night! That grounding certainly helped me. That was the whole point of Harry sending me there.
"He left after a month; I stayed there for two. For some reason after a couple of weeks we got our own rooms. I don't know whether he requested it. I haven't been [in touch with Dennison] actually but it always sticks in my mind; that was character-building in itself, having to stay with an older man.
"My grounding came from my dad in football, he never let me get carried away with myself. Kept my feet grounded. Even though people look at footballers as being egos from the outside, behind the scenes that's exactly how I am. Grounded. That's what helped me going on to 34, hopefully more, playing for Chelsea and England."
Now Lampard is one of the old guard and the two goals he scored against Moldova on Friday put him one behind Bryan Robson and two behind Platt. He has more caps than either of those famous England midfielders. He has scored 11 goals in World Cup qualification games, more than any other England player in history. He is 13th on the overall England goalscorers' list.
It was 12 months ago that he was left out of the team by Fabio Capello for the Euro 2012 qualifier against Bulgaria, which signalled the end of his status as an automatic first-choice player for England. Since then, however, Jack Wilshere's long-term injury and the resurrection of Lampard's form at Chelsea post-Andre Villas-Boas have seen his fortunes shift again.
"I'm pleased I didn't bail out when I was getting stick. Because there can be easy routes, particularly when you get to 30: it seems like you're 'allowed' to retire from that age onwards. I was never interested in that. Whether I carry on playing one more game or 15, I'd like to think people will say, 'He was really proud to play for his country and put in a good contribution.' If they say that, I will be very happy.
"When I got injured in the summer [and missed Euro 2012], I never actually considered [retiring]. I haven't got it in me. I'm not saying I'll stay available to be picked forever because it becomes obvious at some stage. But it's not my thing. My dad has always been a quiet advocate of playing for your country and the fact you are a long time retired; while you feel you can contribute, do it.
"Even in those tough times, when I'd speak to Dad on the phone, if I'd had a tough game, or [was] getting stick, he was adamant on staying in the game because we are so privileged to be here. I didn't talk to him this summer as I knew the answer I'd have got: keep going."
Lampard regards highly Tom Cleverley, the latest new face in the England squad with an eye on a regular place in the team, and says that the younger players around the squad, including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Danny Welbeck, have made a difference to the mood.
"There is a connection between that good atmosphere at meal times and going on the pitch," he said. "The more we can improve that the better. The young players always have that free-spirited attitude, which is nice as well because when you have been there a long time – 'cynical' is not the right word, but you know the ups and downs of it."
There was one word of advice from the old pro which was not addressed to Cleverley or James Milner in particular but would apply to both. "One thing I will say about new young midfield players is that they have to put more pressure on themselves to score goals." It is one of the reasons why a succession of England managers have kept picking Lampard.