When the blame has been apportioned in the past for England's poor performances, Frank Lampard has more often than not chosen to jut out his jaw, stare down the questioner and stand his ground.
So when you hear him say that he and Steven Gerrard can shoulder most of the blame for the team's failure to qualify for Euro 2008 then there must have been a sea-change in the mentality of this team.
That was what Lampard conceded yesterday as England prepare for their third 2010 World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan on Saturday at Wembley, a stadium in which England fans have often booed the Chelsea man over the last year. If anything it seemed Lampard might even have been a little hard on himself with this latest verdict but they do say that the first step in therapy is admitting you have a problem. And everyone knows that when it comes to occupying the same central midfield, then Lampard and Gerrard do have a problem. "If we are both honest, and Stevie is a very honest man in the way he speaks about things, we both haven't played as well for England as we have for our clubs particularly over the last two seasons," Lampard said. "I think if we had done we probably would have qualified for the Euros but we haven't. That's the case whether we've played together or separately. We have to try and make it work if we're asked to play together.
"I'd like to think it can work. I don't think we are stupid players and I don't think we are egotistical. People might think that from the outside sometimes but it's certainly not the truth. We both care passionately about playing for our country, and we both want to play well for our country. It is something that should work." It certainly seems that the most dysfunctional double-act in British public life since Tony Blair left the stage to Gordon Brown is about to be reprised on Saturday in the centre of midfield for the first time under Fabio Capello. The England manager has started the pair in the same team before – against the United States and the Czech Republic – but with Gerrard out on the left or behind the strikers. Like every one of his predecessors, Capello thinks he can make it work and he has the boldness of a manager coming off a famous victory.
The Italian plans to play the pair together in a training ground match today, although what secrets that will unlock is debatable. Gerrard is the more natural defensive player of the two – he did the holding job alongside Jamie Redknapp when he first broke into the Liverpool team – although these days there are two players who do that job in Rafael Benitez's formation and neither of them is Gerrard. Under Sven Goran Eriksson the two players would famously be left to work it out between themselves who defended and who attacked and you have to hope that Capello has a better plan than that.
Lampard said that against Croatia in September alongside Gareth Barry he was "asked to hold" by Capello meaning that one of his best games in an England shirt was played without the freedom that he is afforded with Chelsea. He did not have a theory on why he and Gerrard had not worked in the past. "It's not just being big-headed but from what we've done for our clubs and the way we play I'd like to think we could have qualified," he said. "We are both big enough and quite humble but as individuals we would both say that. It's something to work on and for the manager to decide the best way forward. We have a very good relationship. There's no rivalry."
Barry can consider himself very unlucky if he makes way for the re-uniting of Lampard and Gerrard in central midfield on Saturday, especially as the only justification for this would seem to be the Aston Villa man's less-than-impressive performance at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. "I was asked to play in a pretty disciplined way [against Croatia]," Lampard said. "I think it's pretty obvious when you play with Theo Walcott, Joe Cole and two strikers and you go to a place like Croatia where they can knock the ball about, if you leave Gareth Barry on his own in midfield you are going to get exposed."
The problem of Gerrard and Lampard's incompatibility has become such an institution that it is satirised in the television show Headcases, billed as the digital comedy successor to Spitting Image, which suffers from just not being very funny. "I've not seen it," Lampard said. "Would I want to? To be honest, I'll be straight with you, it's been a while [since the partnership has worked]. There were games in the World Cup qualifying campaign a couple of years ago when we were on a good run. I know you're going to laugh but Wales [October 2004] and Northern Ireland [March 2005]. I know they were looked at as comfortable games but they were games when we were playing well."
It will be the 21st time Gerrard and Lampard have played together in the centre of an England midfield although to many who follow the team it will seem like a lot more. "We'll be doing a double training session [today] and there will be a lot of work put into these things," Lampard said. "Maybe it is only a matter of time now, although let's hope it's not too long because we are not getting any younger."
Central issue: How Lampard and Gerrard have performed for England
Lampard and Gerrard have started in the same England team on 38 occasions: P38/W23/D10/L5
They have played as the central pair in a midfield four 20 times: P20/W13/D5/L2
Lampard shines without Gerrard:
10 Sept 08, Croatia (a), World Cup qualifier, Won 4-1
Gerrard's groin operation gave Lampard the chance to impress in Zagreb as Theo Walcott stole the headlines with a hat-trick in England's finest display for the best part of a decade. The Chelsea man dictated play alongside Gareth Barry as England gained revenge on Slaven Bilic's team for their double over them in qualifying for the European Championship. Lampard denied the dangerous Luka Modric space to work and even got forward to have a goal disallowed in the second half. The Chelsea man was involved in a wonderful passing move with Emile Heskey and Wayne Rooney to provide Walcott's second.
Gerrard shines without Lampard:
28 March 07, Andorra (a), Euro 2008 qualifier, W 3-0
Lampard was missing with a broken wrist, leaving Gerrard as one of the few England players to emerge with any credit from a performance that saw supporters abuse the players as they trudged off at the break. Gerrard broke the deadlock on 53 minutes with a low shot from the edge of the area before finishing off some smart passing to make it 2-0 15 minutes from the end. Gerrard also had a hand in the third.
Lampard and Gerrard stink:
7 Oct 06, Macedonia (h), Euro 2008 qualifier, D 0-0
Both played the whole 90 minutes but failed to muster much as England dropped valuable points against the might of Macedonia ahead of the ill-fated trip to Croatia. Gerrard did manage a speculative shot before getting himself booked to earn a suspension for the Croatia game, while Lampard twice went close, visiting goalkeeper Jane Nikoloski denying him either side of half-time as England headed for a poor draw.