Chelsea must allow Lampard to make painless departure
There is a video clip doing the rounds on the web of a fans' forum at West Ham in 1996 in which Harry Redknapp is confronted by an outspoken, possibly inebriated, supporter who criticises him for favouring Frank Lampard, then just 17, while allowing two other youth-team prospects – Scott Canham and Matt Holland – to leave.
Lampard, puppyish and fresh of face, looks on mortified while his uncle goes on the attack. "I'll tell you with no shadow of doubt, there will be no comparison [between those two players] and what Frank Lampard achieves," Redknapp says. "He's got everything needed to become a top-class midfield player. His attitude is first class, he's got strength, he can play, he can pass it and he can score goals."
Sixteen years on, Redknapp's judgement is uncannily prescient. Lampard did go right to the top, although not with West Ham. On Holland – "I think he may bounce back," Redknapp says in 1996, "he's a decent player" – he was right too. Canham, who turned down a two-year deal at West Ham, slipped down the leagues and finished at Thurrock in 2007. As for the fan in the audience, perhaps he is still casting a critical eye over West Ham reserve games.
The start of Lampard's career was blighted by the strange manner in which the West Ham support took against him, a misjudgement not just confined to the man at the fans' forum. It is a pity that the end of his time at Chelsea is threatening to get nasty too. Not with the supporters, but with the club itself.
Watch Harry Redknapp talk about Frank Lampard in 1996
Lampard, with 193 goals for the club and a starring role in the most successful period of Chelsea's history, is in his last season. That much is certain, in spite of reports yesterday about the possibility of him staying. The trouble is that his impending departure is threatening to turn into a public relations battle between player and club over where the fault lies.
Chelsea have decided not to give him a new contract and have explained in private to Lampard their reasons for doing so. Lampard is understood to have agreed a deal in principle with Los Angeles Galaxy. In many ways it should be that simple. But this is Chelsea, where nothing is.
The decision not to renew Lampard's contract is one that inevitably divides opinion. He will be 35 in June and his goals against Everton last week, as well as his penalty against Southampton on Saturday, have renewed the fervour that he has at least another good year in him. That may well be the case; but there is also a strong argument for saying that this summer, with the natural break in his contract, is as good a time as any for the club to go in a new direction.
Chelsea have to hand the baton on to a new generation at some point, and they have invested heavily in those players. Lampard has always been among their top earners, rightly so, but there is a good argument for not extending his contract any further. The notion that he has offered to play for less is, one is reliably informed, not the case. The club cannot keep adding to their wage bill if they are seriously to comply with Uefa financial fair play.
Every goal Lampard scores, from now to the end of the season, in pursuit of Bobby Tambling's club record of 202 will inevitably provoke more disbelief from certain quarters that he is being allowed to leave. The supporters are already disenchanted with the club's current choice of Rafa Benitez as manager and Lampard's future has further pricked that sense they have of Roman Abramovich's indifference to their opinions.
It is a personal view that the summer is a good time for Lampard to go. There is no guarantee the club will find another 20-goals-a-season midfielder but that was always likely to be the case. Great players are very rarely replaced like-for-like. Manchester United never found a new Roy Keane; instead Cristiano Ronaldo came to the fore. A different kind of player, in a different position, but with the same galvanising effect. At 35, Lampard will still be young enough to gain one more lucrative contract elsewhere.
Change is hard. Especially at a club where Lampard has been a constant through the good times and the bad of the Abramovich era. Explaining change has not been a strength at Chelsea. The club could do a lot worse than clear up the reasons, as dispassionately as possible, why they are not renewing Lampard's contract. Not everyone will agree but it might take the sting out of the situation.
Lampard's departure should not end with bitterness on both sides. His name will be cherished by the fans for years to come. He might well manage the side. He may even get a statue on the forecourt one day, like Peter Osgood. It would be a dreadful shame if when he bids farewell to Stamford Bridge in the last home game of the season on 19 May there is tension in the air.
Letting go of a club great is never simple. The decision is never easy but it has to happen and the nature of the personalities involved means that it can get unpleasant on both sides. Bob Paisley had to ask Bill Shankly to stop turning up at Liverpool training sessions. The statues to Bobby Moore on Green Street and Wembley were only erected after he was dead. For many years the captain on England's greatest day earned his trade picking up scraps of media work.
Thankfully for Lampard's generation, the wages have been so great that there are no fears about paying the mortgage. All that is at risk of being bruised are the egos and both sides will surely come to regret it if this does not turn out to be an amicable farewell.