Too old or still important?

Frank Lampard still has a lot left in him.-AP

All this at the time when nearby at Chelsea, the talk was all about the club getting rid of Frank Lampard at the end of this season, when he will be just short of 35. This at a time when, the much capped, England International midfielder seems as effective as ever, even if some of his pace has inevitably gone. By Brian Glanville.

Recently, on successive Saturdays, I was at Craven Cottage to watch Fulham draw first with Blackpool and then with Wigan. The first, being a Cup tie, the second, a Premiership match. In each of them, the Fulham goal was scored in dynamic style by the 35-year-old Greek international Giorgos Karagounis. The first of them was a breathlessly late equaliser from a superb right-footed half volley; the second from outside the penalty box, another right-footer, which zoomed in irresistibly off the post to put his team ahead; though Wigan would recover.

All this at the time when nearby at Chelsea, the talk was all about the club getting rid of Frank Lampard at the end of this season, when he will be just short of 35. This at a time when, the much capped, England International midfielder seems as effective as ever, even if some of his pace has inevitably gone.

The Chelsea fans have made no secret of their displeasure about his going. They raise banners and they sing choruses. In the recent 4-0 win against Stoke where so few teams prevail, Lampard was in excellent all-round form, and scored one of the goals from the penalty spot.

So why is he going seemingly beyond appeal? Why does the club, which refuses to renew his contract, implacably declare that go he must, whatever his current form and the devotion of his fans? The buck inevitably stops with the club’s billionaire Russian oligarch owner Roman Abramovich. He plainly wants to rebuild the side with gifted younger players, however costly, and indeed had already reinforced with such elements when in the summer the club bought Eden Hazard, the Belgian, and the Brazilian Oscar.

Despite which Chelsea’s form has been as erratic and unpredictable as it has been throughout their history. A devastating 8-0 home win against hapless Aston Villa, yet a humiliating 1-0 home defeat by bottom of the table Queens Park Rangers, and defeat at home by Swansea City. This thanks to a couple of appalling errors by the usually reliable Serbian international defender Branislav Ivanovic.

Some fans decided to boycott matches after that disaster, calling for the dismissal of Rafa Benitez, the Spanish manager brought in to replace another fans hero Roberto Di Matteo under whose aegis of course the team so surprisingly, won the last European Champions League. At Chelsea managers come and go endlessly.

Winning is not enough for Abramovich; winning ugly as Chelsea arguably did when conquering the Champions League is almost a contradiction in terms. He, however, with his manifestly scant knowledge of football, has bought at least two disastrous players at colossal prices.

The once outstanding Ukrainian centre forward Andrei Shevchenko cost GBP30 million, vast wages, yet was lamentably past his best. Fernando Torres cost GBP20 million more than that and has been a pitiful figure at The Bridge. Yet, woe to the manager who does not pick him.

One of Chelsea’s most spectacular recent victories was the 8-0 annihilation of a young Aston Villa team at The Bridge. Villa, with one salient exception, when they thrashed Liverpool at Anfield have fared wretchedly with a team whose average age is about 22 and would be still less without its veteran goalkeeper. Gabriel Agbonlahor, a talented attacker, has recently protested that 22 is not so young an average age, but the want of experience has been all too plain in recent weeks.

In the annals of British football there have been two notable attempts to win with kids, the so called Buckley Babes of Wolves just before World War II, and the Busby Babes of Manchester United just after it.

Major Frank Buckley’s young Wolves, whose 1939 FA Cup semifinal team against Grimsby featured a 16-year-old Jimmy Mullen, later to become a major star, at outside left. The team which opposed unfancied Portsmouth in the 1939 Wembley final was full of players in their early 20s.

Yet how significant it was that when the autograph book which all players had to sign went to the Portsmouth dressing room, their players saw that the signatures of the Wolves team were illegible squiggles, denoting extreme nervousness. This delighted the Portsmouth players, who went out confidently to win 4-1.

Busby’s immediate post war teams were full of young talent from Duncan Edwards to Bobby Charlton. When once I asked him about it after an extraordinary 6-5 win at Chelsea he replied, “if you won’t put them in you can’t know what you’ve got.”

As against that, the bottom had fallen out of the Danish international team, when the elegant John Hansen, a celebrated inside-left with Denmark, Juventus and Lazio, and other stars took off for professionalism abroad after the fascinating 1948 Olympic tournament. The remaining younger players sank rather than swam and it took a good many years before Danish football blossomed again.