Clad in a garish black and yellow kit and perched atop the strong frame of Petr Cech, Frank Lampard soaked up the Birmingham sunlight, basking in victory. This was no ordinary win. For Lampard, 34 years old and eighteen months removed from being pointedly informed he was surplus to requirements by the manager, had scored both goals in a 2-1 triumph, essentially securing Chelsea's place in the Champions League for the 2013/14 season.
Oh, and he'd become the club's all time scoring leader in the process.
Life could have been easy for Frank Lampard . The son of a top flight footballer, he had it all. Talent, smarts, money. The elder Frank had two FA Cups in a lengthy career with West Ham United. Lampard junior didn't need to work particularly hard to enjoy the good life.
But no matter how talented one happens to be, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to make it to the very top. Frank is now notorious for his incredible work ethic, and he inherited that from his father. The greatest gift Lampard senior passed down to his son was not raw ability or money but the constant drive to better himself. The younger Lampard had the raw ability to be a good footballer without much effort. He was never going to be a great one without it.
From the beginning, many doubted his ability. A now-infamous Q&A session saw a West Ham supporter take manager Harry Redknapp to task for playing the then-teenager Lampard ahead of such luminaries as Matt Holland and Scott Canham, implying that the only possible reason that the midfielder — Redknapp's nephew — was still with the club was nepotism.
Redknapp's reaction was incredulous, indignant, and absolutely correct. The boy, he asserted, would go 'right to the very top.'
187 appearances and 39 goals later, one might have expected that Lampard would have been considered a proven commodity, but the doubts continued even after Claudio Ranieri paid £11 million for him in June 2001. He was described (and this wasn't an unpopular opinion) as 'the most overrated player in England' and his accomplishments were questioned, even by fans of his new team.
It didn't take the youngster long to prove he belonged at Stamford Bridge. But after two seasons, 100 appearances, and 15 goals, it would have been blasphemy to thank that Lampard would someday be mentioned in the same breath as Chelsea's greatest goalscorer.
Bobby Tambling is a Chelsea legend. Making his debut at the tender age of 17, he scored the winner against West Bromwich Albion, and the departure of Jimmy Greaves two seasons later would give the striker a chance to blossom. Blossom he did.
Over the course of twelve seasons, Tambling made 370 appearances for the club, captaining them to promotion from League Two in the 1962-63 season and League Cup glory in 1965. Injuries, combined with the emergence of Peter Osgood, five years younger and a similarly gifted centre forward, would eventually push Tambling across London to Selhurst Park, but not before he'd amassed 202 goals in a Chelsea kit.
The last two generations of Blues supporters never experienced Tambling in the same way as our predecessors. How could we have? Players in the here and now — especially the club's great talents — are expected to shape the future, to excite, to allow us to dream of bigger and better things. For those unfortunate enough not to see them play, the feats achieved by men of Tambling's standing lie in the deep past, commanding respect without ever summoning anything truly visceral.
But what respect! Chelsea have been blessed with a slew of great strikers throughout their history, and only Kerry Dixon has ever coming close to challenging Tambling's record. The King of Stamford Bridge ended up more than half-century behind the man he replaced in the Blues lineup. Didier Drogba, one of standout players of his generation, didn't fare much better. If the club's stable of centre forwards couldn't break Tambling's record, what hope did a midfielder have?
The conventional answer would be 'none'. It would take a man who utterly defied convention to shake things up.
Sixty minutes had gone by at Villa Park, and Chelsea needed a miracle. Two, actually. They'd already been handed a lifeline thanks to Christian Benteke going in high on John Terry and earning himself a second yellow card, but wasn't much to go on. Before being dismissed, the striker had put the hosts 1-0 up, and to compound the misery Ramires had been sent off late in the first half.
In order to be sure of securing the dubious but necessary honour of a top four finish, three points were required. Despite the need for urgency, goals did not look forthcoming. Juan Mata was in possession on the right. Eden Hazard was available and was dutifully (is Mata ever not dutiful?) fed. The Belgian, the implausible heir to Jose Bosingwa's number 17, drove across the top of the box. Running with him, offering for the ball, was a man twelve years his senior: Frank Lampard.
Hazard played the obvious pass, then cut inside for the return, spotting that Villa's young back line would get sucked out of position. But Lampard didn't need the help. A touch — not a particularly great one, mind, as it took him backwards — shifted the ball to his left foot and shot.
It was not an easy chance. His run was parallel to the goalline, and for most players, even the best ones, taking shot from such a position would result in a sliced effort well wide. But Lampard has always been able to make the most of what's given to him, and he twisted his hips brilliantly to keep the strike on target.
The ball nicked off Nathan Baker, flew past Brad Guzan and swerved into the back of the net, striking about two thirds of the way up. Tambling had been equalled. And Chelsea had new life.
Lampard's critics, and, thanks to a combination of club allegiances and pure jealousy, there are many, have long contended that the midfielder's impressive goal tally is down to penalties and deflected shots, and it's easy to portray his 202nd goal as (pejoratively) typifying his career. Ignoring the obvious contention that a deflected goal is, by definition, just as valuable as a pure one, accusing Lampard of being a master of freakish deflections betrays a complete lack of understanding of his game. And physics.
Jose Mourinho would be able to explain the Lampard phenomenon to the doubters, but only after he'd had a good laugh at their expense. The impact that the Portuguese manager has had on Lampard's career dwarfs even that of Claudio Ranieri, the man who brought him to Stamford Bridge in the first place.
Mourinho had plenty of faith in his young charge, and he wasn't afraid to express it. But Lampard's success under his new manager wasn't just down to boosted confidence. The two complemented each other perfectly. Mourinho knew how to use Lampard — despite an influx of big-money signings thanks to Roman Abramovich's arrival, it was the three-year veteran who would prove to be the key to unlocking the Premier League.
The Special One, still the greatest manager in club history, has always focused on two major tactical concerns. His attention to transitions is well known, but in his time at Chelsea he also leaned heavily on multi-role (as opposed to merely versatile) players. And Lampard was the most important. His unique skillset allowed Mourinho's 4-3-3 to overload the opposition without losing anything going forward — despite dropping a striker.
The imagination of his detractors notwithstanding, Lampard's typical goal is not a deflected strike from range. Strikes from outside the box, deflected or not, are a midfielder's goal. He can score them quite happily, of course, but that's only a fraction of his game.
If there is such a thing as a quintessential Lampard, goal, it would be from fairly close range after a late run into the box, leaving the goalkeeper and defenders confounded as to just how he got there. Midfielders don't rely on that sort of goals, and the key to understanding what makes Lampard special is the fact that he's not just a midfielder. He's much more interesting than that.
Lampard is a poacher.
There's a certain type of forward who use sheer physical power to destroy defenses. They can create space near goal by demolishing any structure nearby, like a cat amongst the pigeons. These are the pure centre forwards, the Drogbas of the world. There's a class of forward who knows how to manipulate the defence, to move them around and explode into space.
And then there's the poacher, who seems to be doing nothing until they turn up just where the opposition doesn't want them. Instead of moving players around, the poacher waits for them to open up space themselves and pounces. Patience plus the ability to read a game and understand just when and where to strike are paramount for poachers, but they make goals look extremely easy.
Mourinho's key insight was recognising that he had a very good central midfielder who could also function simultaneously as a poacher, essentially using him as two players at once. Lampard's modus operandi is to make late runs after the attack is already well developed and the defenders are set, appearing virtually out of nowhere to score with a tap-in. For the opposition, a poacher can be utterly infuriating. It's much worse when they also drop back into midfield and help control the game.
Lampard's poaching ability adds to his tally of penalties and goals from range, which already produced fairly formidable numbers — he had a 15-goal season in the season before his mentor arrived, after all. But the transformation from Lampard to Super Frank came on the Portuguese's watch, and his peak coincides with the years in which Chelsea stuck with the 4-3-3, culminating with a ridiculous 27-goal haul under Carlo Ancelotti in 2009-10.
When he declared Lampard the best midfielder in the world, Mourinho was hardly exaggerating. Lampard's always been a much better 'pure' midfielder than he gets credit for, even as he approaches the twilight of his career. His performances after being forced into the double pivot for the Champions League run last season were exquisite, especially against Barcelona, whom he put to shame with the two best passes of the tie. He's superb at playing quick, long switches, holds his position well when asked and can also slow things down and control the tempo. When you couple his 'traditional' midfield ability with the sort of skill that allows him reach double digit goals in every season for a full decade, it's difficult to understand how more people don't see it too.
A midfielder doesn't score 271 goals for club and country without being a unique talent, working extraordinarily hard, and being put in a position to succeed. Mourinho was the one who opened the door.
88 minutes in. Chelsea and Villa were still deadlocked at 1-1, partially thanks to a bizarre goalline scramble that saw Demba Ba denied what probably should have been the go-ahead goal.They were also down John Terry, who'd been stretchered off with an ankle injury ten minutes previously.
But there was still hope. The hosts simply could not deal with Hazard, who was on the ball on the left flank. The exhausted duo of Ashley Westwood and Eric Lichaj stared back at him, almost huddling together for protection.
Ashley Cole peeled away, opening up a pass. Hazard played the ball and moved, sneaking behind Lichaj before the right back can react. Lampard, theoretically marshalled by Fabian Delph, pulled up. All eyes were on Juan Mata, who's in perfect position for a cutback. With Lampard slowing down, Delph stops.
It was a fatal mistake.
Nathan Baker had been pulled towards the back post by Fernando Torres' run, and with Delph's attention briefly elsewhere, Lampard exploded into the gap between the centre backs. Hazard did his job; an easy pass to the centre. It was met by a poacher's finish, and suddenly, mercifully, the score was 2-1. And Chelsea had a new all-time scoring leader.
We always knew that number 203 would be an emotional moment, and we've been building towards the inevitable for months. But you really couldn't have asked for a better script. This wasn't a record set in a blowout, meaningful only because of a 43-year-old record. It was a living, breathing game, and Lampard made the difference while simultaneously achieving something incredible.
It felt right that Tambling was matched and then surpassed in one match. It felt right that Lampard, aware of the 71-year-old's failing health and wishing to demonstrate his respect, refused to show his emotion with a ridiculously ostentatious celebration. It felt right that he pointed skywards, dedicating the goal to his mother. It even felt right that he was wearing the armband when he scored, although few would have wished for Terry to have been parted with it via injury.
But mostly, it felt right because of what the goal meant. It was as though all the frustration of a long and unhappy season were let go with one three-yard finish. All year long, the supporters have been grinning and bearing it, toughing it out until next year while trying not to acknowledge the fact that it was entirely possible that the Blues would falter in their quest to beat out Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
Lampard's brace matters not just because he now holds the all-time scoring record. It also marked the point at which we could relax after a traumatic season. Footballing life as we know it is no longer at stake. We can dream on next year again without a black cloud looming over our heads.
In making Chelsea history, Frank Lampard gave us back our future.