FRANK LAMPARD remains to be convinced that Sheffield United’s persistence with their unique brand of football will work in the Premier League. But he’s damned impressed.
“I saw it coming,” he said after the Blades recovered from a 2-0 half-time deficit to claim a well earned point in a sensational recovery.
United gift-wrapped Chelsea’s lead through schoolboy errors from three normally solid performers. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson and centre-backs Jack O’Connell and John Egan. But Lampard had done his homework and feared a reaction once United boss Chris Wilder had put his side straight. “The warning signs were there in my opinion,” he added, “and we didn’t react to that on the pitch.”
Still a rookie as far as management is concerned, the former England international midfielder [106 caps] who won 13 trophies with Chelsea as a player during the club’s golden era, went into the encounter knowing what to expect.
“I was hugely impressed with them last season, their style of play, formation and style,” said the 41-year-old. “The job Chris has done there can't be underestimated and I don't think it is. I think the recognition he has got is very well deserved.
“To take that club from where he has, with the style and identity that he has. He is a man that feels deeply about the club. I felt that when I went to Sheffield United last year and I was on the line next to him.”
But when asked before the meeting whether Wilder’s persistence with the system which has seen the Blades rise from League One to the Premier League in three seasons, will come unstuck among football’s elite, Lampard sounded less sure.
“I don't know. Certainly, you have to give them credit where it is due. What I would say about Chris is that it is something we haven't seen before. There's something nice being a leader rather than a follower and I think that caught the eye in the Championship last year and caught a lot of teams cold.
“I enjoyed the tactical battle going up against them. That's something to applaud, there's a lot of threats against you. You have to work out how you damage them. In terms of the Premier League, we'll see. Whether they adapt slightly, or how quickly teams will be able adapt to their style. But watching their first games, there's not just a tactical edge to their game. There's also a physical and spirit edge to their team which I like.
“That maybe comes from trusting in the players that got them up. I like the style and the way they have gone ‘there you go, prove yourselves in the Premier League’. They have not let people down.”
Lampard is an articulate, confident and likeable character, wise enough to respect the very different paths which have led to the two men arriving as first-time Premier League managers.
Wilder has done it the hard way over 18 years of toil from non-league with Alfreton and Halifax and through the pyramid. It’s hard to argue against claims that Lampard’s short, sugar-coated managerial career was born not with the aid of forceps, but a large silver spoon.
Parachuted into Derby County, a well-heeled Championship club, and just a season later handed the tiller of one of the Premier League’s elite. Without any corroborating evidence, decisions based on a huge dollop of sentiment, where Chelsea are concerned, and an overly generous splash of optimism.
Nevertheless, proof of the pudding is in the eating. A man with a huge reputation as a player, and silverware to match, he is the darling of Stamford Bridge. What ‘Lamps’ did for The Blues on the pitch for 13 years, the club’s record goalscorer and a driving force behind a Champions League, Europa League, three Premier League, four FA Cup and two League Cup titles, has earned enough breathing space from supporters in a bid to succeed.
More than would be afforded to any outsider whatever the name or experience. Whether club owner Roman Abramovich, who made Lampard his 14th managerial appointment of a 16-year reign, sees it that way is another matter.
Away from Stamford Bridge many onlookers are waiting for Lampard to fall off the the gold-encrusted pedestal on which he sits thanks to an illustrious playing career. But there is every reason to believe that given time he may buck the trend and remain at Stamford Bridge, the club he loves, for many years.
Having played under a host of big name bosses, Jose Mourinho, Antonio Conte, and Gus Hiddink to name three, but with no managerial experience himself, he did a fine job at Pride Park. Derby went within 90 minutes of reaching the top flight, beaten in the play-off final by Aston Villa.
Now, a two-window transfer ban imposed by FIFA on Chelsea, punishment for breaching rules regarding the signing of under-18s from abroad, and Lampard is putting the emphasis on young talent which Chelsea have in abundance but hasn’t been able to find a path into a money-laden first team of super stars. A project welcomed by the majority of Chelsea fans which nevertheless may take some time to cement.
Wilder and United, meanwhile, have their own, possibly even bigger challenges. Judging by what was demonstrated during the second half in west London, they are more than capable of meeting them with a little more belief from the off.