Some weeks back, I asked readers of my Times blog how much they hated Frank Lampard. The post still holds the comments record within the Chelsea section. Despite being an intelligent, articulate man with a phenomenal goal-scoring record; despite being voted England fans’ player of the year for both 2005 and 2006; despite being a multi-title-winning player and runner-up in the Ballon d’Or only a couple of years ago, he remains one of the most divisive players in England.
Now obviously much of this comes down to tribalism. When we go to watch – or, indeed, just sit at home and sneer at – England these days, how many of us go as England fans first and club fans second? Very few, I’d guess, judging by the bloody-minded inability of so many people to realise that booing your own before the first half is even over is unlikely to inspire champagne footie. It used to be that the fans got on the ref’s back and gave him a hammering. You never know, it might result in the crucial penalty (as opposed to the spineless free-kick just outside the area) or the downgrading of a straight red to a yellow and a slap on the wrist. Now, England fans come to games with all the bile of the previous week’s league encounter pent-up in their… er… wherever it is you keep your bile. One misplaced pass from Ashley Cole – or Lampard, or, not that long ago, Crouch or Hargreaves – inspires a torrent of abuse from the knuckle-draggers. Perhaps that’s what Jamie Carragher was really thinking when he decided on throwing a hissy fit and opting himself out of the England selection process. Why should I get all het-up only to be chucked in at right-back when there’s no better option available, and then get several thousand mouths-full from the United and Chelsea fans in the stadium?
Perhaps Lampard suffers from the same crisis of confidence that affects any player for whom goal-scoring is an intrinsic part of their game. With Chelsea, he’s in his element: surrounded by midfielders of superlative talent, all of whom are drilled with precision to know how and when they should move. If anything, his passing range seems to have improved under Scolari. Already a player with an excellent eye for the movement of his teammates, the arrival of Deco seems to have inspired him to greater heights of playmaking and midfield direction. I don’t want to make too much of the demolition of Boro on Saturday simply because (no offence Boro) the opposition were so anaemic, but despite his only scoring one of the five he was comfortably man of the match for me. For the third or fourth time in only 8 League games. With Bosingwa and Terry, he’s the only player in Blue to have started all 8, has scored 3 and made 2, and hit a pass rate of 85%. Looking back, did we REALLY consider selling him? And for the ludicrous figure of £10m? If buying Andriy Shevchenko for £30m was a stinker in the transfer market, selling the most consistent goal-scoring midfielder in the world for a nominal sum (in top-level footballing terms) would surely have ranked alongside it.
Moving along briefly – I realise it’s already too late to plead even-handedness, but in a vain attempt to represent this article as something other than an addition to the Lampard Fan Files – I think we’re witnessing the advent of a new cult hero at Stamford Bridge.
Now, the criteria for cult-dom are hard to pin down. Brilliance isn’t always necessarily an element. I mean, it’s easy to say why fans love Zola… or, for that matter, Bergkamp, or Cantona, or Bryan Robson, or whoever. For cult-dom, surely there’s something a bit more eccentric about your reasons. I’ve just done a rigorous and highly scientific straw poll of the 3 or 4 people that sit around me in the office in attempt to pin them down, and so far we’ve come up with…
- Not necessarily that good. In fact, sometimes it almost helps their cause if they’re not the most gifted or brilliant player out there. I’m reminded of the freakishly large German centreback Robert Huth (now, tragically, condemned to Boro) who was never quite as good as his physique suggested, but who cemented his place in Bridge mythology with a free-kick that frequently hit the wall, but with enough force to rupture the poor sod on the receiving end of it.
- Possessed of some kind of ludicrous name / celebration / personality quirk. Alright, a bit harder to quantify so I’ll take refuge in the easy choice of Ian Holloway. Because I sit near a Bristol Rovers fan, and because the man is clearly barking.
- Being at the club for a million years. Steve Clarke. Nuff said. We’ll miss you.
Any of these could qualify you. I suppose you have to add sheer brilliance to the mix because when you look at lists online of players voted cult favourites by their fans, it’s usually the genii that rise to the fore. Gascoigne. Beardsley. McKay. You get the idea.
Anyway, the man whom this very long preamble leads up to is one Juliano Belletti (right), and my reasoning goes thusly. When he was bought, he came with fine pedigree but, let’s be honest, no hearts were set racing. He was aging. He was the fallback position after we’d failed to buy the Sevilla right-back Daniel Alves, now strutting his stuff with the blaugrana. And, after a few games, it became clear that actually, he wasn’t a very good fullback. His tackling is usually rubbish. He isn’t lightning quick. Chelsea haven’t signed many Brazilians but when we have, they’ve invariably – in fact, always – been defenders. Emerson Thome, anyone? Alex, of course – and what a good buy he’s looking now – and Belletti.
Felipao – if he’ll allow me to call him that – seems to have chalked up another incredible transformation. From mediocre (albeit World Cup and Champions League-winning) fullback to dynamic right-sided midfielder with a penchant for scoring goal-of-the-season contenders. He’s scored 3 or 4 for us and they’ve all been 30-yard curling missile strikes. Spurs. Wigan. And now Boro. And alongside Lampard and Mikel in the midfield this weekend, he was excellent. Go back to MotD’s coverage and have a look at their little Belletti feature. He’s always moving, always looking for the ball. Chelsea were rampant and he was a prime mover in getting the ball into dangerous positions. Good passing, excellent awareness, and topped off with a peach of a goal. And I’d assumed he’d be moving on last summer.
So there you have it. Lampard is Christ, and Belletti the Holy Spirit. Which, I suppose, makes Scolari God. And I’ve run out of room with which to praise Kalou, Malouda, Anelka and the fullbacks. So they’ll just have to do it again mid-week to justify another paean of hyperbolic pride.