Lampard Revisited

In amongst the latest bout of Roy-bashing, twitter to and fro-ing, and 'Arrying (a term I've invented for somebody claiming Redknapp should have got the job - normally citing his popularity or footballing style), last week's big name who won't be in Poland and the Ukraine has been lost and forgotten. Some would say this represents a fitting end to Frank Lampard's international career - he remains all at sea, lost in the mid-pages of mediocrity. To my mind, though, this is grossly unfair on one of England's key recent players.

In an era where twenty-odd year olds retire from international football and a general stench of detachment from reality hangs around the squad, Lampard has never been bigger than the team (or in this case country). When he was left on the bench, or not given license to play his favoured, if slightly old-fashioned, no. 8 role, he didn't scowlingly retire (looking at you Paul Scholes), and when England fans booed him he responded with more grace and dignity than a certain Wayne Rooney - by getting on with playing football. Those same fans, by the way, had voted him England's best player 2 years in a row not too long before

But despite being a model professional, completely avoiding controversy and being good with the media (captain material in fact), Lampard has been tarnished since 2006 as part of the failed 'golden generation'. Strangely he seems to have suffered even more than most because of the club he plays for, or maybe just because close proximity to John Terry and to a lesser extent Ashley Cole is enough to poison the minds of the average English fan. Ironically despite being England's most prolific penalty scorer ever, he has never really recovered from that miss against Portugal, and while his performances have been mostly average and his scoring record is slightly better than 1 in 4, the 'Fat Frank' moniker and beer-belched, pub noise abuse have maintained a much more prominent level.

Lampard, like Ferdinand in 2010, has seemingly been robbed of his last opportunity to make a real impact at a tournament. I'm discounting 2004, where he was England's top scorer and in the team of the tournament, because he himself would not look upon that as a great success - he recognises the far greater value of a team's achievements. Lampard's Champions League Final performance was notable for its control and precision, the economy of movement and calm creation of space. When Steven Gerrard is spraying 40 yard passes to nobody in particular, having abandoned any kind of short-passing game, and Scott Parker is labouring and clearly unfit, the true cost of Lampard's absence will be felt.

It is now fashionable to retrospectively chastise England as a whole for failing to appreciate Scholes when he was at his peak - like most retrospection this ignores the reality that not only was Scholes past his peak, but he should have been more prepared to play out of position, and then he probably would have got another chance in the centre. A straw poll of England fans/serially grumbling viewers would show that most do not think Lampard should be in the team, and probably not anywhere near it. I wonder if he is about to undergo a Scholes-esque renaissance - an ageing dynamo forced to retreat into Pirlo-territory to conduct and prompt.

If so and the expected post-Euros cull is enacted, any future call would surely be answered positively - for like the truly committed international players of any era (Beckham, Neville) no collection of caps is enough.

Andy Carroll, Joey Barton, Torres and King Kenny

What do these three have in common? They have become the backbone of my illusionary 'Post-Modern Football Team' - the team which exists in an absurd detached reality, yet manages to inhabit that space so comfortably. Joey Barton and Kenny Dalglish have at least in part actively sculptured this strange new world - collaborating with a fanatical, feverish Fleet Street, whilst Torres and Carroll, according to the old cliche, have done their talking on the pitch.

It was Carroll, in fact, who first inspired the embryonic idea of such a team. Crucially, and typically, it wasn't actually his own behaviour that did so - a heavy-drinking, allegedly girlfriend-beating 'target man', even wearing a shirt number with a needless mythology, Carroll was almost atavistic until January 2011. Rather it was the transfer which brought him from Tyneside to Merseyside which confirmed the big Geordie's new status. I have yet to hear, or see, from anybody in any medium, an argument which rationalises or explains the £35 million Liverpool inexplicably splurged on Chris Sutton's less talented footballing descendant. This isn't because I live a hermit's existence (though this is partially true), but rather that such a rationalisation or explanation simply doesn't exist.

Nonetheless we now live in a world where Andy Carroll is a 35 million pound striker, where this is in some way a 'statement of intent/ambition' (to which it logically follows that Kenny Dalglish is the next totalitarian maniac we should all be weary of). In this world, this new reality, the sight of the lumbering bedraggled youngster (which he still is) missing routine chances doesn't twist our blood, induce insane rage, or make us question our very existence but is merely accepted. And in this reality we do not question, we merely accept that this is the way it will be now, interminably.

Carroll's signing would be unprecedented if it weren't for the precedent, set just one week before, by his new strike partner: Fernando Torres. Having seen Torres perform sporadically well, it is probably too early to write him off completely. Nonetheless it seems like he has contracted a case of the footballing yips. The moment which summed this up perfectly was the now infamous Old Trafford miss. Unfortunately this stole the thunder from what had been his best performance in a Chelsea shirt, in which he even scored a well-taken goal. Now, though, Torres has been reduced to stumbling unsuccessfully from miss to miss, like an overly-inebriated young student in a fresher's week club.

With Carroll and Torres comes the realisation that worth does not mean anything anymore in football. In other words, the word itself is bereft of meaning or value. Our emblems of this strange, self-contained universe of ever expanding egos, fees and circling agents play out a sad tragedy each week, in which even the smallest of joys are accompanied by the realisation that it is almost certainly about to get a lot worse and a lot more painful to watch. It is, of course, neither Carroll nor Torres' fault that somebody somewhere decided that 35 and 50 million were going to be paid for them, but equally it is surely beyond doubt that these price tags have since defined them (which makes Andy Cole's struggles to come to terms with a £7 million seem almost reassuringly old-fashioned).

Every Barton tweet, every needlessly spiky needling piece of wittery, seems now to be part of a tired old routine - a supine and desperate plea for relevance. The Man City Barton was a talented footballer haunted by off-field controversy. His career progression has seen him become an off-field controversy, occasionally amplified by his on field antics and rarely superseded by his actual play. Barton has become an ineffectual midfield has-been, passing unnoticed through games while his legion of disciples await the next 140 characters of significance.

Therefore he is ably qualified to lead this team: a footballer who, so tainted by misdemeanours and his off-field reputation, is now not only defined by that reputation but apparently only exists to add to it. Anybody who witnessed his incredible self-deprecating yet earnest performance on Football Focus, or heard him passionately defend 'going to ground easily' to get Gervinho sent off on 6-0-6, would have seen the transformation - Barton consciously striving to capture his public with unrivalled displays of acting prowess. All this built on the shifting sands of his own affected public decency, Barton's role now makes so little but yet such perfect sense. 

The manager of our team is, like Carroll, someone who purports to appeal to older values, a time when the 'boot room' culture was prevalent in a successful era for Liverpool. Kenny Dalglish was responding to Liverpool's ever history-infected (or should that be inflicted) support when he returned as manager, and it seemed like quite a wise and unifying move in light of the (relative) turmoil the club had suffered. However, he has since become a caricature of these values - become a strangely defensive, brooding and acerbic figure who is seemingly determined to interpret an 'us against the world' mentality both literally and in its entirety.

It is this strange reenactment of the 70s/80s which led to Dalglish, consistently and incredibly, defending Luis Suarez as publicly as he possibly could, and damaging Liverpool's reputation as he did so. Throughout, and in every interview since, Dalglish has referred to 'the people who this football club means something to', in some form or another. This is a calculated ploy as it both alienates the rest of the footballing world by implying inferiority, and panders to the special sect-like personality trait of the collective Liverpool support, which is what got him the job in the first place. Just as Barton became a caricature of his public persona, and our strikers became caricatures of their floundering selves, Dalglish has become not the embodiment of the 'old Liverpool', but a parody of it - yet he seems to revel in this dank and depressing mess of his own making.