London: Frank Lampard has grown used to the line of questioning. One of England’s senior statesmen, a player closing in on a century of caps, tends to arrive at international get-togethers these days braced to ponder just how long his career can be extended at this level, or what a player of his weighty experience can impart to an emerging generation. He recognises it not as an ageist agenda but as an acknowledgment of natural progression. Lampard smiles, talks of his pride at what he has achieved and stresses his hunger to carry on.
Yet, as he contemplated the encouraging displays by Tom Cleverley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Moldova last week, performances delivered while the veteran’s brace took him to 13th in the list of England’s all-time goalscorers, Lampard could offer a quirk to the established routine. Retreat to the autumn of 1995 when he was the youngster wet behind the ears sent out on loan by West Ham to soak up sense from wiser old heads. A nine-game spell at Swansea City, struggling at the wrong end of the third tier, would toughen him up. The experience would prove invaluable.
Lampard recalls the spell in south Wales as if it was a wake-up call. “It helped me grow up a lot,” he says. “[The West Ham manager] Harry Redknapp rang me up and sent me down there the next day. The whole thing was a great learning curve: a boy chucked into a man’s world, without the privileges I had even at West Ham back then. It was about growing up. I stayed in what was the Hilton on an industrial estate and roomed with Robbie Dennison, a winger who was on loan there from Wolves. He was 32, I was 17, each at different ends of our careers, which made it quite interesting.
“We had two single beds in our room and I didn’t really know what to say to him when I lay there at night. He had a wife and two kids. I wanted to go out. But that was the whole point of Harry sending me there. It was a grounding and it helped me. For some reason, after a few weeks of that we got our own rooms I don’t know whether he requested it but it had been character building in itself, having to stay with an older man. I’d like to think I’ve kept that work ethic learned then throughout my career. It’s why I want to stay in the game.”
Dennison, a Northern Ireland international, was a veteran of 10 years in the Football League with West Bromwich Albion and, principally, Wolves by the time he arrived at Swansea, a family man embarking on a nomadic tail-end to his professional career. The contrast with Lampard could not have been starker, yet the teenager savoured every minute.
His spell as Swansea’s No 6 yielded a senior debut, two victories in nine matches and a first goal, pinged into the top corner with the outside of his boot in a win against Brighton. These days he is himself being re-energised by the likes of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Cleverley buzzing through the England ranks, or Eden Hazard and Oscar at Chelsea. Role reversal is complete.
Those younger legs should be offered a first competitive start at Wembley against Ukraine on Tuesday, a fixture more awkward than the mismatch in Chisinau last Friday and a game in which Lampard’s experience may count all the more. “It’s about helping the youth progress while at the same time getting results,” he says. “That is why there is a lot of talk about the ‘oldies’ and the ‘youngies’ but there is a nice blend of experience there to help people like Oxlade-Chamberlain play as he did in the first half the other night or help Tom Cleverley play as he has. That will all help the team move on and be in a better position for the next World Cup. It’s a case of nurturing the young talent.
“We have a crop who play with less fear than we did when we came through. People like Tom are playing with Manchester United in the Champions League or with Team GB at the Olympics, so they are much more capable of arriving on the scene at a young age. They don’t seem fazed; they are confident without being bullish or arrogant.
“I enjoy mixing with them, it makes me feel a bit younger, and I would happily sit and talk at dinner about the good and bad sides of playing for England. The younger players always have that free-spirited attitude, which is nice. These boys are just playing for fun. When you have been there a long time cynical isn’t quite the right word, but you know the ups and downs of it.”
That much might have struck a chord with Dennison 17 years ago when it was Lampard receiving the education from the “older man”. Now, at 34, the Chelsea veteran is seeking a 93rd cap and a continued role in a team seeking to evolve. “We have a nice base, with some plus points having come out of the Euros,” he adds. “The whole feel now is more positive than pre-tournament.
“It’s a case of having two years to develop the young talent we know is there and giving the manager the chance to work with it. It’s important we keep showing that progress and see the young boys come through. It’s all about the development of these kids.