London: Even in defeat, Frank Lampard holds a menu of career choices. Victory here would have taken him into the Premier League at the first attempt. Aston Villa’s win may yet leave Derby County’s rookie manager with the option of continuing his good work in the Championship or going “home” to Chelsea.
First: his team. Derby were beaten 2-1 by Villa despite a fierce fightback that drew on the spirit of their semi-final comeback at Leeds. The young Rams whom Lampard has nurtured were shattered, bereft. They ought to be the story. But there is a glamour about Lampard; a sense of inevitability of his ascent in management. As soon as he settled into the Derby job it seemed obvious he was willing to make the sacrifices required of a Premier League star who had vacated well-paid punditry. And now the coming week will reveal just how wide his options are. The decisions, though, are not all his.
The two all-English European finals in Baku and Madrid will determine the employment plans of Maurizio Sarri at Chelsea and Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs. Each would be a suitable pick as Juventus manager, with Sarri probably inclined to cut his losses at Stamford Bridge. In the event of Sarri escaping Chelsea’s political web and returning to Italy, Lampard would be a strong candidate to go back as manager.
At the same time he has a decision to make about Derby’s ability to sustain this season’s progress, which relied in part on upscale loans from big Premier League clubs. Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori (both Chelsea) and Liverpool’s Harry Wilson are not the sort of players clubs find it easy to import by the busload. Lampard called the pursuit of next-level loanees “the next challenge and a yearly challenge” for Championship clubs.
Even the diplomacy comes naturally to him. Faced with the inevitable questions about his future, Lampard said work would be needed on recruitment — “big time” — adding: “I haven’t had any conversations with any other club — this is my club, I’m the manager of this club with a two-year contract. That’s my only thought.”
Yet Derby’s owner, Mel Morris, will have to recover from this disappointment and commit to investing more in the arms race of promotion to the Premier League, entry to which earned Villa a minimum of £170 million, and £300 million if they avoid relegation in their first season, according to Deloitte.
Losing a play-off final confronts the vanquished club with the brutal reality of starting again from zero points. And Lampard cannot know whether next season will bring stagnation, or even regression, which would damage his chance of being given a Premier League job. It seems absurd to be saying this one year into his time on the touchline. But these are the realities when a one-man industry with standout qualities jumps into the shark tank of management. There is a premium on timing and judging the future.
“Frank has brought the buzz back to the place,” Morris also said. “He has created a special environment. It wasn’t about him being a celebrity, it was about somebody giving us excitement.”
In the event. Lampard’s “aura” was outweighed by Villa’s biggest assets: Jack Grealish, Tyrone Mings and John McGinn; not to mention their manager, Dean Smith, who joins Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder on the stardust path. When Lampard was entering his Champions League-winning season as a Chelsea player in 2011-2012, Smith was catching his breath from saving Walsall from relegation in League One, and clearing out 14 players that summer. From Walsall to Brentford and then on to Villa last October, when they were 14th in the table, Smith has demonstrated stellar qualities. Just think: to secure the Villa job, Smith needed Thierry Henry to withdraw his candidacy.
Meanwhile, Lampard argues that the win at Leeds was a landmark for Derby. The images of him celebrating at Elland Road showed him to be a coach who could connect with players, however cool his public demeanour. His appetite for management is not in doubt. “I do want to move forward,” he said. “I’ve had a taste this year of working with a good group who were so close to doing something special, and I’ve loved that. It was the way I played. I always wanted a bit more the following year. I have to understand also that Mel Morris has put a huge amount into this club over the year and I appreciate that too.”
Smith’s two previous experiences of play-off finals were as a player for Leyton Orient against Scunthorpe in 1999 and Blackpool two years later. Both were in the fourth tier. Now he has taken Villa into the Premier League at the first attempt, passing a possible Chelsea manager on the ladder. Both are bound for the big time.