Giles Smith’s Thursday Thoughts
column Thu 2 Mar 2017
It is a mighty difficult call, but every fan likes to have an attempt. Giles Smith ranks the best of all in this week’s column…
I go back a little way – I don’t mind admitting it. And I’ve been privileged to see some of the greatest that there’s been.
Gianfranco Zola, for example. I don’t think anyone would dispute the little Italian’s right to be ranked right up there among the true elite in the area that I’m talking about.
Or, before that, Peter Osgood. Some of us grew up pretty much worshipping the ground that player walked on, so it was always something to see him actually walking on the ground.
Same goes for Peter Bonetti, actually.
And then there was Roy Bentley, the captain of the 1955 title-winning side. Because I certainly go back that far, and so most likely do you. It was genuinely thrilling to see Roy take to the pitch.
Coming forward through time again, I’d lob Pat Nevin into the mix, too – at the risk of sounding slightly creepy and in-house by naming another website columnist. But Nevin was a player long before he was an analyst, and I was a fan long before I was a journalist, and he was quick to cover the available space in a way that sticks with me. He definitely knew how to handle the occasion.
Nevertheless, when it comes to putting someone right at the top of this gilded pile, I’m going unhesitatingly with Frank Lampard. Absolutely without hesitation. Some may beg to differ, and they are entitled to their opinion. But I don’t think that I’m sticking my neck out or being in any way controversial when I suggest that Lampard on Saturday was the best half-time guest that this club has ever had.
Terrific suit, of course, but I think you would probably have expected that. Excellent speed around the pitch and superb levels of engagement, but you would probably have expected that, too. What was special was the degree of warmth that flooded the place as he went around, the volume of the singing in his honour and the obviously reciprocal nature of the exchange, with the effect the moment was having on him clearly visible on his face. Half-time appearances don’t get any more emotional than this.
He then took the microphone and gave a short and perfectly weighted speech which was entirely about the supporters - as if he was there to thank us, rather than us being there to thank him. Entirely typical of the man to deflect it all like that and acquit himself with such style and grace.
Okay, so Bentley’s half-time guest appearance in the final home game of the 2013/14 season has no competitors in the Best Use Of A Walking Stick As A Pretend Golf Club category. And the soft-shoe shuffle that he pulled out of the bag was nothing less than medal-worthy. Bear in mind that this all took place two weeks before Bentley’s 90th birthday. We should all wish to be capable of dancing across the Stamford Bridge turf at the age of 89.
But Lamps’ go-round last Saturday was simply of another order – a farewell and a retirement send-off in one, and a half-time appearance with the power to hold the crowd in its seats in anticipation. I’ve got no access to the till receipts from the food outlets but I wouldn’t mind betting revenue took a dip, game-on-game, in that half-time interval. Certainly the vast majority chose to stay pitch-side and if you favoured a chicken Balti wrap and a cup of tea over the available ceremony on that occasion, then you badly missed out.
It was almost too much to take, really, for those of us who had already been reduced to small pieces once that afternoon by the sight of Claude Makelele taking a seat on the visitors’ bench. How much raw feeling can one single matchday be made to hold? It only needed Michael Essien to show his face somewhere and I would probably have had to leave on a stretcher.
Best player the club has ever had? Lampard, one realises, would have a shout for that, too. The goals, the work-rate, the jobs done. The list of honours read out by Neil Barnett just before the player took to the pitch felt almost comically rich: three league titles, four FA Cups, two League Cups, the Europa League, the Champions League… Everything there is to win in the top-flight domestic game, in other words, and some of it multiple times. These were heights which very few of us dared imagine the club was about to scale when Lampard joined, in 2001. And that was because very few of us dared to imagine the kind of effect he was capable of having. So good to have him back to applaud and wave at.
Don’t know who’s up next, half-time guest-wise, but they’ve got one hell of an act to follow. Might be worth them brushing up on their soft-shoe shuffle.