It is eight years since Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard called time on their international careers and still the debate over who was better for England goes on. “Especially in cabs in London, they love that conversation,” says Lampard. “Where do you go with that? And they’ve got big mouths those cabbies. It’s not going to stay between us!”
The Everton manager prefers discretion on that particular subject but there is no denying the competitive rivalry that existed between the two exceptional midfielders in their playing days will resurface at Villa Park on Saturday. Gerrard and Lampard confront each other for the first time as managers with both seeking their first points of the new Premier League season. Where once it was Liverpool versus Chelsea, or vying for position with England, it is Aston Villa versus Everton that now fuels the competition, and with added responsibility.
But Lampard insists: “The media portrayal wasn’t quite spot on, it was never really me against him. For a big part of our careers we didn’t see each other much. For England, yes, then you go back to your clubs and be competitive, and there’s just an undercurrent. That is all it was, and we both respected that. As we got a bit more mature we became that little bit closer, as you do, and then we both worked in the media and spent a bit of time together. We worked on the World Cup and Champions League final together [in 2018] and I was just about to go to Derby and he was getting into it at Rangers too, and we spoke about it, but not that much.
“Every job is different, every job is consuming and so we didn’t go into too much of it. I spoke to him when I came in here because I wanted to get his opinion about Nathan Patterson [the former Rangers defender]. I respect Stevie’s word on what he thinks about football and generally. I wish him all the best because I know the demands of the job, and I hope he does well there.”
Lampard won 106 caps for England, scoring 29 goals, with Gerrard collecting 114 caps and scoring 21 times for his country. Apart from the on-going cabbies’ debate over who was better, their time on the international stage was dominated by the question of whether the two could recreate their club form playing together. The Everton manager believes Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello should have made the question redundant by playing a midfield three with Paul Scholes or Michael Carrick in between.
“I did always think that, even when I was playing for England, because particularly in tournament football we got outnumbered in midfield,” Lampard admits. “You’ve always got to take responsibility for yourself first, so I’m not speaking for Stevie, but when you’re outnumbered at the highest level like the World Cup then it’s difficult to control games. I think that was just part of the puzzle to be fair.”
The 44-year-old would measure himself against the performances of Gerrard and other midfielders despite his successes with Chelsea. “It wasn’t just me and Stevie, I was competitive as a player,” he explains. “Whenever other midfielders scored goals my eyes shot up, I was a bit like that. When I was growing up my dad called it professional jealousy. It’s not a bad thing if honed in the right direction. But that is in your younger years. As you get older you just respect a player that is of the level of Steven. He was just an incredibly high level of player. And we were different. I don’t think there is any point in that conversation at all [who was better], especially now we have packed up.
“I think myself, Steven and Scholesy was the other one. We were all different and I think we can all be pretty happy with the careers we had.”
It could have been a different career, certainly for Gerrard and to some degree Lampard, had José Mourinho succeeded in luring the then Liverpool captain to Stamford Bridge in 2005. The two would have played in a midfield three with Claude Makelele as the anchor. “That would have been good wouldn’t it?” Lampard reflects with a smile. “I think it worked out alright for me and Stevie in our own ways. We ended up being one club people pretty much in our careers and I think that was the right story. It could have been good in another world.”