In the midst of his individual office meetings with the Chelsea squad through pre-season, and at the end of his talk with Pedro Rodriguez, Frank Lampard just couldn’t help himself.
He asked the Spanish international about those famous Champions League matches against Barcelona. What it was like on the other side, what they were thinking. Lampard was just loving recalling it all. A manager-player work meeting had turned into a breezy talk about old times, between two old opponents.
Relatively stern in his job so far, Lampard softening up for such a nostalgia trip is natural. Pedro played for Barcelona in their epic elimination to Chelsea in 2011-12, a tie that really got started when Lampard started the move for Didier Drogba’s goal by dispossessing Leo Messi. It was a landmark night for the midfielder, on the way to that first Champions League for the club, and “the best footballing night of my life”.
“If I had finished without that on my CV,” Lampard said recently, “I would certainly have felt incomplete.”
The Chelsea manager is not a man easily given to romanticism, but he is one of those players who feels “the magic” of the Champions League music. It does something to him, means something to him.
He’s impressed that upon his current Chelsea squad in the last few days, stressing the competition’s importance to them; telling them they’re back where the club belongs.
“We’ve been talking about how crucial it is to be back here, what it means for Chelsea,” Pedro tells The Independent. “For the prestige, for what the club is, for the history.”
Chelsea are in many ways the archetypal modern Champions League club. And even if that history is relatively recent, and borne of the first of the super-club resources, they have gone through one of the competition’s classically compelling journeys. They’ve suffered a lot of long nights of the soul, that so many of the European Cup’s greats did.
Roman Abramovich made them a super-club just at the point it was evolving into a financially tiered super-club competition, and they embarked on one of those holy grail quests. Lampard was there at the centre of it all. His relationship with the Champions League is pretty much their relationship with the Champions League.
They had only one season in it before he got there, and haven’t been beyond the last 16 since he left.
It is similarly fitting that it was very Champions League qualification that saw Abramovich arrive, but goes even further. Without the Champions League, the club may not even exist.
That was the perilous state of the club’s finances on the last day of the 2002-03 season. Those were the stakes of that match against Liverpool.
It was win or genuinely go bust, as chief executive Trevor Birch stressed in a surprising team talk.
“In order to ensure that Chelsea FC will still exist next season, you have to make the Champions League,” Birch said. “In short, if you fail to beat Liverpool then the club will go out of business.”
The team didn’t come up short. They won, and it meant more than Champions League qualification. It meant Abramovich was willing to buy the club.
That era’s first great night - and what many see as the ignition of the new era - came in the Champions League, when they finally claimed a big win over Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. With the score at 2-2 on aggregate and headed for extra-time as it headed into the 87th minute of the second leg, Lampard surged into the box hoping for a cut-back from Wayne Bridge. The left-back just powered the ball into the net.
That was the explosion they needed, but not yet the experience. Claudio Ranieri made some tactical decisions for the semi-finals against Monaco that surprised the players but - unlike, say, in 2007-08 or 2011-12 - the Chelsea squad didn’t yet have that battle-hardened nous to almost self-manage such games and navigate their own path.
“The first couple of years at Chelsea we encountered the same thing,” Lampard wrote in his autobiography. “European teams can be very ‘cute’ in the manner in which they draw you in and then punish you.”
The midfielder felt he himself was caught out once too often, because he didn’t yet have that canniness.
Some figures who have faced Chelsea this season do wonder whether there is a similar naivety to his tactical management right now, that could especially cost them in Europe. The better Champions League sides will relish the vast open spaces behind that midfield, that puts such a burden on N’Golo Kante.
In that sense, it was maybe even more fortunate they have a more forgiving group. It seems right now like it could still be the tightest of groups, and exacting in so many ways.
The encouraging element for Chelsea is that the Champions League has offered such proof of Lampard’s ability to learn and evolve. It was what so many opposition players respected. It was what so many teammates lionised: that game intelligence.
“It wasn’t until I started playing Champions League regularly that I felt comfortable and able to really read and react with confidence in that situation,” Lampard added.
It was the utter assurance of a Champions League winner like Jose Mourinho that really bolstered that confidence. Lampard credits the Portuguese with transforming him into an elite player, and transforming Chelsea into a truly elite team; a semi-final team.
But that became the curious problem, and great frustration. Chelsea were by then clearly good enough to be the European champions - and were probably the continent’s best team in 2005 - but the issue was not quality, or even mentality. It was actually that they were so close that they encountered one of the Champions League’s great contradictions. The better you were, and further you went, the greater the danger of the most innocuous of moments. The quicker it could all go up.
Consider some of the ways Chelsea were knocked out between 2004 and 2011, some of the margins. There was: a “ghost goal” and a shot that may not have crossed the line; there were two penalty shoot-outs, one of which saw the captain literally slip at the decisive moment; there was a spectacular injury-time goal after so many decisions went against them; there was a defeat to a former manager and - through all that - four eliminations to English clubs they often got the better of doemstically.
Names like Luis Garcia, Dirk Kuyt and Andres Iniesta will forever be imprinted onto Chelsea’s Champions legacy, all important parts of the journey that eventually ensured its completion by honing the team.
But the competition itself is also imprinted onto Lampard’s consciousness in a deeper way, a more important way beyond the trivialities of football.
It was in the middle of all this, and the middle of a semi-final tie against Liverpool in 2008, that he lost his mother Pat.
Devastated, Lampard still told Avram Grant he was determined to play, if as much for her memory. The manager’s sensitive approach meant the player was forever appreciative.
And it afforded a moment they’ll forever remember. The Champions League brought that first emotional tribute to his mother, as he scored a decisive penalty against Liverpool.
It meant so much to him, and was thereby fitting it meant so much as a moment: it was the goal that got Chelsea into a first ever final.
Lampard naturally reflected on much of this before that long-awaited victory in Munich in 2012.
His mother was foremost in his mind, but so were so many of the trials in the competition over the previous nine years.
“Every year we get asked the same questions: 'Is this the year? How inspired are you by the failures of years before?' And every year we have failed obviously because we haven't done it. Every year that goes past without winning makes it even more… we’ve been so close so many times. Just desperate to win it.”
They of course won it against the odds, against Bayern Munich in the German club’s own stadium, when they never looked further away. They were even a goal down going into stoppage time.
The smallest margins, the greatest outpouring, so much inverted and released.
“I've never been so emotional in a game,” Lampard said afterwards.
There have rarely been players as conscious of the Champions League as Lampard. He’s ready to form a new legacy in it as a manager.