To celebrate 30 years of the Premier League, The Athletic is paying tribute to the 50 greatest individual performances in its history, as voted for by our writers. You can read Oliver Kay’s introduction to our Golden Games series (and the selection rules) here — neither well nor the full list of all the articles as they unfold.
Picking 50 from 309,949 options is an impossible task. You might not agree with their choices, you won’t agree with the order. They didn’t. It’s not intended as a definitive list. It’s a bit of fun, but hopefully a bit of fun you’ll enjoy between now and August.
It is hard to believe now, but not every Chelsea fan was thrilled when the club announced they had agreed a deal to sign Frank Lampard from West Ham for £11 million in the summer of 2001.
West Ham manager Harry Redknapp once argued at a fans’ forum — the clip of his speech would eventually go viral on social media in subsequent years — how Lampard would go “right to the very top”. The West Ham supporters in the room didn’t seem convinced that night and neither were many of their Chelsea counterparts when Claudio Ranieri convinced Lampard to move to Stamford Bridge rather than Leeds United or Aston Villa.
“No bacon sandwiches here, nothing like that, they are very on the ball with diet and coaching and fitness training,” Lampard remarked during his low-key unveiling to a handful of journalists at the club’s old, run-down training ground in Harlington , with the sound of planes taking off and landing at nearby Heathrow Airport in the background.
Lampard loves nothing more than the challenge of proving people wrong and, just as Redknapp (who is also his uncle) predicted, his career did take off.
The former midfielder is the only non-striker in the top 10 of the highest Premier League goalscorers with 177, the vast majority of which came in a Chelsea shirt (30 goals in that tally were for West Ham and Manchester City, where he spent the 2014-15 season after leaving Stamford Bridge).
People forget, though, that his rise to prominence at Chelsea wasn’t completely smooth.
It took four months to get off the mark in the Premier League (in a 5-1 win over Bolton). Had Ranieri’s side not beaten Liverpool on the final day of the following season to secure Champions League football, he would have been one of the players sold to get them out of financial trouble. The arrival of new owner Roman Abramovich in 2003 meant signings galore and increased competition — being named on the bench for the opening Champions League group game at Sparta Prague, with new acquisitions Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastian Veron and Geremi starting instead, was a concern. John Terry and Eidur Gudjohnsen were also dropped that night and the trio spoke to each other about what it might mean for their futures.
But Lampard was too good for Ranieri to ignore. He was in the first XI for all 38 Premier League games that season.
Jose Mourinho, who replaced the Italian as coach in 2004, was also quickly won over and maintained the 100 percent streak in 2004-05.
Mourinho’s man-management was one of his greatest strengths at this point and Lampard, who would do extra work at training before and after the squad’s main sessions, thrived under the Portuguese.
“I don’t see how he can improve,” Mourinho said after another fine display, “because for me he is the best player in the world. I would not change Lampard for another player, because he does everything. His defense is incredible, he can pass over a long distance, he can pass short. He can score over long distance. How can he improve?”
Lampard was realistic enough to know Mourinho’s high praise was part of a motivational tool — although he did finish runner-up to Ronaldinho in the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2005, so it wasn’t all talc.
It was one particular performance that year which cemented his place in Chelsea folklore and a spot in this Golden Games series. Chelsea hadn’t been champions since 1955, yet such was their dominance in Mourinho’s debut campaign it was considered a matter of when, not if, they claimed the trophy.
Racing clearly was no mean feat despite the fortunes Abramovich provided to spend in the market. Chelsea were still up against Arsenal’s Invincibles (who won the title in 2004 with an unbeaten league record), plus a Manchester United team with Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney in the ranks.
However, come late April, Chelsea were remarkably 14 points ahead of nearest challengers Arsenal. They would have secured first spot had Arsenal failed to beat Tottenham in the north London derby on a Monday night, but Mourinho was actually cheering their rivals on to win against Spurs. He didn’t want Chelsea’s monumental achievement to be decided in such anticlimactic fashion, with the group just watching events unfold on TV.
Like on many occasions in his pomp, Mourinho got his wish. A goal from Jose Antonio Reyes gave Arsenal the victory and meant Chelsea needed a win at Bolton the following Saturday (April 30) to be crowned champions.
This was easier said than done. Bolton might be languishing in English football’s third tier these days, but back then they were a good Premier League side and very hard to play against. Coach Sam Allardyce remarkably took them to sixth place that season, finishing above Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa. Liverpool were only ahead of them on goal difference.
Chelsea had the added complication of a high-profile Champions League semi-final against Liverpool being played on either side of the fixture. The first leg took place at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening and was a tight, tough affair. Lampard missed one of the few chances of the game, shooting over the bar from close range. That wasn’t like him.
To make matters worse, inspirational winger Arjen Robben aggravated an ankle injury and was ruled out of the Bolton trip. Damien Duff was already missing due to a strained hamstring.
Mourinho had one eye on that semi-final decider at Anfield as well — against Bolton, he switched from his favored 4-3-3 formation to a diamond midfield. Lampard was at the top of it with squad players Tiago and Jiri Jarosik on either side behind and Makelele at the base. There was still Didier Drogba and Gudjohnsen up front, but it is worth remembering the Drogba who started out at Chelsea was quite unpolished and not as popular among the crowd as he would go on to be. In other words, there was a lot of onus on Lampard to make the difference.
The night before, he’d been talking with captain Terry about what was at stake. The two English stalwarts chatted excitedly about the possibility of being the one to score the goal which won Chelsea the Premier League.
Their moods were different come kick-off, however.
As TV cameras film the teams lining up in the tunnel, Terry addresses his teammates: “This is our year, lads! Come on! Come on!” In contrast, Lampard is staring silently into space, looking a bit anxious.
Chelsea certainly played as if they were full of nerves in the first half. Bolton smothered them, bombarding their penalty area with balls from set pieces and long throw-ins. Striker Kevin Davies was an effective battering ram, although somehow sent a rather tame header at Petr Cech despite being unmarked in the area.
It was quite a feat for Chelsea to go into the break still level at 0-0. They looked anything but champions. Mourinho let me know just how angry and disgusted he was with what he had just witnessed in his team talk.
Things didn’t seem to get too much better after the break, only for Lampard to step up in the 60th minute.
It really was a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man.
The move is not pretty.
Cech punts the ball from deep and Gudjohnsen flicks it on. Bolton’s Fernando Hierro looks in position to head clear, only for Jarosik to jump into him and send Hierro to the ground. Bolton’s players and fans scream for a free kick but are ignored by referee Steve Dunn. Drogba is not distracted by the controversy and heads the ball in Lampard’s direction.
This is where all the hard work on the training ground over the years well and truly pays off. Bolton’s Vincent Candela seems to be the favorite to get to the ball first, but Lampard outmuscles him. It takes just four touches from here to find the back of the net: one with his head, two with his left foot to bring the ball under control and cut inside Tal Ben Haim, the last with his right foot as he drills a shot into the bottom left corner. Cue pandemonium in the away end. Bolton’s following are less enamored, a chorus of boos and cries of “cheat, cheat, cheat” fill the air.
Motivated by the injustice, Bolton piled on the pressure. It takes a miraculous save from Cech to prevent Geremi from scoring an own goal. The final whistle still feels a long way off.
With 14 minutes remaining, a combination of Terry and Cech somehow cleared another dangerous cross. Gudjohnsen sends the ball down the line to Makelele, a master of the defensive arts, who is bizarrely out on the right wing. He turns and provides the most perfect pass to an unmarked Lampard, sprinting with all his might down the middle of the pitch. Perhaps more surprising than Makelele’s advanced position is that centre-back Ricardo Carvalho has also broken forward to keep Lampard company. So what was he thinking?
“The pitch was bobbing, the ball was bobbing and I didn’t want to overrun it,” Lampard told Sky Sports afterwards. Any thoughts of passing it to Carvalho? “No, no, no,” he replied. “There was no way I was going to give it to him because he would have hit it in the stands! I had tunnel vision at that point. I wanted to make sure I finished it off.”
And that’s what he did, dribbling past keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen with ease before finding the empty net. He is soon at the bottom of a huge pile of Chelsea players, the unused substitutes join in. Sky’s co-commentator Andy Gray exclaims: “Step aside, Arsenal. The new champions are here.”
Chelsea had to wait another week to get their hands on the trophy, but the celebrations on the pitch and in the dressing room at Bolton’s ground went on for a few hours after the final whistle. It included the sight of Lampard being flanked by Terry on one side and Abramovich on the other as he joined in fans’ chants of “Roman Abramovich”.
Lampard’s legendary status was secured for good among the Chelsea faithful from that day. But it also cemented his reputation outside the club as a man who delivered on the big occasion.
In 2021, now Everton manager Lampard was inducted to the Premier League Hall of Fame as a mark of respect for all his achievements.
When asked which of the 177 Premier League goals he regards most fondly, he replied: “My favorite goals are the two goals I scored against Bolton when we won the league in 2005. They meant so much to me personally, but more importantly it was what they meant to the club and the fans to win the league that year.
“The celebrations with the fans on that day will stay with me forever.”
(Top image: Getty Images. Design: Sam Richardson)