For Frank Lampard, it all began with a rather nondescript draw under slate grey skies in the unlikely setting of Phibsborough in Dublin’s northside. Chelsea’s record goalscorer turned manager had watched his new charges pegged back by Bohemian, his name bellowed regularly by those in the two stands opened to spectators. Even with victory elusive, he is offered reminders of the sense of elation his return has whipped up wherever he ventures these days.
These were modest surroundings in which to start his second coming, and Chelsea did not even grind out a win. The hosts ended with Evan Ferguson, a 14-year-old substitute, curling a vicious shot just wide of a post, and a trialist, Eric Molloy, plucking parity with a well worked goal, much to the delight of his mother up in the main stand. Yet Lampard will not fret too much. This was the first pigeon-step on what will be a slog of season, a campaign that will truly test his coaching credentials.
Grander occasions lie ahead. The Chelsea bus had deposited the evening’s squad in the car park on the far side of the stadium around an hour before kick-off, leaving them to trudge across the turf just as the summer drizzle had degenerated into a deluge. Lampard, hands initially sunk deep into his white tracksuit top, had been serenaded by the travelling support in the Des Kelly Carpets stand with the choruses going up again as he approached the shelter of the tunnel. He had mustered an appreciative wave and a flash of a smile before descending into the home dressing room and the players’ bar, which had been allocated to the visitors for changing purposes given the sheer size of their party.
Bruce Buck cut a rather more forlorn figure, hood hoisted up even with a security man shielding him under an umbrella, before retiring to the dry of a crammed directors’ box to sit alongside the recently appointed technical and performance advisor, Petr Cech. The crowd may have fallen well below capacity, but there was still a thrill of anticipation. Pre-season fixtures are hardly accurate gauges of what is to come, but a friendly with the side currently third in the League of Ireland Premier Division would at least provide a first public glimpse of strategy and approach, even in embryonic form.
Tactics will evolve as more players return to duty and fitness, and there were only two Europa League winners in his Lampard’a starting lineup, but here was a 4-2-3-1 to follow Maurizio Sarri’s 4-3-3. The obvious assumption to draw from that would be N’Golo Kanté, one of 13 players who only arrived in Dublin on Monday, will eventually return to central midfield next term after that season-long dalliance in a more attacking brief out on the right under the Italian.
The head coach will have Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho available for Saturday’s follow-up against St Patrick’s Athletic. In their absence, and with others still away after international duty or in rehabilitation, this had been the first shot at redemption for those cast aside under Sarri. Danny Drinkwater made his first appearance since a cameo in last season’s Community Shield, anchoring midfield alongside Ethan Ampadu, who had represented Wales more often than Chelsea last time round. The former was understandably rusty, but there was the occasional crossfield pass to catch the eye, and one surge forward which had the mind drifting back to happier times in Leicester’s title winning team.
Conor Gallagher, Chelsea’s academy player of the year, epitomised the drive and urgency Lampard will expect from the middle. Then there was Michy Batshuayi, a striker who once sealed the Premier League title for this club but an outcast on loan at Borussia Dortmund, Valencia and Crystal Palace more recently, forever lurking on the shoulder of Bohemian centre-halves. It had been the Belgian who reacted quickest to collect Kenedy’s deflected shot eight minutes in, hold off his marker and ram home the first goal Lampard had celebrated – albeit in subdued fashion – as head coach. He and his staff spilled uncomfortably from their dug-out, an expanse of empty seats in the deserted stand at their back.
The entire lineup was switched at the break, the promoted academy coach Joe Edwards addressing the huddle on the pitch while Lampard and Jody Morris looked on. The presence of the France internationals Kurt Zouma and Tiémoué Bakayoko served as a reminder of the number of promising talents accumulated, often at considerable expense, by this club over the years. Bakayoko would draw a smart save from James Talbot. Billy Gilmour, a Scotland under-21 international, would repeat that trick before Molloy had his moment late on. Lampard’s first win will have to wait.