Kevin Palmer: 'It's easy to understand why Chelsea believe Frank Lampard is their special one and he could prove it at Wembley'
IT doesn't take long to appreciate why the Derby players have been galvanised by Frank Lampard's presence in their dressing room this season.
Here is a multi-millionaire former footballer who does not need to put himself through the stresses that will fall on his shoulders as he leads his side into battle against Aston Villa in the Championship play-off final at Wembley tomorrow, but this legend is working to an alternative agenda.
While most in his position have stepped away from the game after retirement in a bid to file down their golf handicap or settle into a comfortable seat as a TV pundit, Lampard opted to put his hard-earned reputation as a winner on the line by becoming Derby manager and setting his sights on promotion to the Premier League.
That demanding mission will have be accomplished if he wins one last game against Aston Villa in tomorrow's Championship play-off final at Wembley, with this hugely impressive 40-year-old a vision of calm confidence as he handled his media commitments in hugely impressive fashion.
He may have grown up in an era when footballers are shielded from reality by armies of press officers desperate to control their every word, but Lampard is his own man and he proved that once again ahead of the biggest game of his brief management career.
After a week of frenzied speculation, Lampard is now red-hot favourite to make an emotional return his former club Chelsea to replace the unpopular Maurizio Sarri at Stamford Bridge this summer.
The modern way of dealing with such conjecture would be to offer a 'no comment' response to the inevitable media probes, but Lampard opted for a more admirable approach as he honestly addressed the issue ahead of a game that means so much to his current employer.
"The links are inevitable given my history and I have said before that it would be amazing if I could be Chelsea manager one day, but my focus is not on that at all right now," said Lampard, as he confronted the issue head-on.
"I signed a three-year contract here to try and get this club into the Premier League and we may be able to do that slightly ahead of schedule this week and once that issue is resolved, then I will sit down with Derby and discuss what happens next.
"My focus all season has not been on Chelsea. Of course, I look out for their scores and will always do that as it is a club that means a lot to me, but trust me when I tell you my only interest at this moment is trying to get the club that gave me a wonderful chance in management promoted."
By addressing the issue in forthright fashion, Lampard ensured further questions on links with Chelsea were diluted for the rest of the press conference, with this shrewd operator appreciating the need to give his inquisitors what they wanted in the knowledge that they would then move on to more conformable subject matters.
The sight of Lampard the manager still take some getting used to after so many years watching him planner goals galore and win trophies at a prolific rate in Chelsea blue, but those of us looking on as he displayed his talents in his latest role appreciated we could be witnessing the start of a special story.
That word has been used to describe another manager who had a big influence on Lampard's career and while questions have been raised over his suitability to take over at Chelsea at the tender age of 40, it should not be forgotten that Jose Mourinho was just a year older who he assumed control at Stamford Bridge for the first time.
Lampard's knowledge of Chelsea's management structure means he may have an advantage over Mourinho if that role is to be his destiny, yet his priority for now is ending his first season as a manager on the ultimate high note.
Derby's remarkable play-off semi-final win against Leeds United cemented the suspicion that this likable and fiercely competitive giant of the game is emerging as a manager of considerable clout, even though he admits the strains of management have taken their toll on him.
"Football management is a tough job and while I appreciate a lot of people do more challenging jobs than this, it is mentally draining on a number of levels," reflects Lampard, who has been away from his London-based family for long periods this season.
"I need a holiday. I need to switch off from this and I will look forward to that after the game at Wembley on Monday, but we have a massive football match to try and win first and if we achieve that, then we can enjoy our summer.
"Villa are a top side and we know they will pose us some real problems. Jack Grealish is a fantastic young player and he has matured in the last couple of years, but they are about more than one player.
"They are probably going into this game as favourites, but we have been in that position a lot this season have my players have responded to that. Performing at Wembley in a game as big as this is a different ball game, we know that, but we are ready for it."
Lampard will come face-to-face with his former Chelsea team-mate John Terry at Wembley, with the Derby manager relishing the challenge of sparring on the touchline with his old pal.
"I am delighted that John has got to Wembley with Villa because that means he has done well in his managerial path," he added. "I don't see it as a problem that he is one of my best friends and I'm looking forward to trying to get one over on him.
"If it goes against my team, I will shake John's hand and congratulate him and Dean on their achievement, but hopefully that won't be the story on Monday.
"To win this game on Monday would be right up there with the best moments in my career. It doesn't get any higher than winning the Champions League with Chelsea, but this would be right up there."
Honest, engaging and oozing a magnetism that tends to be injected into those destined for success, Lampard is a very modern who has earned his chance in a top coaching job via a traditional method of making his name as a superstar player.
Hanging him the keys of power at Chelsea just a year into his management career may viewed as a gamble, but this icon has always been different when compared to the pack around him.
It may be that Chelsea need to turn to one of their all-time greats as they aim to find their next special one.
NEXT CHELSEA MANAGER ODDS
Frank Lampard 1/4
Maximiliano Allegri 15/2
Nuno Espirito Santo 14/1
Diego Simeone 18/1
Jose Mourinho 18/1
Didier Deschamps 20/1