It seemed as if the summer of 2019 marked the end of a glorious era in Chelsea’s history.
Some 16 years after Roman Abramovich purchased the club in a deal worth £140m and rapidly turned them from pretenders into serial trophies winners, Frank Lampard’s appointment as manager cemented the suspicion that new targets were being created at Stamford Bridge.
A transfer embargo imposed on the club after Chelsea were found to have broken UEFA rules on signing young players added to the confused picture that saw star man Eden Hazard leaving in a £90m move to Real Madrid and Alvaro Morata offloaded to Atletico Madrid in a deal that will be worth around £58m to the west London club.
The bigger question surrounded Abramovich’s commitment to the club and a perception that he had turned off his cash tap at Chelsea, with sources close to the Russian billionaire regularly denying stories that he was looking to sell the team.
While Lampard was a special case for so many reasons, the move to promote the club’s youth-academy players into the first team was a radical change of direction for a club that invented the blueprint for buying your way to success.
Lampard’s first press conference as Chelsea manager was a masterclass in diluting expectations, as the returning hero suggested his young side would be ‘underdogs’ to secure a top-four finish that was the minimum target that needs to be reached to remain in this job.
Back then, it was unclear whether Abramovich would redirect his spare change to solve Chelsea’s problems when their transfer ban came to an end, or whether Lampard could engineer a winning formula in a squad lacking proven goalscorers and defensive options.
Roll the clock forward 12 months and the football landscape has changed beyond recognition to the point that, suddenly, Lampard finds himself holding most of the aces in the pack as he heads into the final furlong of this unfathomable season.
After winning the race to sign Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech earlier this year, their coup of seeing off Liverpool in the race to sign RB Leipzig striker Timo Werner offered the most compelling evidence yet that Abramovich’s wallet has been dusted down in readiness to change the game all over again.
A year without any transfer spending and the £150m from the Hazard and Morata deals may have funded the two marquee signings of this summer’s transfer window so far, with Chelsea now targeting a deal to sign Bayer Leverkusen’s highly-rated attacking midfielder Kai Havertz in a deal that would be worth up to €100m.
So while winners have been hard to find in a year that has seen misery poured onto every facet of our lives in sickening volumes, Chelsea look set to be one of football’s big benefactors as flickers of light start to emerge from the black hole the world was plunged into amid the Covid-19 fight.
As Lampard reflected on the signing of Werner and side-stepped questions on the other transfer targets on his horizon, he could have been singing from a hymn sheet his former managers Claudio Ranieri, Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti would have been familiar with during their free-spending days in the Blues hot seat.
"It is nice to be talking about signing players, or avoiding questions about others we might be signing, because we couldn’t do this for a long time," said a smiling Lampard, as he opened up on his successful pursuit of Werner.
"Getting a player like Timo is massive for us. He’s got huge talent, had a fantastic season this year but before that as well. He is a player I have followed for a long time, even before I got this job.
"We couldn’t do as much business in the last couple of windows for whatever reasons, it’s given us a chance to see some youth have more time in the team, but we were very clear about the fact we wanted to improve.
"And Timo Werner is always a signing that will improve us."
With Chelsea expected to offload the experienced midfielder duo of Willian and Pedro, as well as misfiring striker Michy Batshuayi ahead of next season, additional space on their wage bill may free up space for a signing of Havertz’s calibre, which was unthinkable only just a year ago.
Opportunity is knocking for Lampard and the significance of the final games of this season do not need to be emphasised. Lampard has already gone a long way to proving his credentials as Chelsea manager with an encouraging start to his reign, yet his bright young side will be given a whole new dimension when Ziyech, Werner and possibly Havertz are added to his pack.
The lion emblazoned on the breasts of the Chelsea players each week is threatening to roar once again, so Lampard dare not allow this golden opportunity to pass him by.