The epitaph for Frank Lampard hung in the empty Shed End. It said: “In Frank We Trust. Then. Now. Forever.”
They must have winced in the boardroom. Trust had evaporated long before Chelsea’s 3-1 win over Luton Town in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday. The decision to sack the 42-year-old had already been made. Thomas Tuchel is likely to be appointed quickly as his replacement.
The banner, created by supporters, touched the Chelsea hero. "I don't know if emotional was the word, but people who know about how I feel about this club will understand,” he said. “It's a two-way thing from the first time I came here, maybe 20 years ago nearly.
"So I'm very thankful for that support, and it's great to see it at the Bridge. I feel it very strongly indeed.”
Defeat in five of the past eight Premier League matches made the departure inevitable. Lampard can complain that a season and a half was not enough time to get Chelsea on the right track. He took over after Maurizio Sarri’s departure and inherited a team that had finished third in the Premier League and won the Europa League. A transfer ban in his first season lowered expectations. Nevertheless, the former Derby County boss achieved Champions League qualification. A spending splurge of more than £220m changed the landscape last summer. Now he had to deliver.
On Sunday there were glimpses of what could have been. Chelsea had spells when they were flamboyant, swaggering flat-track bullies toying with their Championship opponents. During other phases in the game they were barely distinguishable from Luton, despite the yawning gap in talent. They were 2-0 up within 17 minutes. Tammy Abraham scored twice and it was almost an exhibition.
They played like a team who were conscious of their own excellence. Timo Werner produced an insolent dummy; Hakim Ziyech performed stepovers in the snow like he was an intangible winter wisp; Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount and Billy Gilmour swaggered with the ball.
But the goals did not come. Chelsea seemed distracted by their own superiority. A sense of entitlement crept in.
And complacency. Luton pulled a goal back on the half hour and for the next 40 minutes the match was in the balance. The Championship team should have equalised. It was not good enough for Chelsea.
As a player Lampard was mean-eyed, relentless and all business. There was nothing flash about the midfielder. There were no frills. His team never inherited that mentality. They are too decorative when they need to be dangerous. Their flaws are as much philosophical as structural, although Lampard was still wrestling with the side’s shape on Sunday.
The clarity of thought he showed on the pitch has not been present during his management career. He has been unable to convey his economy of purpose to the squad.
Timo Werner, who cost £48m from RB Leipzig in the summer, distilled the essence of Chelsea this season in one performance against Luton. He set up Abraham’s first goal and had a brief, coruscating period before wandering down the blind alley of anonymity. He emerged again when Abraham scored the third and the Premier League side were back on show-offy top to produce an almost comic cameo where he missed a sitter and a penalty.
Werner’s talent is apparent, as is the fact that Lampard is not getting the best out of him. The German is not the only one to whom that description could be applied.
Even against Luton, Lampard was still talking about tinkering with systems, trying to work out how best to deploy his expensively assembled squad. There was a sense that he was learning on the job. This is just his third season in the dugout and he is a long way from being the finished article. What is bizarre is that he was doing it at Chelsea, a place where they are not interested in personal development and growth, only trophies. One former manager put it succinctly. “They live and die by the Champions League,” he said. With the team sitting uncomfortably in ninth place in the table, patience ran out.
Tuchel, who parted company with Paris Saint-Germain before Christmas, has a clearer vision of how he wants to play. His combative attitude and arrogance may cause problems but the decision to act fast has already been made. The German will have to deliver quickly, though, and Lampard’s fate should be instructive to the 47-year-old.
The banner came down, the manager was hung out to dry. That is the way things happen SW6, whether you are a club legend or not. Lampard has been around Chelsea long enough to know that is how it works.