When the board went up with 20 minutes remaining and Steven Gerrard was about to make his final World Cup appearance for England, it was something of a surprise that he would be replacing Jack Wilshere and not Frank Lampard.
However, it was appropriate that the veterans should reach the climax of their journey together, alongside each other in the England midfield. Two careers inextricably linked right to the end.
The debate about whether they can play together is over. The discussion about who was the better player will go on rather longer. But perhaps now is the time to accept they were among the country’s very best.
This feels like a more divisive era. Bryan Robson never endured such vitriol. Ninety caps and 26 goals were enough to establish Captain Marvel as an England icon, afforded unanimous respect throughout the land.
Lampard and Gerrard boast similar England records, each passing the 100 cap mark and with 29 and 21 goals respectively. In 2005 they finished second and third in the Ballon d’Or voting, Lampard winning the Premier League, Gerrard lifting the Champions League.
Best in Europe
In an era when Wayne Rooney is arguably England’s only top-class player aged between 23 and 34, it seems extraordinary that a panel of experts considered two English midfielders among the best in Europe. Given that the award went to Brazil’s Ronaldinho, they were Europe’s best.
And yet, for much of their careers there has been a tendency to focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can. Savvy one-touch technicians with intricate footwork in tight spaces, they were not.
With the success of Spanish football at club and international level, establishing that style as the way to play football, the reputations of players such as Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo have flourished to the point of reverence.
In the case of Scholes, the very existence of Lampard and Gerrard came to be regarded by some as an annoyance given that Sven Goran Eriksson’s preference for the pair forced the Manchester United man into a left-midfield role and an early retirement from the national team.
However, the notion that Lampard and Gerrard were a level below these aforementioned peers necessitates a dismissive regard for one key attribute - the ability to score goals.
It’s a curious business, but the 20-yarder has become too crude for some, casting Lampard and Gerrard in the role of artisans rather than artists. Science not art. And while’s Dante’s Divine Comedy has inspired artists for centuries, nobody waxes lyrical about Boyle’s Law of Thermodynamics… or a deflected pot-shot into the corner of the Crystal Palace net.
Of course, when it comes to affecting the game, goalscoring is about as fundamental as it gets. In the four seasons between 2005 and 2009, Lampard scored 81 goals for Chelsea with Gerrard netting 79 for Liverpool. Twenty goal a season men.
The only English Premier League player to hit that tally last season was striker Daniel Sturridge. Indeed, even the veteran versions of Lampard and Gerrard between them scored more than the combined output of midfield alternatives Jordan Henderson, Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner.
It further emphasises the point that in this era when English players so often seem to be making up the numbers in teams, there to complement the foreign stars, Lampard and Gerrard were the real deal. Individuals who didn’t so much take part in games as take over.
It is too late for regrets, but despite the common misconception that it ought to have been one or the other in the England starting line-up, it remains remarkable how rarely national team managers elected to truly unleash them together.
Amazingly, England only ever picked the pair in a midfield three on two occasions in the World Cup. The first was a 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006 in a game that remains the last knockout match won by England at a major tournament. The second was the subsequent 0-0 draw with Portugal where the plan was forcibly scrapped after an hour upon Rooney’s sending off.
As a result, any lingering frustration should be with the way they were misused by managers rather than focus on this perceived inability to work together as a pair. In their prime, they were being asked to do so with one hand tied behind their back. If it wasn’t quite as daft as playing two goalkeepers, it was scarcely more logical than fielding two left-wingers with one at left-back.
A wasted opportunity then, but far from wasted careers - for club and country. Divisive figures in their pomp, will they soon be united in international retirement? Whatever happens next, don’t be surprised if the debate is framed differently in 2018. “Henderson and Wilshere,” they’ll say. “Nice, neat passers. But where’s the Lampard or Gerrard to crack it in from 20 yards?”