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The way Everton’s plight was described bluntly. Some, it was put to their manager, would think they didn’t need “this s—”. Frank Lampard, with the ready grin that can interrupt the serious points he makes in interviews, smiled and said: “Yeah, and I’m in it”. He may not be for much longer: with five points from the last 30 available in the Premier League, with Everton in the relegation zone, after losing 4-1 at home to Brighton, he goes to Old Trafford. Lampard scored in a Champions League final against Manchester United; his latest meeting with them could have a finality of a different kind.
It is the kind of fixture that beleaguered managers are sometimes given to finish them off. For Lampard, whose Chelsea reign began with 4-0 defeat at Old Trafford and ended after an FA Cup tie, whose surge to safety with Everton last season was powered by victory over United, a couple of days after seeing headlines that his job was under threat, it is a tie laced with history and significance. Lampard was not being immodest when he termed himself “a big man working for a great club”.
Rather, one of the great players of his generation was arguing that he can cope with the pressure. He has two decades of experience at the business end of the game, albeit most as a player. He has also been sacked by a club with a high turnover of managers and institutionalised impatience after a promising start to a season gave way to a troubled spell. Now he has not sought out Everton’s often capricious owner Farhad Moshiri or their rest of the board to ask if he will still be in charge for a potentially defining league game against Southampton. “I don’t need a vote of confidence, I genuinely don’t,” he said. “I don’t think it would mean much. I am also a big boy, I know how this world works, I am not presuming anything.”
If there was a defiance to Lampard, there is also a practical assessment of the situation. He was not blinded to the realities of Chelsea when he returned to Stamford Bridge. He duly suffered the same fate as other Chelsea managers. He arrived at Everton with an image forged by the great team of 1980s, who provided some of his formative footballing impressions, but also with a recognition these are more troubled times for a club who cannot be protected by their glorious past.
“I came here with my eyes wide open,” he said. “I understand that. I am big boy. I do not fear anything. In terms of the reality, that was clear last year. We were in a relegation fight when I got here. Then there is a reality in the summer when Richarlison moves on and we start to rebuild the squad. You can’t replace those goals unless you go to certain levels and we were not able to get there. I can be blunt about it. I don’t need to hide behind anything. When it is like that you have to fight to get every ounce from everything to get the time to improve.”
Everton’s issues are deep-rooted; few should think they start or end with Lampard. And yet a fundamental difference is that, if he was charged with getting Everton out of trouble when he was hired 11 months ago, now he is accused of getting them into it.
Times have changed but his honeymoon period was brief indeed. He is a curiously contentious figure and it did not take long for some to feel he was more problem than solution. He cast his thoughts back to April. “I remember sitting here last season and seeing on Sky News my job was under threat after Burnley. I remember that. Does it look different this season? Yes, because you start a season, have a pre-season, bring in a few players. But does the Premier League look different around us, too? Yes. Nottingham Forest have come up and spent £150 million.”
The case against Lampard is that even as he has been responsible for several fine signings, in James Tarkowski, Conor Coady and Amadou Onana, others, like Neal Maupay and Dwight McNeil, who between them were charged with replacing Richarlison, have had a negligible impact. There have been signs of a shift in the club’s culture; at times the team have renewed a bond with the fans. Yet Everton are short of goals, wins and points and the consequences could be huge.
“When I try to compare this to other things in my career, the jeopardy of it is a bigger deal than of winning a league because of what is at stake for the club,” Lampard said. “That adds juice to it.”
For Everton fans of a certain vintage, a cup tie proved a turning point: Oxford midfielder Kevin Brock’s infamously backpass in 1984 led to an Adrian Heath goal and a previously under-pressure Howard Kendall went on to become the club’s greatest manager. United need no reminding that, in the FA Cup third-round in 1990, Mark Robins scored the goal that went down in folklore as saving Sir Alex Ferguson’s job.
For Lampard, there is the question if he can stage a similar feat of escapology. Everton were saved after his last dramatic turnaround: 2-0 down against Crystal Palace in their final home game last season, headed for the Championship, their evening ended with Lampard bouncing in celebration on the roof of an executive box after safety was secured. Amid the hard-nosed pragmatism of his assessment of his situation came a more romantic moment as he assessed his relationship with the Everton support. “We managed to have an incredible time together, it sounds soppy to say, to stay up,” he said. “We saw the images from Palace, I lived that moment with the fans, so did everyone else at the club.” Yet the picture has grown bleaker for him since then and the danger is the cameras could soon capture shots of someone else in the Everton dugout.