“The fans are due their grievances. When you ask them to love a club so much, you can’t then ask them to not have an opinion.”
When Frank Lampard took over at Everton in late January, the assignment was clear. Nothing short of retaining Everton’s Premier League status would suffice.
The mammoth task of the club’s long-term rebuild had to be put on the back-burner.
As one of the Premier League’s founding members, it was almost inconceivable that the Toffees would fall out of the division. Yet their future remains uncertain.
Everton could still be playing Championship football when the 2022/23 season rolls around in August. However, their chances of remaining in the top flight have been much improved under the stewardship of Lampard.
The dice with danger was certainly much starker in early April, following a 3-2 loss to fellow relegation contenders Burnley. But fortunes have since conspired to favour Lampard’s side.
A pick-up in form has arrived just at the right time, Evertonians have continued to rally around the club in support of Lampard’s regime and other teams embroiled in the relegation battle are faltering under the pressure, just as Everton are beginning to prosper.
The job is by no means complete, but it is clear Lampard’s influence is having a positive effect on Everton’s perilous plight.
They have taken as many points in their last six league ties as they did in their previous 22, so has the penny finally dropped at Goodison?
“It is a step forward because going into the Chelsea game [a 1-0 victory on May 1], it looked different,” Lampard said. “We had those games in hand, but you’d rather have points in your pocket.
“I think it’s been a really good reaction from that tough moment. Players have reacted on the pitch, fans have reacted, it’s been a very unified club feel.
“We’ve picked up seven points in the three most recent games, we’re happy with that. Slightly disappointed at Watford, but it’s put us in a decent place. We have to guard against complacency because the situation can flip very quickly.
“We know we’re in the critical phase of the season. Our focus has to be complete; cut out all the noise. I have to listen to the noise maybe, but the players can cut it out and turn up Sunday ready to perform. Two games at Goodison is a good thing for us, with our fans behind us.”
Everton are beginning to offer their supporters payback for their unwavering support. It is almost as if the peril of this season has drawn Evertonians closer to their club.
Putting their grievances aside, fans have adorned the street outside Finch Farm to wave the bus off ahead of important fixtures against Leicester and Watford, while the atmosphere at Goodison Park has been consistently electric.
The gravity of the situation has provoked unity, not division. When asked what role the fans have played in the recent upturn in results, Lampard said: “I was aware [of the fanbase] when I came here – I knew the club’s history.
“Playing against Everton as a player, it was always a difficult place to come. I knew that this is a region of the country where football is life for people.
“So, I understood that. But to feel it first hand, it’s been extraordinary. The backing of the fans in this moment has played a huge part. It can’t help but endear you to the club and take it into your heart. It drags you in and you want to do it for them, to a big degree.”
Tension has eased, but that feeling can be fleeting. Everton are unbeaten in their last four home games, scoring one goal in all four ties, but any misconceptions of safety would be extremely premature.
A twist in the tale is bound to arise at some point – fans of a particular generation will remember Everton’s great escape of 1994, as relegation was staved off with a dramatic comeback victory over Wimbledon on the final day.
Prior to this season, the club’s recent motivation has been more concerned with how to break the top four, than how to avoid the bottom three, but history details occasions where Everton have flirted with the idea of relegation, if not succumbed to its pull.
As manager, Lampard is happy to shoulder that responsibility: “From my experience, this is the most intense pressure you can get. I’ve played at the top end, I’ve managed in and around the top end, but the threat of relegation to a club is such a huge deal.
“What it means to the club, to the fans, to the people who work here at the club and the people who care about the club. You feel that responsibility as the manager.”
He added: “The fans are due their grievances. When you ask them to love a club so much, you can’t then ask them to not have an opinion. But what I have seen is how much of a positive impact they can have on us. It certainly helps the players.
“You’ve seen the team grow in a short time with that backing. So let’s hope we can keep that together. I’m not asking for anything as a written rule but if we can keep that together it shows how strong we are.
“I am very happy to hear how they [the fans] want this team to play. I think you have to tap into that and give the fans a team they want to support and are a reflection of how they feel.
“Everton, particularly, is a club that demands passion, drive, sprints, tackles and fighting for the badge. We have to deliver that.”
On the pitch, results have changed for the better, with Everton structurally sounder. Playing with three centre-halves has offered a solidity that was previously lacking. At home, they have conceded just once in their previous four clashes – a Harvey Barnes strike in a 1-1 draw with Leicester. This weekend, the Toffees can go four league games unbeaten for the first time since their first four under Rafael Benítez.
It’s a far cry from the destitution felt at Turf Moor in early April, where a resurgent Burnley overturned a first-half deficit to score three times past Everton’s otherwise unflappable goalkeeper.
When asked if he thought it possible for Everton to reach a point of safety with games to spare this term, Lampard remarked honestly: “Possibly not. It felt like a game we were in control of, and it turned on us, which can bring a momentum swing if you’re not careful.
“It’s credit to everyone that we’ve got ourselves in the position we are now from that moment [against Burnley]. Because there’s no doubt it was a tough night.
“The players have now found a growth in their own confidence. I came into the club off the back of some difficult results, that’s why I’m here I suppose.
“We’ve been working against that, developing the team’s confidence. When you come in mid-season, you must learn very quickly about your players.”
So, has Lampard abandoned a possession-based philosophy in favour of a ‘needs must’ approach? Defensively, it seems to be working – three clean sheets in the last four at Goodison and Everton reduced Watford to zero shots on target midweek – but debate has since risen over their potency at the opposite end of the pitch.
We’ve found a way recently to win games – it’s not perfection. We’re not having possession like I really want, but we’ve shown an incredible spirit, togetherness and discipline, in terms of how we approach games and it’s got us results.
“We’ve found a way recently to win games – it’s not perfection,” the former midfielder conceded. “We’re not having possession like I really want, but we’ve shown an incredible spirit, togetherness and discipline, in terms of how we approach games and it’s got us results.
“There are things as a coach you have to compromise on. We have different attributes in different areas of the pitch. In the earlier days of me being here, you look at the Man City game, we were very deep, very compact, good distances – we lost because of a bad decision, in my opinion. We have always been pragmatic when we need to be.
“But recently we’ve found a consistency in our game plan which has helped the players. When you’re in a relegation battle you play under tension – it heightens the tension. So sometimes breaking the game down and playing more simply is an important thing to get the results you need. Not over-complicating things.”
Sat at Everton’s Finch Farm training ground, the former Derby and Chelsea boss isn’t shy of tackling the tougher subject matter. Lampard’s first game in charge on Merseyside was against Sunday’s opponents Brentford – a 4-1 FA Cup victory – and he was happy to reflect on the magnitude of the task that remains, despite the progress made since early February.
“If I’m honest, I came to a club where you could feel there was a slight disconnect. It was quite nice to be fresh coming into that and honest about how I saw it.
“Hopefully fans have seen that in me. I care a lot. I work hard and I’m invested in what I do. I think that’s the first thing they must see from you.
“The extra bit is how you can get the team playing and recently we’ve had big results against big teams. That always helps. You will always be defined by results in the end.
“I like striving to do well to make the fans happy, it’s what makes you better as a coach. I wouldn’t have taken on the challenge of coming to Everton otherwise.
“I was proud to take this role on, but you know the pressure that comes with that. I enjoy the challenge, and it’s been one, there’s no doubt. But I certainly feel like I’m a coach that’s learning every day.”
Before departing, the 43-year-old summed up his feelings towards Everton’s faithful fanbase. “Not normal” he concluded. The comment was in relation to the show of appreciation from travelling supporters inside King Power Stadium last weekend, who witnessed a critical 2-1 victory over the Foxes.
Lampard made a point of thanking the fans who had made the 240-mile round trip, but not to soak up the adulation. As a display of gratitude and respect for a community that has served as the lifeblood of Everton’s recent revival – a community that may well erupt inside Goodison on Sunday if victory over Brentford (should Leeds also fail to beat Brighton) guarantees Premier League survival.
“I felt very thankful to be on the pitch at the end of the Leicester game because not every manager gets to feel that. That’s not normal. It’s not normal for fans to stay for 20 minutes after the final whistle, singing and taking over a stadium.
“I definitely feel privileged to be a part of that and then my part of the bargain is obviously to work as hard as I can to deliver success.
“We’re taking it to a place now where the fans and the players and the club are very close. We can’t take that for granted. We have to stay in the league and then go away over the summer and get better – they will expect that from us. It feels a good moment for club togetherness but we must drive that forward.”
Having explained passionately about the impact of supporters, Lampard finished by offering his assessment of Jordan Pickford in recent weeks. The England international has conceded four goals from an xG against of 7.35 since early April – his 3.35 differential in that period is higher than any other goalkeeper in the league.
“He’s an important member of the squad. He’s a huge player and with huge players you need them to deliver. Every top team I’ve ever known has a great goalkeeper because they deliver in big moments, so it’s crucial he’s delivered for us. He’s won us points. I’m fortunate to work with a keeper of that level.
“He’s playing at a really high level and for me, he’s absolutely delivering at a level that an England No.1 would. You’ve seen the faith Gareth [Southgate] has in him and that makes him a better goalkeeper for us.”