It is often said that, as a manager, your career is directly linked to your reputation. Sometimes perception, rather than results and concrete performances, are taken into account. Supporters and the media are the unofficial jury which boardrooms often pay attention to when deciding on the future of their dugout. Winning games is still the best currency to cash for a good standing, but other factors, such as personality, style, previous accomplishments and pre-existing relationship with a club can also become valid. With so many factors helping decide popularity and even suitability, there is a lot of space for hypocrisy, and Frank Lampard has been one of the key beneficiaries of this in recent seasons.
Some sections of a fanbase or a wider press and pundit pack can take to someone where they wouldn’t somebody else, and the discourse which follows can impact the pressure someone is under. Lampard was extremely fortunate to land the Chelsea job after Maurizio Sarri departed Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2019. There were a number of those other factors involved in the clamour for him to take over. He hadn’t done especially well in his maiden managerial season at Derby County, securing a Championship playoff spot late in the season and losing the final to Aston Villa. As Chelsea’s all time top goalscorer and a legendary former player, he was fast-tracked into the conversation.
Many pundits on the circuit, one-time England teammates, were delighted for their friend, while even some of those who didn’t know him were happy to push the notion that a promising, young British coach was finally getting a crack at one of the top jobs instead of someone from overseas, which was as disturbing as it was disingenuous.
Lampard’s reputation as an amicable, intelligent individual instantly turned the back pages and column inches in his favour, too. But none of the personal stuff would set him up to actually do the job well, so the angle which was peddled was that his knowledge of Chelsea and their youth system, combined with his willingness to give young players a chance and play attractive football, made him the perfect candidate. Roman Abramovich, the club’s owner, was being forced to curb his desire for instant gratification which had plagued his 16-year ownership until that point, because a transfer ban was looming, and star man Eden Hazard had already joined Real Madrid. The Blues have one of the best academies in the country and it finally needed somebody to harness its produce.
Rather than providing a real test of Lampard’s mettle, the ban created a shield. Very little was expected in his first season, much less than almost anyone who had worked under the trigger-happy finger of Abramovich. Carlo Ancelotti, for example, was mercilessly fired in the tunnel at Goodison Park — where he is now in charge of Everton — a year after winning a domestic double, despite finishing second in the Premier League.
By contrast, Lampard was a figure of sympathy, and so there was no awkward cut of his throat from above; he battled on with his band of plucky, talented youngsters, minus Hazard’s inspiration, and reached the Champions League with a fourth-placed finish. There was also an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal, which didn’t seem to work against him, despite the fact that Sarri, almost universally disliked by those so keen to back Lampard, won the Europa League and finished third. Chelsea had regressed, but it was okay, it had been a tough year with plenty of obstacles to overcome; next year would be better.
It was difficult to ignore the aforementioned reasons for his support — the faith in youth, understanding the club’s culture and no opportunity to remedy poor squad strength — being thrown to one side in the summer. The transfer ban had been lifted and, armed with the Hazard money burning a whole in his pocket, Lampard was backed in a way few others have been, even by Abramovich. Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell, Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva all arrived as part of a major squad overhaul. Yet still, despite huge outlay, a title challenge wasn’t expected and early form was lauded as punching above Chelsea’s weight. Nobody else, either before him or at other clubs, is afforded a similar luxury.
Now, with three defeats and just one win in their last five games, sitting in sixth place and Werner and Havertz struggling to muster any sort of form, Chelsea are staring down the barrel of a difficult moment. Lampard’s perception is changing slightly, discontent among his supporters is growing, but were Sarri struggling in the same way, there is no way the discourse would be as quiet as it is. Lampard isn’t the only one to profit from this privilege — Ryan Giggs was fronted for almost every Premier League job by influential friends in the media because he was a great player for Manchester United and a popular figure, and Steve Bruce’s failures are constantly being justified at Newcastle United.
Sam Allardyce is two games into his rescue mission at West Bromwich Albion after replacing Slaven Bilic. Allardyce represents and justifies an era and certain attitudes for a number of pundits, and in that respect it is very important he succeeds to keep their view of football relevant. There is no doubting his record of shoring teams up and battling relegation, particularly recently, but that has dominated the discussion since he took over. Every day he is mentioned, people are reminded of his reputation as a ‘fire-fighter’ and a ‘survival specialist’; it precedes him, and almost writes the story before he lives it, aided by the positive narrative.
Immediately after the Baggies’ draw with Liverpool — the first match in which the Reds dropped points at home this season — the performance was dubbed a ‘Big Sam masterclass’, as if he had come in and made the difference instantly. The draw at Manchester City in Bilic’s final game was conveniently forgotten; as evidence that the spirit and organisation was already in place to a degree, it was put to one side because it contradicts the Allardyce story.
Perhaps Frank Lampard will succeed at Chelsea, maybe Sam Allardyce will save West Brom; but they are two examples of how backwards pundit and football opinion culture is in Britain. There are clear conflicts of interest; people are far too concerned about criticising friends (see Manchester United and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for yet another example), while also have an ‘ideal’ image of a successful manager they simply won’t allow to be disproven. Too often, opinions form based on peripheral factors; only when football becomes a true meritocracy can things improve.
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