Why do people want Frank Lampard to fail so much? This seems like a reasonable question at the end of a week tickled and teased by rumours that Lampard is about to be sacked at Chelsea, that “elements” within the dressing room are already jimmying away at his fixings – all wrapped up in a gleeful surge of postmortems, pile-ons, and a tangible hunger for the great Roman to whirl his terrible scythe.
And yet he still stands! No doubt to the anguish of many watching from the sidelines. Because people really do want Lampard to fall short, and in a way that feels personal. Not to mention – on the balance of the facts – a little premature.
The main charge is clear enough. It isn’t hard to make the case Lampard has been overpromoted, coddled into a top job based on his name and connections. This is because it’s demonstrably true.
As recently as 2015-17, the manager of the current highest-spending club in European football was working as a team captain on the uproarious TV quizshow Play to the Whistle.
Presumably Lampard’s on-screen manner was more genial than recent post-match appearances, which are most notable for his ability to maintain the hunted glower of a man being questioned on the hard shoulder of the A33 during a Police Stop TV show, moments before a voice says “at this point things took an alarming turn” over shots of Lampard leaping a gate and being chased across moorland by sweating men in hi-vis jackets.
Still, though. As the world wrestles with notions of merit and barriers to entry, Lampard has been a professional football manager for slightly longer than he was a humorous TV quizshow captain.
Does any of this actually matter? Football is full of heritage appointments and punts on status. This is how the game works. It is, at bottom, a star factory. Andrea Pirlo at Juventus, Phil Neville with England Women, the man in charge of the current Premier League leaders. All of these got their jobs based on something other than hard-won CV points. Some of them have done pretty well. In the end the only real qualification for the job is success when you get here.
But it is still hard to think of any other manager to have attracted this sustained white noise of jeering ill will. At times that whole energy – the anti-Lampard “vibe” – feels oddly old-fashioned, like a cartoon of the brattish and overly self-assured Premier League footballer.
Where does this come from? More than anyone else who was there, some part of Lampard still seems to carry shades of the Golden Generation waffle, the assumed debaucheries of that first generation of peak Premier League players: a place where Peter Crouch is forever doing the robot dance in front of a guffawing Prince William, where envy, Wag-rage and sporting disappointment are just starting to curdle and become something else – alienation, disillusionment, the demonising of the football fancy-boy.
Nobody else from that generation really carries that stain now. We’re fine these days. The boys of 2006 were never quite as great as we assumed: England took 10 outfield players to that tournament who had not scored an international goal. But that World Cup squad is a welcome blanket presence in the football media, providing an endless stream of really good pundits, analysts, podcasters and Jermaine Jenas.
So we have Rio Ferdinand as an impossibly wise and principled Abraham Lincoln of the lighted coffee table. We get Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, and the weird, sweaty chemistry of those relentless man-to-man punditry sessions. Steven Gerrard has also taken the manager path and is doing well at Rangers, while being seen in England – with all due apologies – as a man paying his dues in some gritty backwater.
Only Lampard of this starry group has walked with one brief stop-off into an elite English manager’s job. There he goes now, striding away in his quilted jacket, still carrying something of that world, and apparently convinced the snark he attracts is just that more familiar English scorn towards those with ambition and self-confidence (which is clearly also the case).
This is in part why people want Lampard to fail. A more interesting question is whether he actually has. Forget the delicious whiff of schadenfreude. Does Lampard genuinely deserve to be fired right now?
In reality he’s had one full season, and that was a relative success. Chelsea sold their best player and were banned from buying replacements. They finished fourth and lost against imperial-phase Bayern Munich. Eleven games into the current season, as recently as 5 December, they were top of the table and had eased into the Champions League knockout phase.
All of Lampard’s failure, his entire sacking-evidence is contained in the past six weeks. Chelsea have looked tired and muddled. And Lampard has failed completely to manage this, falling straight away into publicly blaming his players – a terrible mistake that could well do for him.
The simple take on Lampard at Chelsea is that having all those new signings was a curse not a blessing. When the job was small it was manageable. It turns out wrestling with £200m of new talent in the hardest possible league, all demanding different systems and different forms of care, is pretty difficult.
An instinctive genius with total command of detail and the capacity for ruthless self-reflection might have been able to skate though this. But there really aren’t many of those around.
And hey, three years on when Lampard sits down opposite Neville on a Monday night and says, “Being honest, Gary, it came too early”, there will perhaps be a legacy in the bedding-in of some fine young players.
In the meantime Lampard remains a more nuanced figure than some would allow. It isn’t a case of yet more blue privilege to stay the axe for now.