Everton’s Premier League survival: Lampard’s people skills, Kenwright’s speech and bringing fans together
Greg O'Keeffe and Patrick Boyland
May 21, 2022
To outsiders inclined to sneer, Frank Lampard simply took Everton from 16th place to 16th place.
They point out that Everton’s final position is likely to be the same as when the 43-year-old arrived. They will say that securing the club’s top-flight status was fine but did not justify the euphoria that erupted at Goodison Park on Thursday or the plaudits and affection Lampard inspired from those relieved fans.
Except that view ignores a royal blue ocean of context — one that underlines the mammoth task facing Lampard when he walked into Finch Farm as Rafa Benitez’s successor in February.
He may only have taken one more point than the Spaniard achieved, and the wins might not have arrived as frequently as he would have liked.
But those behind the scenes of the last four tumultuous months at Everton insist the changes Lampard enacted have been monumental in dragging the Merseysiders over the line to safety with a game to spare. Propelled by a magical symmetry with the club’s fractured fanbase, the turnaround was enough to deliver a great escape.
This is how they did it.
The party started on the pitch, moved to the dressing room before bursting through some corporate lounges and then on into the night.
Bottles of Staropramen beer had doubled for karaoke microphones in the dressing room, as celebratory music blared out. Lampard thanked everyone and then, his voice nearly wobbling, reserved extra gratitude for Seamus Coleman, who was reluctant to take centre stage.
Richarlison was beckoned to speak and in his incorrigible style, he muttered “good game”, burst into a smile and flung the ice he had packed onto his thigh into the air, triggering another round of cheers. Yerry Mina kept the chorus of “Spirit of the Blues” going, while accidentally knocking a ceiling panel loose. Joyous pandemonium. The soundtrack of heavy pressure evaporating.
Then there was more singing and appearances for some supporters in the lounges, led by Mason Holgate’s dulcet tones. Finally, after leaving the stadium Everton’s players reconvened for a night out. It was notable to several close to the first team just how many of the squad joined the impromptu and relatively brief gathering.
It was yet another sign of the unity Lampard and his staff have hammered into the core of the group since arriving.
Along with the significant leadership of captain Coleman, a process of healing had been completed that stretched beyond just the players.
Until February, the 2021-22 campaign has been one of ruptures, exits and a club spiralling out of control. When director of football Marcel Brands left in December, his relationship with Benitez in tatters, other less high-profile departures compounded matters. The popular manager of scouting and operations, Dan Purdy, also left. Everton would re-hire Purdy three months later, but his resignation added discord, especially coming a month after the hugely respected head of medical services Danny Donachie had been forced out.
Then there was the high-profile exit in January of France international Lucas Digne, a complex scenario in which the player had not behaved impeccably but was nevertheless allowed to happen as a result of Benitez’s uncompromising approach. It weakened the team — and everyone knew it.
Lampard did not just walk into a relegation fight. He inherited a toxic atmosphere at Finch Farm that was contributing to the malaise. One source says the training ground was a “shitty place to be” during the end of Benitez’s brief and unloved reign, and Lampard quickly set about using his soft skills as a “people person” to reach for togetherness.
He took the players and staff out for an early meal and the first impression was of a decent person who was not going to drive people out of their jobs.
It did not stop some woes piling up — injuries followed to key men such as Andros Townsend, Yerry Mina, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Fabian Delph, as well as a catalogue of contentious refereeing decisions that cost Everton dearly in points and personnel.
But Lampard doubled down on the unity. Before March’s significant 1-0 home victory over Newcastle, a dramatic night that began the turnaround in the atmosphere at Goodison, the manager took the squad on a trip to a bowling alley to lighten the mood.
A strong working relationship was quickly developed with the new director of football, Kevin Thelwell. The pair’s offices are directly opposite each other at the training ground, and there is plenty of face-to-face dialogue between them, with frequent chats across the corridor. It is a positive sign that may avoid the rifts that developed between previous incumbents of both roles such as Steve Walsh and Ronald Koeman, and Marcel Brands and Benitez.
Lampard’s office overlooks the first-team training pitch at Finch Farm and for that, he has Benitez to thank. Upon his arrival in the summer, the Spaniard could not understand why Brands’ office overlooked the pitches while the manager’s view was a car park. He insisted they be swapped, proving at least that some uncomfortable change — when sensitively handled — can make sense.
Lampard was supportive of Thelwell’s insistence that the club seek the very best candidates for the key roles of academy director and under-23s coach. Both were privately surprised that David Unsworth, who left last month, combined the jobs, considering the scope and responsibility involved.
At board level, Lampard is the first manager of the Farhad Moshiri era who has been truly appointed by committee. Every board member agreed he was the right man, getting their candidate despite Moshiri’s sway towards Portuguese Vitor Pereira, and the eventual appointment of the former Chelsea captain proved that the Iranian billionaire was willing to try a multilateral approach.
It energised chairman Bill Kenwright, who had been demoralised by Moshiri’s appointment of Benitez. Two days before the Newcastle United win, Kenwright gathered the squad in a conference room at Finch Farm. He had travelled from his home in London to Merseyside to sound a rallying cry.
He talked about his own love of Everton, which began as an eight-year-old child (Kenwright is 76). He talked about parents and children walking hand-in-hand to Goodison each match day, the need to fight for them, and his memories of the 1960s, including how he ended up in a fountain while celebrating the club’s 1966 FA Cup final win. The Holy Trinity midfield of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, and the former’s emotive speech as manager in the ’80s that many saw as the catalyst for the glory days that followed.
Then he addressed the players in the room individually, praising Michael Keane for never hiding and Ben Godfrey for a tackle against Arsenal that put “one of their players” into the stands.
“You can have all the skills, but if you run for an Evertonian they will love you.”
The squad were asked if they should be in this predicament at all, prompting unanimous shakes of the head.
Pressure is not a home game against Newcastle, they were told, but attempting to claw back a 2-0 deficit against Wimbledon on the final day of the 1993-94 season to avoid relegation. Two months later, as fate would have it, they would relate to that even more acutely.
The Newcastle win was a memorable evening but it was a red herring. Three defeats followed, culminating in the 3-2 set-back at Turf Moor when it is understood some of Everton’s players privately feared that relegation was coming.
Next up was Manchester United, themselves smarting from a difficult spell. Something had to change — cue the monumental shift in mindset from Everton fans that was every bit as key to survival as the man in the dug-out.
An assortment of disparate fan groups, whose frustration led some to call for other fans to walk out on the 27th minute of a victory over Arsenal in December, tried another approach. Anger, disappointment and fear were put on hold — raucous, unflinching, passionate support would be the antidote. It worked.
Little tweaks gathered momentum. Club officials and members of the fans’ forum had been meeting regularly to discuss plans to improve the atmosphere at home matches. They created a pre-match playlist to be blasted at Goodison, designed new banners and dished out flags, and eventually settled on the pivotal step of greeting the players’ coach on match days in their thousands with flares and songs.
Some of the players had spoken of feeling almost intimidated by playing in front of these same fans at times in the past.
Before February’s 3-0 win over Leeds, Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster had shared an insightful thought on the Goodison crowd.
“If you can get on top of Everton early doors, the Everton fans are horrible to the Everton players,” he said on his Fozcast podcast. “We always say before the game that we need to start fast, we need to get on top of them.”
At first, Everton’s players were a little startled by the turnaround. Initial bewilderment turned to deep gratitude. Players without much previous connection began to really get what the club meant to the city, with Coleman’s constant mantra of reminders ramming home the message.
The Athletic understands the captain reminded everyone how relegation might have far-reaching consequences beyond the obvious. It could mean some training ground stalwarts, match-day stewards and support staff — the friendly faces they knew so well — losing their jobs. The danger was very real.
Increasingly Lampard was viewed as fighting for the fans and the club, internally and externally. His accusation that some players had lacked “bollocks” in the FA Cup defeat at Crystal Palace seemed to give voice to the fans’ ire. He was not just there to soothe egos, although he did that at the right times with encouragement and positivity that coaxed unprecedented performances from players such as Alex Iwobi and Vitalii Mykolenko, among others.
His railing against the authorities, particularly after refereeing decisions went against Everton in defeats at Manchester City and Liverpool, felt like he was speaking for the fans again. He was building a siege mentality and before the pivotal win over Chelsea last month, the fan forum reiterated the message.
“It feels like everyone on the outside – other clubs, other fans, pundits, the media — is enjoying seeing a club of our size in the position we are in,” said a message on the club’s official website.
“If it’s us against the world, that’s fine. Let’s have a siege mentality for these final games — because it’s that sort of spirit that can and will get us out of this. And we know there is no group of fans and no city in the world that could do it better.”
Despite all this, redemption was not a straight line. Huge steps forward were followed by backward stumbles. The wins over United, Chelsea and Leicester came before a stultifying draw at Watford, then Sunday’s bleak defeat by Brentford.
Lampard admitted that circumstances were challenging his powers of motivation. “The day before we played Chelsea, when the gap (to safety) opened to five points, there was a realisation of the situation,” he said on Thursday. “Reality smacks you in the face. That was the moment we all dug in.
“I’m quite tough like that. If I take on something and understand what it is, I can’t make excuses in my head. I just have to think, ‘What can I do to make this better?’.
“It’s tested me. You wonder how many motivational talks you can make to players.”
He was still juggling a difficult injury list. Lampard was effectively forced into starting Andre Gomes against Crystal Palace on Thursday, with Brazilian midfielder Allan not fully fit. It is understood the 31-year-old has been carrying a knock and may need surgery on a hernia problem in the post-season, but delayed it to at least make the bench with Delph totally ruled out.
Lampard had to be malleable in his style, shifting from his preferred possession-based approach to a direct style against City, United and Chelsea. It was something he had to return to when things got sticky, especially against Palace, when he withdrew Gomes at half-time for Dele Alli and turned an overrun midfield two into three.
“We were very direct at times tonight,” he said afterwards. “My important points before the game and at half-time were that I didn’t want Richarlison wide, he’s not a winger, I wanted him close to Dominic Calvert-Lewin. These things were very game-specific for tonight.
”There’s a long time for that stuff in terms of the work we’ll do pre-season and the potential recruitment. If we want to be better through the lines, that starts from the back and through the middle of the pitch. We’ll look at how we can work and then maybe how we can add and improve.”
The impact of Dele on that unforgettable second half was considerable and another testament to Lampard’s man management. He has not always been happy with the former Tottenham star’s application in training but has sensed he had something to give, so did not freeze him out or over-inflate his confidence. Lampard simply challenged Dele to do more.
More — and better — will have to come from everyone at the club if a near-apocalyptic campaign is never to be repeated.
But Lampard was already planning his next steps on Friday morning, before taking his staff out for a meal in Cheshire that evening. He and his team of assistants have yet to fully relocate their families to Merseyside but now their positions are secure, it is expected they will begin to plan for a rare thing at Goodison in recent years — building a reign.
After the fuzzy heads and emotions had settled on Friday, Lampard was the first to acknowledge that the hard work has not ended with safety. In many ways, it has only just begun.