The London Stadium has proven itself a fine stage for athletics, less so for football — but how about for a gameshow?
Saturday’s meeting between West Ham and Everton, a vital clash in the Premier League relegation battle, is, more pertinently, a fight for survival between David Moyes and Frank Lampard, two managers hovering precariously over technical area trapdoors, red-handled levers waiting to be pulled somewhere in the studio, to send one or t’other of the sack race front-runners hurtling towards the line.
Were it not being played behind the curtain of the 3pm blackout, this would be drama fit for Saturday night prime. “We’ll find out after the break...” a voice would cry, as Michail Antonio bore down on Jordan Pickford in the visiting goal, or perhaps some other cliff-hanger with a less predictable outcome.
This is Squid Games stuff, with jeopardy by the bucketload, and even, given Lampard’s connections, a small dose of Family Fortunes. Both managers are on the cusp of Tipping Point, of being declared the Weakest Link. By Sunday morning, one may well have heard those dreaded words: “You’re fired!”
Except, of course, none of this is confected, the product not of a broadcaster’s executive ideas meeting, but of two runs of frankly dismal form. The tension is all real and the prize not one of life-changing advancement but of a stasis that may last only as long as the can is still being kicked down the road by arbiters carrying multiple concerns. Everton’s board are barred from home fixtures over fears for their own safety; David Sullivan is mourning the passing of friend and business partner David Gold.
Ultimately at stake are the jobs of two men clearly so invested in the footballing institutions they represent, stung deeply by every defeat and wanting little more than to turn their respective clubs’ fortunes around. Both have managed it before — Lampard with Everton at the end of last season and Moyes twice, at the start of each of his West Ham spells — but are running out of time to do so again, with only goal difference keeping either off the bottom of the division.
The sympathy with Lampard lies in that he is only the latest in a line of coaches, many of them more talented, who has wilted at a club historically grand but presently failing. With Moyes, it is that West Ham’s cycle of malaise was not dissimilar until he retook charge and raised the bar.
Moyes, therefore, has greater conviction that the solution lies somewhere within his hugely talented squad, not to mention far more credit in the bank. On the other side of the coin is a higher level of expectation and the concern that when no amount of tinkering seems to be working, it may simply be time for a change.
Experience has no doubt helped the Scot retain an air of calm in recent weeks, despite his side taking just a point from their last seven League matches.
“As a young manager, I worried much more,” Moyes said on The Diary of a CEO podcast this week. “In the position I’m in now, I worry far, far less. It’s in my blood, I love the game, I want to be here, I’m enjoying what I’m doing, but it wouldn’t be the end of the Earth if something went wrong for me. But my pride and my determination is that I want to be successful and do a really good job for West Ham.”
Lampard surely cannot benefit from the same clarity, his prospects beyond Everton unclear amid the suspicion the former Chelsea boss has been fortunate already with the opportunities afforded so early in his managerial career. For both men, it is difficult to see them surviving defeat on Saturday.