15 years of coaching experience has taken Craig Shakespeare on Champions League nights in Madrid, national team duty in Slovakia and even to the summit of the Premier League with Leicester City.
Those 5,000/1 odds resonate with the very stories that shone a light on the magnitude of Leicester’s success in 2016. The likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté of whom were all recruited from lower league clubs – Fleetwood Town, Caen and Le Havre respectively – headed the Foxes’ assault on the Premier League title.
Shakespeare – who himself enjoyed spells at Walsall, Grimsby Town, Scunthorpe United and even Telford and Hednesford – in many ways proves the archetypical journeyman, but after a playing and coaching career that spans over 40 years, Shakespeare returned home eager to play his part in one of the more exciting projects in English football.
Likewise, Dean Smith, Shakespeare’s Great Barr childhood meant the B6 club was the first for him, naturally. Born and bred a Villan, Shakespeare’s knowledge about the club he’d never worked for, might well have exceeded that of any coach who’d walked through the same doors of Bodymoor Heath in recent times.
“As a youngster, I was taken with my father down to Villa Park, the Andy Gray-era and Dennis Mortimer-era,” Shakespeare remembered.
“My earliest memory is actually going and sleeping outside Highbury in my brother-in-law’s car the day before we won the league when Ipswich didn’t win.
“I was there at Highbury waiting for the result to come through. I can still see it now, waking up at seven o’clock in the morning not having a good sleep, playing a little bit of football in and around Highbury and waiting for the game to commence.
“The other games down at Villa Park were special in terms of the atmosphere but that (Highbury) would be my earliest recollection.”
After a tumultuous six years, that’s seen Villa narrowly avoid administration, suffer Wembley heartbreak and ecstasy alike, Shakespeare has counted on every experience to make his mark at Villa Park, as the club embarks on attacking the upper echelons of the Premier League.
His partner in crime, Smith, also a boyhood Villa fan at heart, has already written his name in the Villa history books by setting a new club record ten-match winning streak last season, achieving promotion and indeed survival, before this season, beating Liverpool 7-2 and defeating many of the league’s sternest of oppositions to tempt Villa fans into dreaming that this season could well reach unexpected heights.
Dean Smith plotted Shakespeare link-up previously
Reviewing his time at West Bromwich Albion and more recently Watford and Leicester, Shakespeare is cut from the same cloth as Smith. He demands respect from his players and in the opening months of the new Premier League season, he’s challenged head coach, Smith to help maximise performances on the pitch.
Smith and Shakespeare have previous. They grew up in the same area of Birmingham before they both played for Walsall in the late ’80s, and since, they’ve followed each others’ career paths closely.
Smith was keen to add some top-flight experience to Villa’s coaching ranks having secured the club’s Premier League safety on the final day of a testing 2019-20 campaign and Shakespeare was the ideal candidate.
“Craig is somebody I wanted to bring in previously,” Smith revealed to Villa TV.
“I just wanted to add to the staff, I thought myself, Richard and JT were doing well but I just felt that I needed one pair of extra hands, and preferably someone who’d coached in the Premier League as well.
“He’s got that experience. I’ve known him an awful long time as has Richard, he played with him, I played with him, he’s just a really good coach, a really good guy and he’ll certainly add to what we’ve got in our coaching ranks.”
Shakespeare is one of three assistants at Villa. Richard O’Kelly and John Terry also rally around Smith on the training pitch and offer key advice to Villa’s head coach from a higher vantage point on matchdays.
“It was done within 24-48 hours,” Shakespeare said about taking Villa’s job offer.
“I was sat at home and had a phone call from Dean, we had a chat, sat down and I’m pleased with the way the club moved it forward, my thanks to Dean and Christian (Purslow) for getting it moving.
You wouldn’t have thought it was a quick decision to make considering how the tables have turned since their Walsall playing days.
“He’d (Smith) tell you he was my boot boy at Walsall,” Shakespeare explained.
“And he’d tell you I never gave him a tip! I’m sure I did, though, and it was a big one in those days.
“Obviously, we’re from the same area of Great Barr, we’ve kept in touch, played together. You keep in touch with people from your area, keep an eye on their career and I’m really pleased with what he achieved at Brentford and here at Villa.”
57-year-old Shakespeare has played against the mesmerising Paul Gascoigne, trained with the record-breaking Trevor Francis and even coached some of the Premier League’s past and present stars, Wayne Rooney, Vardy, Mahrez, and Kanté.
Leicester City parallels: Shakespeare a catalyst for Aston Villa’s rejuvenation
Shakespeare’s most recent coaching role was with Nigel Pearson at Watford. The pair took the reigns at Vicarage Road with seven points separating them and survival in December. Overseeing a run of four wins in their first seven matches, by the time Pearson and Shakespeare had been relieved of their duties at Watford, the Hornets were sitting above the dotted line with two games to play.
The Watford gig came two years after parting company with Leicester, where Shakespeare and Claudio Ranieri built on Pearson’s foundations to bring the top-flight English title back to the East Midlands for the first time since 1978.
Shakespeare might well have played a bigger part in Leicester’s title win than what he takes credit for – having overseen the clubs progression from Pearson in League One in 2008, all the way to Wes Morgan raising aloft the gleaming Premier League trophy eight years later.
The club recognised that his value to the club was irreplaceable and so, when Pearson was sacked in 2015, Shakespeare was kept on to work alongside Ranieri.
Shakespeare was often left to steer the ship himself with Ranieri regularly flying to Italy to visit his sick mother before coming back for the final preparations for Premier League games – it was left to Shakespeare to prepare the team in the manager’s absence.
Leicester’s post-title hangover was rough. Ranieri would later lose his job and while the club scrambled to search for his successor, the trusty Shakespeare was chosen to cajole a misfiring squad, bereft of confidence at the time.
Shakespeare reinvigorated the likes of Vardy and Mahrez, who were shadows of their former selves in the opening months of the 2016-17 campaign. He rediscovered Leicester’s high-intensity, swift counter-attacking football which earned them so much success in the title-winning campaign.
The little-known about Shakespeare got the players back to basics, earning the respect of the dressing room disenfranchised by Ranieri’s tinkering ways.
The Italian’s chaotic, contradictory instructions plagued the latter period of his tenure at the King Power, but after five wins from five since succeeding Ranieri, Shakespeare’s methods certainly had the desired impact.
One of Shakespeare’s main contributions to Leicester during their remarkable title success was to install a more amicable atmosphere behind-the-scenes.
You can imagine at times that Bodymoor Heath wasn’t the most jocular environment when Villa slumped into the relegation zone during various points of last season, but Shakespeare has helped boost the morale in the camp – he’s always been a popular figure among players.
Shakespeare eliminated the prospect of Leicester’s players contending with a new coach and new set of ideas halfway through a tough 2016-17 season by stepping up when it mattered most.
Back-to-back wins over Liverpool and Hull City shifted the mood following Ranieri’s departure in 2017 as Shakespeare alleviated fears of relegation and even sparked talk of a memorable Champions League run after advancing into the knockouts.
Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla dented Leicester’s European dreams after winning 2-1 in Seville, a day before Ranieri was officially sacked. Though, returning to the King Power with interim coach Shakespeare in charge would be a different proposition for the Los Nervionenses.
Shakespeare got his tactics spot on in the return leg, winning the game 2-0 to book a spot in the quarter-finals. Installing an intense press on the wings, Leicester set up to disrupt Sevilla’s silky midfielders, Samir Nasri and Vitolo.
The fact that he outwitted Jorge Sampaoli – a coach linked to the vacant Barcelona job at the time – further enhanced Shakespeare’s burgeoning reputation.
Shakespeare’s game-plan required the utmost application and concentration from his players, who trusted his tactical plans and worked to their absolute maximum for an interim coach they fought tooth and nail for.
An insight into Shakespeare’s work
Former Villa loanee, Danny Drinkwater waxed lyrical about Shakespeare’s effect on Leicester’s Premier League winning team.
“He was huge,” Drinkwater told The Mirror back in 2017.
“He helped Claudio settle in and helped the link between the manager and the players which he has done all excellently since I’ve been working with him.
“On behalf of all the players, I think all of us would love to see him get the job longer term. We were all very happy when it got announced he was getting the job until the end of the season, and I am sure it would get the same reaction if it was long-term. It’s a great appointment, it’s a good fit. It’s been great, the results speak for themselves, two wins in two.
“He has been a pleasure to work with as a manager. As a manager as well he has taken on board everything and is passing what he can on to the players, which is perfect for us.
“He helps us enjoy our football, his team talk is just ‘enjoy your football, work hard, do the simple things and hopefully the rest will shine through’.”
Beyond the personal connection he builds with his players, Shakespeare’s attention to detail and ability to offer valuable inputs to a head coach is what sets him apart from the rest.
His application to training and preparation for matchdays is possibly what got him the call-up to work alongside Sam Allardyce with the England team after leaving the East Midlands.
Former England and Villa forward Kevin Phillips worked with Shakespeare at Leicester and has commended Villa’s assistants work ethic.
“He’s unbelievable,” said Phillips.
“He gets in at 7.30 am and there’s no stone left unturned. He looks at everything and he’s very thorough in what he does. That’s what you have to be successful, the players go onto that pitch knowing their job and knowing their team-mates’ jobs, too.
“They’ll be well prepared under him, training will be really structured and that can give them a clear mind going into the games at the weekend.”
There was little doubt that Shakespeare’s appointment would add a much-needed, fresh pair of eyes and indeed a degree of top-flight coaching experience that was missing amongst Villa’s managerial ranks last season.
He’s a character on the training pitch and a conscientious, diligent worker first and foremost. If Shakespeare’s time at previous clubs is anything to go by, his time at Villa might yet become his best to date.