Craig Shakespeare will face his 14th year as an assistant coach next season after some memorable years winning the Premier League, experiencing Champions League nights and England internationals, but now he will return to a place he calls home.
Shakespeare knows more about Aston Villa than most coaches that have walked into Villa Park before him, and after a tumultuous five years that’s seen Villa narrowly avoid administration, suffer Wembley heartbreak and ecstasy, he’ll have to count on every experience to make his mark at Bodymoor Heath.
Dean Smith, who also joined Villa as a boyhood fan, has since written his name in the Villa history books, setting a new club record ten-match winning streak last season, achieving a feat no manager in England’s top four tiers has managed since 2004 – Shakespeare knows he can add to Smith’s reputation among club officials at Villa.
Reviewing his time at West Brom and more recently Leicester City and Watford, Shakespeare is cut from the same cloth as new partner Smith. He demands respect from his players and challenges the head coach to maximise performances on the pitch.
Smith and Shakespeare have previous, they grew up in the same area before playing for Walsall in the late 80’s, 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 an arduous 2019-20 campaign and Shakespeare was the ideal candidate.
“Craig is somebody I wanted to bring in previously,” Smith revealed to VillaTV.
“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.”
Former Walsall and West Brom midfielder in his playing days, Shakespeare grew up around the block from Smith in Great Barr. The Birmingham born coach was keen to join Villa’s coaching team.
“It happened very quickly,” Shakespeare told VillaTV.
“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. It was done within 24-48 hours.”
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 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.”
56-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, Riyad Mahrez, and N’Golo Kanté.
Growing up a Villa fan
No matter how far his playing days and now his coaching commitments have taken him, Shakespeare has always stayed true to his routes, and he, like the many who take to Villa Park every other weekend fondly remember some of the better times.
“As a youngster, I was taken with my father down to Villa Park, the Andy Gray-era and Dennis Mortimer-era,” Shakespeare said.
“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.”
Shakespeare’s most recent coaching role was with Nigel Pearson at Watford. The two took over at Watford 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 from their duties at Vicarage Road, they were sitting above the dotted line with two games to play.
The Watford gig came two years after parting company with Leicester City, where Shakespeare and Claudio Ranieri built on Pearson’s foundations to defy the 5,000/1 odds and win the Premier League title.
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 look after 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 Jamie 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.
Calm and measured approach
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, and Shakespeare will aid the morale in the camp – he’s 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, 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 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.
Former Aston 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.
Glowing reviews aplenty
Former Villa forward and Leicester coach, Kevin Phillips is also very complimentary about Shakespeare’s work ethic.
“He’s unbelievable.” said Phillips.
“He gets in at 7.30am 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 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.”
Although, his time with England ended abruptly and Shakespeare was ultimately stolen of the opportunity to work at the highest of level in a dream role coaching England stars, Rooney, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling.
Current Villa goalkeeper Tom Heaton was selected to compete for the number-one jersey when Allardyce selected his first and last England squad in September 2016.
Heaton was impressed by Shakespeare’s commitment to training during that time.
He told VillaTV: “He’s a big figure in the game, I had a week with him with England under Sam Allardyce which was an excellent week.
“He’s got time at Leicester behind him, Watford and plenty of other teams so he’s been putting his mark on the training sessions and around the place, it’s a really good addition to the backroom staff with his experience and hopefully he can add to those things that will benefit us going forward.”
Villa have themselves recently returned to Bodymoor Heath following a pre-season training camp in Wales. It was Shakespeare’s first chance to get a good look at some of the players he’ll be working with in the upcoming season.
“There’s been a good application,” Shakespeare reflected.
“We’ve had a few different challenges for them, double sessions, and we have taken them out of their comfort zones. There’s a very good atmosphere and, of course, players wouldn’t be players unless they moan when it’s tough!
“The lads didn’t have much of a break from the last game of the season to this, we know that, so to get some good work in and double up sessions I think is vital.”
Shakespeare will join Villa off the back of a campaign that tested the mentality and mindset of Smith’s backroom staff, just as well their tactical nous and preparation. Shakespeare is already looking forward to working with his new colleagues.
“I’m a different pair of eyes,” Shakespeare explained.
“I will reinforce the good work they (coaching staff) do, I’m a different thought process, ‘have you thought of this’, tactically, whether it’s plan A, plan B or C.
“We all know it can be very hard to get points in the Premier League. I’m chuffed to be working with Richard, John and Neil. There seems to be a really good work ethic here amongst the staff and players.
“Premier League know-how means nothing unless you want to add to it as well, to be involved and to push, cajole people along and, sometimes, demand. It’s about that. It’s about winning, getting results.”
There can be no doubt that Shakespeare’s appointment is a positive move from Villa, one that many fans had predicted long before Villa announced that their boyhood fan would partner Smith at the helm.
He’s a character on the training pitch and a conscientious, diligent worker first and foremost. If his time at former clubs is anything to go by, his time at Villa could yet become his best to date.