Friday 20 October 2017

Shakespeare emerges from shadows to thrive on centre stage

New Leicester manager will reflect on long journey to top when he takes on Sevilla

Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare during a press conference at the King Power Stadium, Leicester. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare during a press conference at the King Power Stadium, Leicester. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

John Percy

The quiet market town of Lichfield might seem an incongruous place to find a Champions League manager, but Craig Shakespeare is no ordinary football coach.

Whatever happens in his first excursion on to Europe's biggest footballing stage tonight, when Sevilla arrive in the East Midlands for arguably the biggest game in Leicester City's 133-year history, tomorrow morning Shakespeare will almost certainly be found walking his dog in one of his local parks.

"I spoke to him after the Liverpool game (Shakespeare's first as caretaker manager) and he was out walking his dog, desperately trying to get some normality back," revealed Tommy Coakley, a close friend of Shakespeare's and his manager at Walsall when the club won the Third Division play-offs in 1988.

"He wasn't sure about taking the job at first, but when he saw the reaction of the players, it was something he couldn't turn down. That's 'Shakey' in a nutshell - he's a genuine guy who deserves this opportunity more than anyone."

Few would argue with that - except maybe Martin Keown, who suggested Shakespeare was effectively dancing on Claudio Ranieri's grave in taking the manager's job until the end of the season - but Shakespeare could not be accused of craving the limelight.

A month ago, he was simply content to stand in the shadows, one of the lesser-known characters in last season's great Premier League title victory. That all changed with the sacking of Ranieri; now he is charged with writing a new chapter in Leicester's great fairytale, and propelling them into the Champions League quarter-finals.

It is a long way from Shakespeare's playing career, in which he made more than 350 appearances for Walsall before spells with Sheffield Wednesday, West Brom and Grimsby.

A midfielder with a fine left foot, his finest moment at Grimsby was a cup game against Chelsea, when he earned praise for a man-marking job on Ruud Gullit.

But after retirement it was on his return to West Brom that Shakespeare the coach began to flourish. After rejoining the club in 1999 as football in the community officer, he worked his way up the levels to become an integral figure behind the scenes.

Dan Ashworth, now the Football Association's technical director, worked with Shakespeare for four years in a variety of roles.

"I witnessed and supported his rise, and this was at a time when West Brom didn't have many coaches or much money," he says.

"Shakey and I would do most of the coaching for the youth teams, whatever needed doing. He was first and foremost a great guy with a wicked sense of humour, good values, honest and loyal. He knew how to speak to people, whether it was the chairman or an U-9s parent."

That provides an insight into how Leicester's players have responded to Ranieri's former assistant, who has spent seven of the past eight years at the King Power Stadium.

He was equally admired and respected at West Brom, when he took charge of the Premier League game at Crystal Palace after the departure of Bryan Robson and Nigel Pearson. Albion won 2-0 before Shakespeare returned to the stiffs after the appointment of Tony Mowbray.

He eventually followed Pearson - a team-mate from his playing days at Wednesday - to Leicester, Hull City and then the return to Leicester in November 2011. Though there were many memorable moments with Pearson, including winning the Championship and the 'Great Escape' of 2015, it was working alongside Ranieri that produced the fairy tale.

Ken Way, the club's performance psychologist during the Premier League title-winning season, believes Shakespeare's role cannot be underestimated.

"Craig was the glue that kept the dressing-room together, and I used to say to him that, if his coaching career ever went wrong, he could be a stand-up comedian.

"If there was ever conflict or disagreements, Shakey had a marvellous way of lightening the mood. He would interject and crack a little joke, not to dismiss it or sweep the matter aside, but to put people at ease when those combative moments occurred.

"That's not intended to belittle what he's about in any way, because he's also a deep thinker about the coaching drills he's putting on. I was never surprised that the players really took to him or that the Leicester owners made what I feel is the best decision."

Shakespeare now stands on the verge of the quarter-finals as Leicester attempt to recover from a 2-1 defeat in southern Spain.

He still possesses a 100pc record, after the wins over Liverpool and Hull, and even allowed himself to dream yesterday when asked if Leicester could win the competition.

"Why not? We are in it and we have to try and be competitive. We have to show that against Sevilla." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Leicester City v Sevilla, Live, TV3, BT Sport 2, 7.45

Telegraph.co.uk

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