If you were to pick anybody for Dean Smith to solidify his coaching staff in a practical fashion for a second Premier League campaign, then Craig Shakespeare would certainly be high up on any shortlists. Having left Watford after Nigel Pearson was sacked, with only two games to play at the end of last season, it was very much opportunity knocks for Villa.
This week Shakespeare joins both Johan Lange (Sporting Director) and Rob MacKenzie (Player Recruitment), as the latest addition to Villa’s backroom staff.
In terms of Lange and MacKenzie, Villa have continued to evolve their recruitment and development infrastructure to be more savvy in the long run. Hopefully in the future, the club won’t be in a position of considering to drop £50m on a pair of Championship players, the likes of which they’d now hope to identify earlier and develop themselves.
Meanwhile, in terms of coaching, Smith, John Terry and Richard O’Kelly experienced their first season as coaches in the top tier last season, so Premier League experience was very much in short supply at B6. While they were learning on the job and arguably improving to secure Villa’s survival, the injection of Shakespeare’s top tier know-how will help fast-track their development and the club’s ambition.
Born in Birmingham, Shakespeare had played 350 games for Walsall, leaving in 1989, the same year Dean Smith started his career as a Sadlers’ player. While Shakespeare also went onto play over a 100 games at both West Brom and Grimsby, it’s his recent coaching exploits that make his appointment for Villa a smart one.
“I was keen to add some Premier League know-how and Craig certainly has that in abundance,” said Smith, in Villa’s press release of the appointment.
Shakespeare went from being West Brom’s reserve team manager to join Nigel Pearson at Leicester City back in 2008, where he spent an eventful eight years that defined his reputation – winning promotions, lifting the Premier League title with Claude Raineri and then rounding it off by having a spell as the Foxes boss himself.
Shakespeare will reteam with MacKenzie at Villa, who spent more than three years as Leicester City’s head of technical scouting, and was responsible for recruiting many of the names that made the backbone of the Foxes’ title-winning team.
The appointment also triggered the Birmingham Mail’s go-to clickbait headline ‘Aston Villa fans will love…’, as they rehashed Shakespeare’s interview on Watford’s website where he proudly proclaimed himself a Villa fan.
Interestingly, the outlet previously used to make a big deal about Shakespeare being a boyhood Baggies fan, but an article with Shakespeare reminiscing about Jeff Astle and other Albion heroes, mysteriously disappeared yesterday, after being live earlier in the day.
Back in the day, football in the Midlands was less tribal than it was today, so in the period Shakespeare’s father was following football, people would turn up at Villa Park one week and the Hawthorns the next, to get their football fix (such behaviour even extended to St Andrews).
I’m sure Shakespeare had an interest in both teams as a kid, but being a Villa fan, while a nice touch, matters not, when it comes to what he’ll bring to the ranks to improve the team.
Key to Immediate Villa Improvement
The first steps have already been made in terms of tightening up Villa’s defence, but if Villa’s new Assistant Head Coach can help iron out the 11 errors that led to conceding goals last season (the second highest in the league), then there should be an immediate improvement in results and league position. Too many cheap points were surrendered last season, with such errors undoing some good effort and very promising play in matches.
If that improvement happens, certainly you have the foundation for a much more capable Villa team, that with a few additions in terms of quality to the first XI and bench, could make next season interesting.
Shakespeare certainly knows a thing or two about the follow-up season a newly promoted team has, after a tough transitional season back in the Premier League.
You may remember the season I’m referring to.