London: A relative unknown on the global football scene just weeks ago, Craig Shakespeare now stands poised to steer Leicester City into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The jocular coach was promoted from his role as assistant manager following Claudio Ranieri’s shock dismissal last month, which he said left him feeling like a “pantomime villain”.
But Leicester have won their two games under Shakespeare’s stewardship and will attempt to overturn a 2-1 deficit in Tuesday’s last 16 second leg at home to Sevilla with confidence fully restored.
“He is a top coach, a top guy and he has taken it on naturally,” says Leicester right-back Danny Simpson.
“He has kept it simple and told us what he wanted to do, which was simple and basic, and we’ve done that, so let’s hope we can carry it on for him.”
Leicester’s players were said to have been unsettled by Ranieri’s tactical tinkering as the club slid towards the Premier League relegation zone and Shakespeare has unashamedly gone back to basics.
He has reverted to the starting XI that won the title last season, with January signing Wilfred Ndidi taking the place of N’Golo Kante, now of Chelsea.
Leicester produced a stirring display in Shakespeare’s first game, Jamie Vardy scoring twice in a 3-1 home win over Liverpool, and came from behind to beat Hull City 3-1 on their last outing.
The squad subsequently spent time training and relaxing in Dubai, before Shakespeare was confirmed as manager until the end of the season on Sunday. It is his first full-time managerial role.
The 53-year-old has faced criticism in some quarters for putting his hand up for Ranieri’s job, former Arsenal defender Martin Keown branding it “almost out of order”.
But Leicester’s players and fans have been universally supportive, while Shakespeare himself has been sanguine.
Those closely involved with the club say the good-humoured Shakespeare played a pivotal role behind the scenes during last season’s 5,000-1 title success.
“Craig Shakespeare is the glue that holds the squad together,” Ken Way, Leicester’s former psychologist, told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“He’s an exceptionally clever guy and he’s also so, so funny.
“The one thing that got them through and allowed them to achieve the Premier League title the previous season was this incredible fun (and) enjoyment.”
A former central midfielder, Shakespeare had a respectable playing career with clubs including Walsall, Sheffield Wednesday, West Bromwich Albion and Grimsby Town.
His former teammates recall someone who listened to managerial instructions with an attentiveness that marked him out as a future coach.
“From day one he was the kind of lad who was going to be a manager,” his former Walsall teammate Kenny Mower told the Leicester Mercury newspaper.
He took up a grassroots coaching role at West Brom, rejoining forces with his old Wednesday teammate Nigel Pearson, then West Brom’s assistant coach, who would take Shakespeare with him to Leicester.
Shakespeare followed Pearson to Hull in 2010 before returning to Leicester with him the following year.
After Pearson’s dismissal in 2015 and replacement by Ranieri he stayed put, the man who shares a surname with England’s greatest playwright becoming a co-author in English football’s greatest fairytale.
He briefly joined the England set-up under Sam Allardyce, only for their collaboration to be abruptly halted when Allardyce was brought down by a newspaper sting after only one game.
Having presided over a 2-0 win against Crystal Palace in his one game as West Brom interim manager, Shakespeare currently boasts a 100 per cent managerial record.
In a good omen, two of the last five Champions League-winning coaches — Chelsea’s Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 and Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane in 2016 — were appointed during the same season.
The final in Cardiff remains a long way off for Shakespeare, but as last season demonstrated, miracles do happen in Leicester.