Exclusive interview - Craig Shakespeare: 'Taking over from Claudio was the hardest thing I've had to do'
It was a Premier League game against Liverpool where it all began for Craig Shakespeare. He won that match in February - his first as Leicester's manager - but as he prepares for a reunion with Jürgen Klopp on Saturday, even he cannot have envisaged the drama of the seven months that have passed since. Shakespeare has endured the ultimate crash-course in management after succeeding Claudio Ranieri, a chain of events for which the best coaching manuals can never prepare anyone. As he settled into a chair in a suite at the King Power Stadium on Friday, he is still struggling to take in the tumultuous 23 games which have flown by since Ranieri's departure. “That first Liverpool game feels ages ago now and when you sit down and analyse everything that’s happened in that time, it can be frightening,” he says. Ranieri and Shakespeare won the league together but it did not stop rumours from circulating last season that Shakespeare had stabbed the Italian in the back Credit: Nick Potts/PA “We’ve had loads of things to deal with – there was me taking over from Claudio, the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my career because of the circumstances. “People had their ideas of who the villains were and my family were hearing about me being the man who knifed Claudio in the back. It didn’t really get to me because you have to be resilient in football. “I was still an employee of the club and I didn’t want them to be in the relegation zone. That first result [a 3-1 win] was massive for everyone but it was still nice to walk my dog the following day and return to normality.” His 11-year-old chocolate Labrador, Alfie, must be one of the fittest dogs in Lichfield, for Shakespeare has spent much of this year striding on the parks near his home in periods of reflection. After securing top-flight safety he was whisked away to Monte Carlo by Leicester’s owners and offered the job, but those hopes of normality disappeared over the summer. Talking tactics: What Leicester did differently last season 02:08 First, there was Riyad Mahrez, who put in a transfer request and then spent deadline day hopping around European airports in a bid to force a move. “I was sitting at home and got a phone call from Jon [Rudkin, director of football] saying the Algerian FA had given Riyad permission to miss the game. It was a real knife-edge time and we were in the hands of other people. We understood he wanted to move because he’d made it clear but the owners wanted a realistic price. “Dealing with that was another moment in the managerial experience. He came back to training after the window closed and we were calling him Tom Hanks out of The Terminal.” And then there was Danny Drinkwater - another key member of the title-winning squad – who demanded to leave, eventually getting his wish with a £35m move to Chelsea. It was a moment which still rankles with Shakespeare. “Sometimes players see the opportunity to move to a bigger club and the financial rewards that might bring. Danny made it clear he wanted to move and didn’t want to be here. The relationship we’d had up to that point had been very good. Nigel Pearson remains a strong influence on his former assistant Credit: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images “I’ll be honest, I wasn’t happy losing one of my best players. The big disappointment is I didn’t want to sell him for any price and ultimately I have to abide by people above me because they run the club.” Finally, the biggest head-scratcher of all. Sporting Lisbon midfielder Adrien Silva was targeted as Drinkwater’s replacement and though a £25m fee and terms were agreed, Leicester were 14 seconds late filing paperwork. Silva, and Leicester, are still waiting for the green light from Fifa to ratify the deal. “You can do all the courses in the world but I’ve never encountered this before. How can you call Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, and ask him about that one? “Legally somebody might tell me I’m not allowed to talk to him but the human side says you want to find out how he’s feeling. He’s a footballer in limbo through no fault of his or mine. You want to make him feel appreciated, which is why I invited him into the dressing room to see the players on Tuesday night [after the Carabao Cup win over Liverpool].” Despite all the turmoil, Shakespeare – or ‘Shakey’ as he is more commonly known - has adapted impressively to management after spending most of his coaching career as a No2 under Nigel Pearson and Ranieri. His reputation on the training field is exemplary, temporarily earning him a place on Sam Allardyce’s England staff, while he is also a shrewd tactician, spooking Atlético Madrid in last season’s Champions League quarter-final by switching to three at the back at half-time. Pearson, who returned to football on Friday by joining King Power owned OH Leuven, remains a major influence. “Nigel has not only been a work colleague but someone I’ve grown up with during my football development. I’m really pleased to see him back in. “We stayed together at Hull, came back here and I would say Nigel has been my biggest influence from a coaching point of view. “He’s just a nightmare to get hold of. I must have about six phone numbers next to his name, but even then you can’t get him. He’s either walking up a mountain or somewhere with no reception.” Shakespeare’s other influences may surprise you. He was a left-footed midfielder as a player and Tommy Coakley, his manager at Walsall in the late 1980s when the club won promotion from the old Division Two, and West Brom’s Bobby Gould figure highly. “They both taught me a lot. With Bobby, I’ll never forget when we went to Shrewsbury on the last day of the season with 4,000 fans there. He wasn’t a popular choice and we’d had an average season. We had a pre-match meal in the hotel and he suggested we take the 10-minute walk to the stadium instead of getting on the coach. “We got recognised quickly and the fans were carrying mock coffins with Bobby’s face on the side. I was thinking: ‘Wow, he’s got a real thick skin.’ But it was about him saying we could deal with anything. It was about team spirit and togetherness, it really stuck with me.” Has Shakespeare changed since becoming a No1? “The job does take up a large chunk of your life. I switch off in the summer but during the season it’s difficult, I don’t want to let anyone down. “I quite enjoy my own space at times, but I don’t want to change. As an assistant I loved being just under the radar. As a Premier League manager you can’t do that so much. But you know what? That’s part and parcel of it and if you don’t like it, don’t do it. “The only thing that would probably surprise people is that I once got to the last 20 of the England under-16 volleyball trials. “Win, lose or draw against Liverpool, I’ll be walking the dog on Sunday.”