17 months ago, Norwich City seemed to have pulled off a coup as they brought head coach Dean Smith and his assistant Craig Shakespeare to the club, just eight days after the duo had left Aston Villa.
The Canaries were bottom of the Premier League, five points from safety but had just beaten Brentford and now had an experienced boss at the helm who had hopes of avoiding the drop. It turned into a disaster. Norwich finished bottom on 25 points, and Smith won just four games in the top flight.
This term, despite a relatively positive start in terms of results, Carrow Road turned on Smith. By December the atmosphere was toxic with loud chants against the manager due to his perceived negative brand of football, and the club sat in 5th in the Championship. He was dismissed at the end of the month after a tough year in charge, which makes Leicester’s decision to select him a seemingly strange one.
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The Foxes chose to dismiss Brendan Rodgers and now sit 19th in the league, two points from safety. Despite the Norwich debacle, Smith does possess experience in a relegation dogfight, keeping Aston Villa up in the Premier League after winning promotion from the Championship through the play-offs.
A positive person would praise those achievements at Villa Park. A cynic would suggest a team featuring Jack Grealish, Tammy Abraham and Tyrone Mings should have blitzed the Championship - rather than finishing 5th. And their Premier League survival was heavily influenced by the goal-line technology error that denied Sheffield United a winning goal in the first game back from the enforced Covid-19 break.
Before Villa, Smith impressed at Walsall and led Brentford to three consecutive top half finishes in the Championship but despite a lot of goodwill, both the Bees and Villa have gone on to bigger and better things since their former boss departed. He’s proven himself to be a shrewd operator in the lower leagues, but it is fair to say he hasn’t yet excelled at the highest level.
Then we have Shakespeare. A return to Leicester City for Claudio Ranieri’s former assistant is emotional for those connected with the club. He was there for six seasons before that unforgettable Premier League winning season. Then, when Ranieri was harshly sacked by Leicester nine months later, he got the full-time gig. He led Leicester away from relegation danger and even beat Sevilla in the Champions League and almost reached the final four of Europe’s premier competition.
His own sacking came after a run of poor results the following season and he hasn’t been given another gig as the main man since, instead linking up with Smith at Villa, Norwich and now Leicester. If anybody can motivate this group, it will be Shakespeare, who knows this place so well.
Then we have John Terry. He first teamed up with Smith as a player at Aston Villa and learnt his trade under him in the midlands. Now he’s ready to take another coaching role in the Premier League and if he can improve Leicester’s shoddy defence it will play a big part in keeping them in the top flight.
The Foxes didn’t expect to be in a relegation battle this term, and now Smith and his assistants must motivate the squad they have in front of them. Unlike in East Anglia, this time he has a whole host of talented players. Youri Tielemans, James Maddison and Wilfried Ndidi made up one of the best midfield trios in the league a couple of seasons ago while Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Ihenacho know where the net is. No team is ‘too good to go down’ - but Leicester aren’t far off that particular cliche.
For Smith, this could be his last chance in the Premier League. If Leicester get relegated, with the squad they have, he won’t be given another opportunity - given what he also oversaw at Norwich. But if he succeeds, it could give him another long-term shot at the big time.