IN THE IMMEDIATE aftermath of a whirlwind 90 minutes at the King Power stadium, few could have blamed Craig Shakespeare for coming out with some overly-emotive comments. The past hour-and-a-half of his life had been a rollercoaster of tie-levelling goals, joyous celebration, tempestuous touchline activity, controversial red cards and, above all else, Leicester City sealing progress into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The Foxes’ 2-0 victory over Sevilla courtesy of goals from Wes Morgan and Mark Albrighton secured a level of vindication for Shakespeare, almost derided in the press for seemingly jumping into the manager’s hot seat just days after the surprise sacking of Claudio Ranieri, however not overlooked was the contribution of his goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel, in achieving that success.
The Dane’s penalty save – admittedly from a feeble Steven N’Zonzi spot-kick – effectively ensured the Premier League champions progression into the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition. “Is there a better goalkeeper in Europe at the moment than Kasper Schmeichel?” he was asked in the post-match press conference. “Possibly not,” he replied, a bold statement to make even if delivered in a characteristically restrained fashion.
It’s telling of Schmeichel’s rise that few have challenged Shakespeare on the assertion. In the space of a few years, the Leicester stopper has emerged from the lofty shadow cast by his legendary father, Peter, to claim a Premier League title of his own and become one of the best in the world between the sticks in the process.
However, it could have been so different had Schmeichel acted on his impulsive desire to remain at one of his early loan clubs permanently. Before his breakout season at Manchester City, the awkward gap-year at Notts County and the emerging years at Leeds United, there was the brief detour to Scotland with Falkirk, a move that, had Schmeichel got his way, would have been permanent.
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Schmeichel joined Falkirk – aptly nicknamed The Bairns – in January 2007 as a rosy-cheeked 20-year-old, easily marked out as his father’s son by his white blond mop of a haircut well before anyone got a look at his ability between the sticks. The Dane’s previous loan spells away from City were at Darlington and Bury, both then of League Two, and while Scottish football is all too often unfairly derided by those south of the border for its lack of quality, it’s unlikely Schmeichel would have the opportunity to play in front of 50,000 spectators or keep a clean sheet against a side that beat Manchester United earlier in the season while plying his trade at Feethams or Gigg Lane.
Then-City manager Stuart Pearce appeared to agree. “To play matches in the Scottish Premier League is a fantastic opportunity for him,” he said after the move was finalised. “I have sent a well-balanced young man out, who has shown to me on the training pitch he is improving every day. He is ready to go out on loan now to Scotland when probably last season we felt League Two was his standard.”
His comments suggested a step up in the 20-year-old’s ability, a career progression that saw him move on from the adolescent days of England’s fourth tier, however that came with its own cross to bare for the youngster.
The question of legacy was always likely to be one that hung over the head of the young Schmeichel. Would he be Paolo Maldini to Cesare? Or Paul Dalglish to Kenny? Now that he was being thrown into the first team picture of a side with by far the smallest budget in the division, it was to be a true test of mettle for a young man who would be charged with proving many expecting Falkirk to struggle against relegation wrong, and secure top-flight football at the still relatively new Falkirk Stadium the next season.
The early signs were promising. In February, Schmeichel turned in a man of the match display at Ibrox in front of a crowd of 50,000 against a Rangers side still recovering from a difficult few years under Paul Le Guen. At first, the young Dane appeared to lack the same intimidating presence of his father, letting a feeble Saša Papac effort slip away from him in the closing moments to allow Barry Ferguson a simple tap in for a late winner, however there were a few easily recognisable family traits.
Kasper had adopted that familiar pose that made Peter such an imposing opponent, where the man known as the ‘Great Dane’ would fling himself directly towards an onrushing striker star-shaped, allowing him to spread his six foot three inch frame to cover almost the entire goal and making him nearly impossible to beat.
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In truth, Rangers were less than impressive in a 2-1 victory but still forced Schmeichel into a number of good stops, in particular smothering a loose ball being pursued by Ferguson and Kris Boyd. It appeared what the youngster lacked in stature – Kasper is a few inches shorter than his dad – he made up for in outright bravery, throwing himself into saves and one-on-one collisions that would make more senior stoppers wince.
Schmeichel was developing into a fine goalkeeper in his own right, even if the defensive line in front of him was often at fault. The likes of Craig Ireland and Kenny Milne were already seasoned professionals, but alongside them, Darren Barr (21) and Tam Scobbie (18) – while both Scotland youth internationals – were inexperienced at the top level. However, Schmeichel stood firm, becoming a fan favourite with the Falkirk faithful who affectionately chanted “I bet your dad looks good on the dancefloor” at him – in reference to Peter’s fleeting appearance on Strictly Come Dancing.
In Schmeichel’s 15-game sojourn, he managed five clean sheets, including one on his debut in a derby victory over Dunfermline, followed by a three game run of shutouts at the end of the season against Inverness, Dunfermline and Dundee United – all of whom would finish the season below Falkirk in seventh.
By March, Schmeichel was firmly established as the club’s number one, but the visit of Celtic to the Falkirk Stadium was to provide a test unlike any the Dane faced previously. The Hoops were hardly the all-conquering force they had previously been under Martin O’Neill but with current Scotland manager Gordon Strachan at the helm, they’d beaten Manchester United in the Champions League earlier in the season courtesy of a memorable Shinsuke Nakamura free-kick and were in pole position to win the title ahead of a lacklustre Rangers side.
However, if Celtic expected to turn up and roll over smaller opposition, they were in for a shock. With Schmeichel in goal, Falkirk were on track to achieve their best finish in the top-flight since the move back to a 12-team league in 2001 and took the lead after just 16 minutes in a bad tempered affair that saw both sides reduced to 10 men before the break.
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The next 45 minutes was to be a true test of Schmeichel’s goalkeeping credentials. Celtic, as would be expected, laid siege to the Falkirk goal but the Dane stood strong, getting down to save Nakamura’s long range effort and keeping out Kenny Miller at the front post when the Hoops front man seemed certain to score, before, in scenes mirroring what would happen a decade later, Celtic were awarded a penalty leaving Schmeichel to face holding on to his clean sheet from 12 yards.
Craig Beattie, himself only 21 at the time, was given the responsibility from the spot, with a nervous looking Schmeichel standing between him and avoiding the embarrassment of a defeat to a side expected to struggle against relegation. However if N’Zonzi’s penalty was weak, Beattie’s was sluggish. It trickled towards goal so slowly it almost seemed the lack of pace would deceive Schmeichel on its own, but the young goalkeeper was aware enough to it palm it back out before smothering the rebound.
It was a save that may have lacked the same high-pressure scenario of a Champions League quarter-final but, in securing Falkirk’s seventh place finish at the end of the season, it was vital. In truth, the Bairns should have finished higher, ending the campaign a point ahead of Hibernian in sixth. However, due to the unique nature of the SPL’s split, the club were more than a little unfortunate to be consigned to the bottom half of the table.
Schmeichel was clearly enamoured with his time in Scotland and even campaigned to stay north of the border. “The boys at Falkirk are the hardest-working group I’ve ever played with and the experience of being here has been invaluable,” he said after returning to City at the end of the season. “I’d like to come back but I’m contracted to Manchester City and they are my main priority.”
A change of managers proved to be the catalyst for Schmeichel’s first foray into first team action at City. Sven-Göran Eriksson replaced Stuart Pearce and within a few months of making his final appearance for the Bairns in a 3-0 away win at Dunfermline in front of a crowd of just over 5,000, Schmeichel was thrust into a City’s starting line-up for a defeat at Arsenal in front of more than 60,000.
While Scottish football is often dismissed by many as inferior to the global product of the Premier League, it’s undoubtedly true that Schmeichel’s early goalkeeping education was shaped against the backdrop of the Falkirk Stadium. And while the glory of one of Europe’s best goalkeepers may have been at the King Power, his Scottish education shouldn’t be discounted in a hurry.
By James Delaney @thejdelaney