In this in-depth exclusive interview with Sky Sports ahead of Monday Night Football, Aston Villa boss Dean Smith talks us through the unique experiences that have shaped his career and the ambitions that he has for the club that he has supported since he was a boy.
His is the heart-warming story of a boyhood fan from Great Barr whose father worked as a steward in the old Trinity Road Stand, but there was much more than sentiment in mind when Aston Villa turned to Dean Smith. This is a coach with new ideas and old-school values. He has already restored Villa to the top flight. Now he intends to keep them there.
The points return has not been what Smith would have liked from the first four games. Everton were beaten but two early goals scuppered Villa against Bournemouth and there was misfortune at Crystal Palace. Revealingly, the game that annoyed the manager most was the defeat at Tottenham. He was frustrated by the lack of intent in the final 25 minutes.
“We were 1-0 up but we were very deep,” Smith tells Sky Sports. “Then we were 1-1 and we were still deep. I understand why but I just feel you need an out ball. A lot of our substitutions when we are leading have been attacking substitutions not defensive ones and that’s because I don’t want to invite teams onto us. I would rather us get the next goal.
“I think there is such a big difference between trying not to lose and trying to win. If you try not to lose and end up defending for 90 minutes before conceding in the last minute you walk off the pitch thinking that you may as well have had a go. I know this football club and I know these supporters. The expectation is that we try to win every game and we will try to.”
He has no intention of ignoring his instincts and why should he? This is the positive approach that has characterised Smith’s managerial career, the sort of mentality that made him such an admired figure after his work at Walsall and Brentford. The only surprise is that his move into management might never have happened at all.
There is a sense of destiny to it all now. The boy who cleaned the seats at Villa Park, the kid who got onto the open-top bus that paraded the European Cup around Birmingham, the young man who cycled to do shift work at a powder-paint company in Aston, going on to lead the club on what he calls one of the best days of his life when winning the play-off final.
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But Smith didn’t even want the Walsall job at first. He had been scarred by his experience as assistant manager to Martin Ling at Leyton Orient when the pair were sacked after four years despite winning promotion and never being in the bottom three. “I was a bit stung by that,” he admits. “I thought I had done my job pretty well.”
The role of head of youth at Walsall was more appealing. “There was more job security in it,” he adds. “I had a young family at the time and didn’t want to put myself in that situation again. I had been really enjoying my job working with players from seven to 18 and bringing them through. I felt quite happy in the world that I was in.
“But I just got into it. My first game we were 3-1 down away to Tranmere with four minutes to go and ended up drawing 3-3. That adrenaline rush was there. We had a miraculous four months. We were nine points adrift at the bottom of the league and ended up staying up on the last day of the season. That was when I felt it was the road I wanted to go down.”
If Walsall was the making of Smith as a manager, his subsequent three-year stay at Brentford saw him evolve into a different kind of coach. The values remained the same. “They had been instilled in me as a kid by my parents,” he explains. “But you certainly adapt as a person, a manager and a leader because you go through experiences that shape you.”
Brentford was, by Smith’s own admission, unique. This is a club that now has a specialist set-pieces coach. During Smith’s time, there were ball-striking coaches and psychological profiling of players and staff. There was an app for the players that allowed the club to track their sleep patterns. The analytics room was renamed the learning zone.
Matthew Benham, the club’s owner, comes from a betting background and encourages this more analytical approach to the game. Smith, a keen chess player, took many of the new ideas on board. It is no coincidence that his press conference on the Friday before the West Ham game saw him reference Villa’s expected-goals total to support his argument.
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“It is a unique club but it is a great club,” says Smith. “They gave me some great ideas in terms of how to move forward with your football. It is a way of thinking that has been ingrained in me now in terms of how to think about the game. I was really impressed with how some of the models worked and how we could use them as a football club.
“Performance is usually best based on how many big chances you created compared to how many the opposition had. That gives you a good guide because if you break the whole thing down, if you play the game 100 times and you have that many more big opportunities than the opposition then more often than not you are likely to win rather than lose.”
And renaming it the learning zone? “Everyone has an analysis room,” laughs Smith. “I just feel we are here to help the players become better players and better people. So every day is about learning. When we go into the room with the analysts it is time to learn. The players bought into it very quickly.”
Speed is of the essence at Villa now too. After a spectacular run of form in the spring, there was some surprise that the club chose to overhaul things as much as they did in preparation for the Premier League campaign. The result is that they have a squad with a much higher ceiling in terms of what they can achieve – but it will take time for them to gel.
Asked whether this team is playing his football right now and Smith is blunt. “Not at the moment,” he says. “Last season, you look at that run we went on. Ten wins on the spin all the way to the play-off final. That is the football I want to see and I believe this team is capable of. We have touched it at times, but we need to touch it more on a consistent basis.
“There has been a big reset because going from a Championship team to a Premier League team there were 15 players that were changing. To have that evolution, it takes time. We have brought in some really good players who have all got potential, but that is the key word. This team has potential and it will start living up to that in the next few months.”
A Villa vs West Ham
September 16, 2019, 7:00pm
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Smith’s confidence comes from the fact that he has done it before. “I like to grow clubs,” he says. But he, perhaps more than anyone, recognises too that Aston Villa is a very different animal. While Norwich and Sheffield United come up with expectations of their own, things can never be quite the same for the seven-time champions of England.
“Sometimes it feels like we were the team that won the league by 10 points last season rather than being the one who came fifth and ended up going up through the play-offs,” adds Smith. “But that is who we are. The truth is that we have probably got into this league a year earlier than we all thought we would.
“Having said that, when I got the job and I saw the players we had available I did think we would get promoted and we did. The important thing is that I feel we have gained the trust of the supporters again. There is that connection between the players, staff and supporters. We all want Aston Villa to become an established Premier League team once more.”
That will take time but there is a sense that Smith will get it. For the first time in what feels like a long time, Aston Villa are in a good place again – and not just because they are back in the Premier League. They have a fan as their manager and a fan as their captain, with Smith having given the armband to Jack Grealish. He will continue to do things his way.