The Championship; Season 3, and as the dark winter months drew nearer, the Tuesday nights became more and more tiresome.
2nd October 2018. Preston North End at home.
Now, the squad wasn’t in a good place. Uncertainty in the goalkeeping position; Mark Bunn came out cold to start, the defence was disjointed; Alan Hutton started at left-back, and Jedinak, who was controversially playing at centre-back, is suspended.
We were 15th in the league and Villa fans were at breaking point. Steve Bruce was under intense pressure, unsurprisingly, to get a result.
Enter Glenn Whelan; 90th minute penalty, the score tied at 3-3. My first thought as I was up and out of my seat in the Holte End was that it was a perfect moment for Jack Grealish – a match-winning penalty, under the lights and in front of the Holte End – but Sir Whelan had other ideas!
SAVED!! Full-time! What happened next was remarkable. A cabbage made its home debut. Yes, a cabbage. A fan brought a cabbage to the game, and on the final whistle launched it in Steve Bruce’s direction. This sealed the deal, Steve Bruce was dismissed. The cabbage still has a 100% success rate – bed sheets are so overrated…
Who was next for Aston Villa? Thierry Henry was heavily linked, but Villa required a man who could connect to a dislocated, disgruntled fan base. A manager with hunger, drive, ambition – one who would give Villa an identity, a style, and instil a philosophy. What we needed, and what we got, was one of our own!
Welcome to Aston Villa Dean Smith!
It wasn’t just the appointment of Dean Smith that started the revolution. A new-look management team was formed, involving returning John Terry and old friend Richard O’Kelly. Jesús García Pitarch took the role of sporting director, a day described by our chief executive Christian Purslow, as a “new era”.
In a club statement, Christian Purslow said:
“These three appointments represent the start of a new era and direction at Aston Villa and we are delighted to secure their services after an extensive search. … Dean has a clear and successful coaching philosophy as well as a real understanding of Aston Villa football club. He is also knowledgeable about the Championship.
“John is one of the most decorated players in English football, has an affinity with the club and is ready to make the next step in his career working alongside Dean. And Jesús also brings a huge amount of experience in his particular role having worked with some of the biggest clubs in Europe.”
DEANO GETS TO WORK
First up, Swansea at home!
Dean Smith received a warm welcome from the Villa faithful, with a healthy 41,336 in attendance being a testament to Smith’s immediate popularity. It was the perfect start – a 1-0 win, courtesy of a 8th minute Tammy Abraham header.
Away defeats followed against Norwich and QPR, but the performances were a clear improvement. The team had a shape, a purpose of attack and a high energy press. Results got back on track with a 2-0 home win against Bolton, a superb away display with the 0-3 dismantling of Derby, followed by the big one – The Second City Derby. An easy 4-2 win tied up with an Alan Hutton wonder-goal represented a perfect day in Aston. What followed was a crazy 5-5 draw with Forest at Villa Park and another super away performance against Middlesbrough.
All was looking good by early December, with the play-off positions in sight as Villa headed into the Midlands clash with West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns. It took an injury-time Hand of Rod to snatch the 3 points away from Villa, but the most significant moment was the withdrawal of Jack Grealish through injury – fans wouldn’t see him again until the middle the March.
Between that moment and the next meeting with WBA (16th February 2019), it was a very tough period for Dean Smith. The effects of Bruce’s lack of strengthening of the defence in the summer started to take its toll, coupled with the loss of the creative force of Jack Grealish. However, the January window opened and Dean Smith recruited reinforcements in the form of Lovre Kalinic – coming in for £5.4 million, and the capture of three loan deals – Korney Hause, Tom Carroll and Tyrone Mings, with Smith also recalling Jed Steer from his loan spell with Charlton. Frédéric Guilbert was also signed for £4.5 million, but loaned straight back to SM Caen for the remainder of the season. Perhaps most prominent in this window, Smith and the management team managed to convince on-loan striker Tammy Abraham not to depart for in-form Premier League side, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
These signings took time to bed in, and the 13 games in-between the WBA fixtures saw Villa accumulate 12 points from a possible 39 – a very poor tally for a side hoping to make the playoffs. There were lacklustre draws against the likes of Hull, Preston, QPR and a 0-0 stalemate with Reading, who had Emi Martinez between the sticks (of course, he got a clean sheet). Amongst the poor performances and defeats, none were more humbling than the 3-0 away at Wigan!
Any slight play-off hopes appeared to be crushed when WBA secured a 0-2 win at Villa Park; the season looked dead and buried…
February 23rd 2019 – Stoke Away – Half-Time
Dean Smith finally lost it with his players. Having rumoured to be cool, calm and collected during the run of poor form, opting for a more reassuring approach, Dean Smith switched in the dressing room at half time away at Stoke. The players needed a roasting, and the home-truths given triggered a monumental turn around. Albert Adomah equalized to salvage a 1-1 draw, and there was no looking back from then.
Some good news arrived prior to welcoming Derby to Villa Park – Grealish was available again. Personally, I felt this was more important for the trip to St Andrew’s the following week, as doing the double over Blues seemed to be the only thing left to take from the season.
Grealish was announced as Captain, a smart move from Dean Smith, as we now had a Villa fan in charge and a Villa fan Captaining the side. Jack Grealish may not have been a vocal captain, but his talent and willingness to get on the ball and keep hold of it was!
Aston Villa smashed Derby 4-0 with all 4 goals coming in the first half. I’ll be honest, I’m the most optimistic of Villa fans (I’ll never give up until it’s mathematically certain) but I wasn’t thinking of a promotion push after this game. All eyes were set on the following weeks trip up the road.
“For me, it was quite an easy decision.
“I had no doubts about giving it to Jack. I knew it wouldn’t be a burden to him and that he’d relish it.
“To captain your team and score a goal like he did topped off a great day.”Dean Smith. Post-match – Derby.
Dean Smith took his Villa team to St. Andrews for the first time. There is no better feeling than beating Blues in their own backyard – I’ve had some super afternoon’s down there thanks to the likes of Kevin Phillips and Gabby Agbonhalor. We suddenly had a manager who also had that same burning desire for victory at St. Andrews as every single supporter. Deano delivered a much needed 0-1 win.
On a personal note, this was the first game me and my son watched together after his birth a few days before – not a bad start hey?
Villa followed this up with an impressive 1-3 victory away at Nottingham Forest, with McGinn dragging it back with a double after conceding early, and Hause sealed the deal in the second half with the third. At that point, I was looking at the remaining fixtures and counting the points! It was a big ask, but not impossible…
Back to Villa Park, there were back-to-back wins against Middlesbrough and Blackburn – 15/15 points! Dean Smith settled everything down, no longer chopping and changing, players in their key positions and the communication and understanding at the back between Mings, Hause, Tuanzebe and Steer was offering a solid foundation for the potent strike force to go and attack!
I believe that the next two games, away trips to Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham, made fans believe that we were in the promotion mix. First up, Sheffield Wednesday and Steve Bruce. After falling behind, John McGinn clawed Villa back into the game, then Steer made a huge penalty save with the score tied at 1-1! Late goals from Adomah and Abraham, I’m talking 90+3 and 90+5, sealed victory and sparked wild celebrations in the away end. It wasn’t long until we saw those scenes again in the away end in the form of another comeback win at Rotherham, as 10-man Villa came from behind once more to win 1-2!
What impressed me most about these victories was Dean Smith’s ability to find ways to win games. Sheffield Wednesday was treated like a Cup Final, and Villa were braver and always seemed to want those three points more. On the topic of brave, a 1-0 trailing scoreline and down to 10-men at half time against Rotherham, Smith brought on another striker in the form of Kodja, who instantly repaid that faith by scoring from the spot; something Abraham failed to do in the first half. Jack Grealish scored the winner, a goal that would later be crowned Goal Of The Season.
This team keeps delivering.
I’d put that up there as one of our best wins because we were up against it.
In the first half, we missed a penalty and Tyrone Mings gets sent off – unjustly in my view.
We made a couple of subs. Mile Jedinak came on and was magnificent. Jonathan Kodjia came on and was magnificent, too.
I thought we put in a performance in that second half – with one man less – that was incredible.Dean Smith, Post-match – Rotherham.
The run continued at the sub-zero University Of Bolton Stadium, as Villa fans were briefly warmed up by goals from Grealish and Abraham. Then came win number 10 out of 10 – Millwall at home, with play-off position secured and history made!
Dean Smith’s side – the class of 2019 – now boasted the best winning league sequence in the club’s 145-year history!
After finishing the season in 5th place, Villa were up against Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion in the playoff Semi-Final. The atmosphere in the build-up to kick-off was electric with the Holte End maintaining a permanent buzz. Dean Smith and his Villa side had instilled so much confidence in me, that I believed we could win it. I was bursting with pride as the players entered the pitch under with the huge Part of the Pride flag hanging from the Holte End and the flame throwers in front of the Doug Ellis. We finally had our Villa back, WE ARE….. THE 12TH MAN!
After a nightmare start, a misplaced Glenn Whelan back-pass was buried by Dwight Gayle to make it 0-1. Only a world-class fingertip and an acrobatic lunge from Steer prevented Jay Rodriguez from scoring and doubling the goal deficit, and at half-time it remained 0-1. It looked like a well organised WBA were going to do a job on us, as their defensive structure was tight and they looked to hit us on the break. However, this Villa side, under Dean Smith, was patient and had belief.
When chances arose in the second-half, they were cashed in. First was a trademark Conor Hourihane blast from outside the area, leaving Sam Johnstone routed to his spot. Tammy Abraham then coolly slotted home from the penalty spot to make it 2-1.. advantage Villa!
“We knew it was going to be difficult. They defended well. They kept a good structure about them.
“But with us, we never give up. Even though we made a mistake in the first half, we knew we’d get chances in the second half.
“We have a fantastic team and I always thought the chances would come.
“What was said at half-time? Just to keep our heads. We had to stay patient. That’s what we did. Luckily we got two goals.Tammy Abraham. Post-match – WBA
The tension during the second leg was unbelievable. West Brom once again opened the scoring through a Craig Dawson header, levelling the aggregate score. Villa were under pressure; WBA were backed by a partisan crowd, and the boys in claret and blue could hardly getting out of their own half. Then, the game swung. WBA Captain, Chris Brunt, was shown a red card after two bookable offenses and Villa grew more dominant in the closing stages of normal time. Adomah almost won it with a left-foot drive; forcing Sam Johnstone to make a superb reflex save.
Despite spending the whole of extra-time camped inside Albion’s half, Villa could not make the break through. Up next…PENS! The drama of those unforgettable penalties will long live on in modern Villa history.
Jed Steer made himself an absolute hero, eye-balling Mason Holgate on the walk down to begin the shoot-out. SAVED – Steer’s mind games worked, and he subsequently kept out Hegazi’s effort. Hourihane scores. Up steps Mile Jedinak with a beautifully placed penalty to make it 0-2 on penalties. Then it happened, the ‘Jedinak Stare’, a classic image of the confident, aggressive nature of this Dean Smith side.
Villa held their nerve, despite a miss from Adomah, and Tammy Abraham converted the all important final spot-kick to spark wild celebrations inside The Hawthorns. In fact, we had a bit of a post-match party in there!
Que sera, sera….
“I’d have taken this 15 games ago and we have cause to be very proud.
“We deserved it, but the disappointing for me was not winning. I couldn’t believe we’d lost the game. That’s our first defeat since losing at Brentford in February.Dean Smith – Post-match. WBA
I was surprisingly very nervous pre-match, which is unlike me. Maybe it was the despair of the events 12 months prior still lingering and fresh in the memory.
I said, “pull yourself together, Ryan – this is Dean Smith’s new-look Villa; confident, organised, and determined to achieve promotion back to the Premier League!”
Anwar El Ghazi opened the scoring late into the first-half after a cagey affair as he flung himself at Ahmed Elmohamady’s cross from the right hand-side to head home, sending Wembley’s West End into a sea of limbs. John McGinn triggered celebrations to reach another level as Derby keeper, Roos misjudged a hanging a ball and allowed McGinn to head home into an empty goal – scenes, limbs, the lot.
Surprisingly, Jack Marriott didn’t start for Derby following his goal scoring exploits in the semi-final against Leeds United, but when he did finally enter the field he sent nerves through the roof by firing past Jed Steer to make it 2-1! With the game entering the closing stages, the 4th official raised their board – 7 minutes of injury time – OH MY GOD! We then lost Mings to an injury during what felt like the most traumatic 7 minutes ever. Villa showed true grit and resilience to see it out! PROMOTION!
I’m sat here having just won a Play-Off Final to become a Premier League manager. It’s a little bit surreal.Dean Smith. Post-match Derby.
When I took over, I thought we could finish top two.
We started very well and unfortunately we had some injuries to key players. Jack Grealish and Axel Tuanzebe to name two.
We had a difficult period in January and February. We drew too many during those winter months.
We got players back and then made history by winning 10 on the spin. That helped us get here today.
We got over the line which is what those players deserved.Dean Smith. Post-match Derby.
With so much at stake, it was always going to be a nail-biting affair and Villa handled the tension of the day much better than Derby.
What a remarkable run, a crazy season; full of highs and lows, but we did it!
Thank you Dean Smith, you gave us our Villa back!
UTVPODCAST with ASHLEY PREECE
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