On Sunday afternoon, Aston Villa confirmed the departure of manager Dean Smith, three years on from his arrival.
For many fans of a certain generation, Smith is comfortably their favourite manager, with many ranking him higher than Martin O’Neill. Whilst some supporters feel that the time was perhaps just about right for both the club and the manager to take on different paths, the announcement cut deep all the same.
In just over three years, Smith has achieved more than most managers could and certainly more than most fans and pundits could have even imagined. He took over a group of players which included some really exciting talents, but primarily comprised of ageing championship stalwarts. On several occasions throughout the Dean Smith era wholesale changes and rebuilds were needed.
But not only has the former Brentford man been responsible for keeping a club previously in a huge rut moving forward whilst overseeing an almost constant player turnover, he has improved players significantly along the way. His ability as a remarkable man manager and as a head coach capable of developing rough diamonds and taking their game to a new level is plain to see. Under Smith’s stewardship Tyrone Mings, Ollie Watkins and Jack Grealish became players who do not look out of place in the England squad, whilst the likes of Ezri Konsa and Matty Targett were reportedly close to inclusion at national level too.
The list of players who have become better as a result of the coaching of Smith is, of course, far longer, as the likes of Kortney Hause, John McGinn, Trézéguet and Matty Cash have all seen their progress accelerated by ‘Deano’ and his coaching team.
Player growth is one thing, but perhaps a more tangible testament to the brilliance of Dean Smith in his time in B6 is just how far we have come. Upon taking over the team, the Brummie coach found his new side languishing in 15th position in the Championship.
The team finished the year in 5th, comfortably in the play-offs spot after a 10 league game winning streak, a record run which no Villa side has ever managed in the club’s almost 147 year history. Wins such as Blues both home and away, Rotherham with ten men, the penalty shootout victory at the Hawthorns and THAT balmy May afternoon when the fallen giants rose to their feet once more will live long in the memory. I am sure I am not the only one who gets goose bumps when thinking of his full-time words about his father Ron, who was living with dementia, as he had told him that the “next time I see you I’ll be a Premier League manager”.
A tough year in the Premier League would follow as Villa hoped to avoid a repeat of the last time they were forced into a top division squad overhaul and ended up bottom of the league in 2015/16. Smith kept the lads in a positive frame of mind throughout and after some vital lockdown tactical tweaks, Villa survived in dramatic circumstances on the final day. Fans also enjoyed yet another Wembley day out in a narrow League Cup final defeat to Manchester City.
In that season, ‘Deano’ lost his beloved dad, and he was right when he said former Villa steward Ron was “looking out” for the claret and blue boys, and he would have certainly been looking down at his son beaming with pride.
He leaves with the club in a far better place than when he arrived, which is rare for Villa managers in recent times. Aston Villa are once more an established Premier League side coming off the back of last season’s really positive mid-table finish that barring key injuries and a Covid-19 outbreak could have been a whole lot more. His Premier League highlights include a 7-2 thumping of champions Liverpool, a clinical 3-0 victory at the Emirates and Villa’s first victory at Old Trafford in 12 years.
In the last three years Villa have accomplished things that not all that long ago would have felt like a pipe dream, and fans were able to dream big. The next man through the door will have performed exceptionally if he is to become as popular and successful as ‘Deano’.
There were many seasons when the ‘Prepared’ motto sat out of place on the Aston Villa crest. Whilst this was removed from the badge two years before Smith came to the helm, his tenure allowed fans to finally feel like the club was prepared for anything once more.
The word ‘pride’ is also used a lot in claret and blue marketing for its obvious lion-related connotations, and it is again a word which perfectly encompasses how claret and blue hero Dean Smith and his team made Villa fans feel. Such pride was amplified by the local connection at the club. Oh, how we will all miss having boyhood Villans as both our onfield and touchline representatives.
Whilst many believe there is no time for sentiment in sport, between the years of 2018 and 2021 what Aston Villa Football Club had was beautifully romantic and almost unheard of in this modern era. Two local lads leading the club they adore onwards and upwards, as we all imagine ourselves doing as kids in the garden or on our latest Football Manager save. These years will live long in the collective memory of the fanbase.
There are mixed emotions throughout the fanbase as to whether the sacking was the right decision. Personally I do think that with time Smith could have turned things around as he so often has, but with ambitious owners with designs of European football, and an international break giving a new manager time to bed in, such time could not be afforded. After Smith’s worst run in his managerial career, the decision is perhaps understandable, even if he is very possibly a victim of his own success in getting the wheels in motion ahead of schedule. Fans will now hope that the approach towards the next appointment is neither scattergun nor a Purslow vanity project.
With all this said, however, whether people agree with the decision or not, the overriding message throughout the support is one of great gratitude and goodwill towards Smith, which is no less than he deserves.
Smith is an affable character who always represented our club with class, passion and dignity. Even in his final hours in the post, late on Friday night, ‘Deano’ could be seen giving up time for the fans, signing autographs, taking pictures and allowing adoring supporters to have a chat with their hero. That is the measure of the man, a great coach and a thoroughly top bloke who will continue to succeed in whatever he does next.
Every fan will have their own fond memory of Smith’s reign, but his final message to the troops before they went into battle to take our side back to the Premier League will always resonate with me. “Be a good teammate”, Smith told his charges. And after years of turmoil, under Dean Smith we the Villa faithful finally had a side to be proud of, a side who had each other’s backs, but crucially, had our backs out on the pitch, just as we had theirs up in the stands. My lasting memory of Dean Smith’s time at Villa, then, will be of unity between players, coaches and fans, as we finally had a Villa side to be proud of.
Whilst the Dean Smith era did not end how any of us would have wanted, the manager has written himself into Villa folklore and will always be welcome back at the very stadium to which he brought so much joy and oversaw so many famous matches.
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