Aston Villa’s last gasp win away to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday brought about several talking points and some unlikely heroes.
The game was dubbed the Steve Bruce derby by some quarters and the experienced manager would face his previous employers for the first time since his sacking back in October.
The Bruce reign ended after a solitary win in nine league games as a large swathe of supporters called for change. It would also be the first big call made by Villa’s new owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens.
When Steve Bruce arrived at Villa Park back in October 2016 it finally felt like a sensible and calculated appointment despite the inevitable howls of incredulity from some following Bruce’s history with rivals Birmingham City.
Results quickly turned and Villa steered away from what some, feared would be a catastrophic successive relegation.
After a safe but far from convincing first season, Bruce began to assemble his own side with it’s own identity.
The important thing was that Bruce was allowed to build his side and be given enough time to put it to the test.
A strong start and finish to the season sandwiched a terrible December which pretty much wrote off Villa’s claims for automatic promotion.
The playoff final against Fulham was the make or break game and turned out to be just the start of another huge crossroads in Villa’s recent history with the huge financial crisis coming out and fears of administration.
Owner Dr Tony Xia would soon assume a back seat as Sawiris and Edens seemingly saved the club at the 11th hour. His demise made it feel like Bruce would be on borrowed time.
As the start of the current campaign saw Villa struggling to make the top half, the inevitable ending came to fruition.
People will have different views but I will look back on Bruce as being a thoroughly decent guy and he was obviously well thought of by many of the players. His commitment to the cause whilst losing both parents was a huge measure of the man himself. Unfortunately, the football was poor towards the end, the results were becoming progressively damaging and a change was needed.
A major concern in losing Bruce was who would take the reins.
The media and bookmakers were swift to link the likes of Brendan Rodgers and John Terry, captain of the Villa team from the previous season, who had become a firm favourite with the Villa faithful.
However, there was one name that a lot of Villa fans were clambering for and that was Dean Smith.
Unlike Bruce, Smith had a relatively short experience of management in regards to clubs having managed only Walsall and Brentford.
What drew many Villa fans to Smith was the style of football he was getting out of cheaply assembled sides, often having to lose his best players to fund new purchases.
Several Brentford performances against Villa were specifically highlighted for the energy, passing and creativity as well as the commitment to the cause.
Since Smith’s arrival at Villa Park, his quiet demeanour has almost gone unnoticed in comparison to the flamboyance of Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United or a seemingly media favourite in Frank Lampard at Derby County.
The result against Sheffield Wednesday brought about a sixth successive league win following only one win in eleven games.
But like Bruce before, it was always going to take time to impose a new philosophy into a team that was effectively someone else’s.
Smith scoured the market in January and brought in defenders Tyrone Mings, Kortney Hause and recalled goalkeeper Jed Steer from an unsuccessful loan where appearances were greatly limited.
The return of Jack Grealish has undoubtedly led to an upturn in fortunes but the manor of the results and the score lines have stood out.
Both Mings and Hause have formed a solid partnership, following injuries to James Chester and Axel Tuanzebe.
Neil Taylor has looked at probably his best in a Villa shirt in recent weeks since joining.
Glenn Whelan has been incredible sitting in front of defence and has won over a lot of supporters who were previously and sometimes unfairly harsh towards him.
John McGinn has hit a purple patch scoring and chipping in with assists and we have players coming off the bench and having an impact.
Saturday was another example of how the belief of the side is flourishing and effort is of primary importance.
Sheffield Wednesday looked organised and had creativity in former Villan, Barry Bannan. They kept possession well and had a chance to take a 2-1 lead through a penalty after Mings was judged to have brought down Steven Fletcher.
In stepped Jed Steer. A keeper that many felt had been bombed out by Steve Bruce, Smith hasn’t been scared to drop the recently acquired Lovre Kalinic after some questionable mistakes. Steer saved the penalty and it ended up being a huge moment in the game.
Then came Albert Adomah who would follow up a fine effort from Jonathan Kodjia to give Villa a stoppage time lead. Both were specifically highlighted for their contributions off the bench by Smith.
Smith has Villa playing attacking football and the pace and fluidity of some of the attacks have led to some of the best team goals for some time. His confidence to take off key players and to stick by players who are performing to their full potential has coincided with the recent success.
Villa scored 20 goals in 12 games prior to Smith’s arrival this season (1.67 goals per game) and 53 in 28 games (1.89 goals per game) since.
Impressively when Jack Grealish has started, Villa have won 14 games out of 27 obtaining 50 points from 81 (1.85 points per game). Grealish has been involved in 15 games under Smith and Villa have picked up 35 points from 45 available (2.33 points per game). The style of play coupled with Grealish’s impact have been a perfect match.
On the defensive front, Villa only managed one clean sheet in twelve games before Smith’s arrival (8.3% of games) and eight in twenty-eight since (28.6% of games). Villa conceded 20 goals in 12 games (1.67 goals per game) prior to Smith and since, have conceded 36 goals in 28 games (1.29 goals per game).
Impressive figures when you consider the blip mid season.
One interesting fact is also that Villa currently have the joint best record in Europe over the last six games, only bettered on goal difference by the likes of Manchester City, Dynamo Kiev and Paris Saint Germain.
Granted the oppositions are different levels but it highlights just how impressive a run like the one of recent is in any division.
Villa are winning games, playing good football and most of all look like they have both a will and a way to win consistently be it comprehensively or late on.