After Dean Smith replaced Steve Bruce in the Aston Villa hot seat two years ago, his management team have shared the triumph of some historic moments at Villa Park in what has been a riveting tenure so far.
From record-breaking winning runs, a Premier League promotion and League Cup final appearance, to recently overseeing the 7-2 humbling of the English champions Liverpool, Richard O’Kelly – Smith’s trusty right-hand man – has played a major part in Villa’s resurgence.
It was the heaviest of defeats any side had inflicted on Liverpool since Jurgen Klopp took the reigns on Merseyside. In fact, not for 67 years has the English top-flight champions fallen to a seven-goal loss.
It was a masterclass in intensity and attacking fluidity, with Jack Grealish, Ollie Watkins and Ross Barkley making full profit from Liverpool’s lax display. To a man, Villa were unplayable, and O’Kelly, well versed in Smith’s exciting style of play insists that it was key to retain an identity upon promotion back to the Premier League last year.
He said: “The blueprint is the same. We are what we are.
“They’re (players) so supportive of each other and that’s what we want Aston Villa to be – a forward-thinking, attacking side.”
O’Kelly and Head Coach Smith have a long-standing reputation for an attractive, progressive style – which proved to be key factors in their appointment back in October 2018.
The management duo, who have since welcomed John Terry, Neil Cutler and most recently Craig Shakespeare to their coaching set-up, insisted that they’d refrain from altering their blueprint in what is according to many the most competitive, entertaining league in world football.
After handing out the 5-1 demolition of Norwich City at Carrow Road last season, Villa had scored more away goals (17) than any other Premier League club in all domestic competitions after six ties away from Villa Park.
Defensive frailties were often the downfall of Villa’s first season back in the top-flight and O’Kelly and Smith between themselves never shirked responsibility, staying true to their values on the training pitch.
The pair knew he had to attend to the many weaknesses that had stumped Villa’s progress this term, with set-pieces a particular Achilles heel which coincided with Villa’s poor defensive record until the league’s Coronavirus suspension.
Villa went into the lockdown having conceded 56 goals at an average of exactly two per game – by a long way the worst defensive record in the Premier League.
The league’s indefinite suspension also allowed O’Kelly and Smith to take a step back and devise plans to improve defensive frailties and set-piece flaws, both in attacking and defensive phases. Jack Grealish has won more fouls than any other player this season and in any other Premier League campaign before it, but Villa’s goal count from set-plays was considerably low.
After lockdown, five of Villa’s seven goals were scored within the same attacking phase that proceeded either a free kick or corner, highlighting how well O’Kelly and Smith coached certain tactics to his players without completely working on routines at Bodymoor Heath.
Whilst Villa returned to training only weeks before the Premier League got back underway, O’Kelly, Smith and John Terry would host online meetings to review performance and connect with players like Douglas Luiz and Trezeguet who hadn’t adjusted to life in Birmingham as first hoped.
Both players were signed with good reputations abroad, but Villa fans had been struggling to see what either could offer in the fight for survival, though with the man management of Villa’s management pair and the comfortable environment of behind closed doors stadiums, both thrived to become integral members of a thin Villa squad.
Evolving rather than changing in the Premier League
O’Kelly, since joining Villa with his long-standing partner Smith, insisted that their Villa side will simply evolve, rather than change with the demands of the Premier League. Villa’s promotion was a chance for O’Kelly to finally test himself at the top.
“On a personal level, it’s the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. I’ve been coaching 30 years, so it’s taken a while. But I got here eventually!
“Dean Smith is who he is. I am who I am also, as is John Terry and the rest of the coaching staff.
“We all believe in the same thing and that’s why we’re here. We know what we want to do. There’s also really good people here. That’s important.”
West Bromwich born O’Kelly has worked alongside Smith after stints with Walsall and Brentford.
Villa’s No.2 has placed on record Smith’s “open and honest” personality that makes him a dream to work with in the past.
He told Villa TV: “His management style is inclusive of everybody. He has great relationships with people.
“He’s very open and honest. If he’s got something to say, he will say it. He also listens to other people’s opinions. But at the end of the day, he also knows what he wants. It’s very important that he’s like that.
“You can talk to him about anything. He will have an opinion but he will also listen to yours, which is important because we all see things differently – that’s part of the deal.
“I think if we are going to flourish as a group, we need to be putting our different ideas in – it’s not about everyone just going ‘yes that’s a good idea’. It never works like that. You have to push each other all the time.
“We have heated debates now and again and John will join in those, too.
“He’s certainly that type of character. He will push the players. He will push the staff. He’s a good person to work with.”
After enjoying success as a formidable pairing in the lower leagues, upon the duo’s first taste of Premier League football, new assistant Shakespeare was drafted in to add not only yet another Villan at heart but some top-flight experience too.
Terry, who joined the management team at the same time as O’Kelly, was part of the trio that took charge of Villa’s promotion season of 2018-19.
O’Kelly has hailed John Terry’s “work ethic and football knowledge” at Bodymoor Heath.
“I am thoroughly enjoying working with him. He’s hard-working. He’s enthusiastic”, O’Kelly told Villa TV.
“Moving from playing to coaching? I remember the shock myself. You turn up at 7.30 am in the morning and don’t leave until 5 pm in the evening – having to get the disks and cones out and getting things ready for training.
“He’s taken to it all like a duck to water. I’ve been very impressed with him. His work ethic and football knowledge has been very impressive.”
While fans aren’t allowed to watch and support Smith and O’Kelly’s Villa side pit their wits in a second Premier League season, O’Kelly has been missing the home backing.
He and Smith want to play football the ‘right way’, by exciting and entertaining the crowd.
“I haven’t got much hair on my head, but I can tell you the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. They do just thinking about what it’s going to be like on Saturday.
“In the Premier League, it’s always about getting any edge that you can because of the quality of the sides. We’re a better offensive team at home, because the supporters give you that drive.
“You get another 10 yards out of people. They have a big part to play.”
63-year-old O’Kelly, a former player with Walsall, Port Vale and Grimsby Town, earned a reputation as a motivating coach with West Bromwich Albion, Villa, Bournemouth, Doncaster Rovers and Hereford United, where he was an assistant manager for two years working with Graham Turner, establishing himself as a firm fans’ favourite.
Despite sharing his most recent success with Smith, O’Kelly also enjoyed an effective partnership with Sean O’Driscoll, after the two won promotions at Bournemouth and Doncaster Rovers having worked in tandem for 12 years in the dugout.
Developing Villa’s new conveyor belt of talent
Smith’s left lieutenant has found more success, however, on the training field where he tends to take the lead. At Villa, few players have been greater affected by O’Kelly’s experience and care to nurture young talent like Jacob Ramsey.
Villa’s newly emerging starlet said he jumped at the opportunity to join Doncaster Rovers after taking advice from former Rovers assistant manager O’Kelly.
Villa’s No.2 gave a glowing reference on what the youngster could expect from all aspects of the club.
“I had the choice between coming here and staying at Villa, this was the best option for me to develop as a player so I jumped at the opportunity,” Ramsey said.
“I had a few conversations with Richard O’Kelly before I came here and he said really good things about the stadium and people around the place.
“He said he was looking forward to coming up to watch me play which is great for me to have the support of the coaching staff at Villa.”
After being selected as one of a number of Academy players to attend the first team’s training camp in Wales in August, strong performances in pre-season saw Smith hand Ramsey a full debut against Burton Albion in the Carabao Cup.
The youngster started and impressed in Round Three and Four, and Ramsey is keen to keep improving after getting a taste of first-team action.
He said: “Every training session I’m gaining more confidence, staying behind and doing extra bits with Richard O’Kelly. I come in every day wanting to improve.
“I’ve made a strong start to the season in the Carabao Cup and making my Premier League debut. I’m hoping more opportunities will come.”
Ramsey went on to make his Premier League debut in Villa’s 3-0 win over Fulham at Craven Cottage.
Like any good coach in professional sport, it can’t be an arm around the shoulder approach every time.
O’Kelly’s partner Smith has previously explained that the hardest part of management is telling his players that they won’t be involved on matchdays.
The Villa boss joked: “Sometimes I leave it to the axeman and say, ‘Richard, he’s not playing today, go over and have a word!”
The ‘axeman’ O’Kelly has been an unsung hero in Dean Smith’s coaching staff during Aston Villa’s promotion, survival and everything in-between.