The life of a Premier League manager can often be a gilded existence – but Dean Smith’s days in lower league football have ensured the high-flying Aston Villa boss won’t be taking anything for granted.
A lower league journeyman in his playing days, the Great Barr-born manager plied his trade at lower levels throughout a career that required a degree of resilience and determination for a player who’d often dream about playing in the Premier League as a teenager. To this day, the many lessons Smith had learned – from scrubbing the boots of Saddler’s seniors to recognising the person behind the footballer – has put Villa’s gaffer in good stead.
After leaving school as a teen, Smith struggled for his big break to fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer and so the humble beginnings of his story began by taking up a job at a local powder paint company. As fate would have it, a 16-year-old Smith would cycle around the Villa Park grounds on the way to the paint factory.
“It was a full-time job but I only ever saw it as temporary,” Smith told the Daily Mail. “I just wanted to be a footballer and to play for Aston Villa.”
Eventually, Smith would have to settle for Walsall, who gave the once-promising centre-back a chance at making the grade. He went on to make over 100 appearances for the Saddlers before moving to Hereford for a club-record fee of £75,000 in 1994.
Smith admitted to having “the ultimate pleasure” of playing alongside one of his heroes, Gary Shaw, at Walsall. Shaw’s time at Fellows Park was short-lived but Smith admits he was in awe of him. He said: “I watched Shawy when he was in his pomp at Villa.
“He was unbelievable. He came to Walsall and eventually had to quit through injury. But we used to have a kick around in the old car park at the back of the stadium and I’ve never seen a touch as good as his and a finisher as good as him.”
While Smith might not have taken to the eye so easily like that of former European Cup winners Shaw or Dennis Mortimer, remarkably, he was captain at every club he played for and even the skipper of Walsall at the age of 19.
Though, Smith would soon learn that leadership must be handled in different ways, especially without an armband strapped to the bicep.
His first taste of coaching was as an assistant manager to Martin Ling at Leyton Orient in 2005 and while still learning the ropes of management, Smith admitted he lacked ‘emotional control’ in the dressing room. His mantra, one that exists to this day, is to not allow the highs get too high and the lows get too low.
His motive to pursue a successful career in management came about the many positive and negative influences from his former coaches, of whom Smith wants to become the best of.
“My motivation has always been to prove people wrong,” Smith said.
“I was told by one of my managers as a 17-year-old that I would never be able to stand up in front of a group and speak. That stayed with me. I wanted to show him.
“I am all about being consistent. I learned more from the coaches I didn’t like than from the ones I did as I identified the stuff they did that I needed to chuck away. I want to be the manager I would have wanted to be managed by.”
Creating a culture is key for Dean Smith
Smith has a reputation for being affable and indeed modest in the way that he carries himself. It’s no wonder that his effect on Walsall, Brentford and now Aston Villa has been palatable by virtue of the efficacious cultures he helped nurture.
“I don’t care what job you are in — football or a factory — these people are all humans with different emotions, sensitivities and lives away from work,’ he said. ‘It’s my job to get the best out of them, so I need to know this stuff. I see the job as the whole spectrum.
“I love coaching, being out there making people better. But it’s the mental side that pushes these lads and if you don’t get a connection with them, players can easily decide they are not going to work for you.”
Smith took over the Saddlers’ managerial reigns in the 2010/11 season and saved the club from almost certain relegation. Much of what went well for the now Villa boss at Walsall, was down to constructing a culture, but not by design.
The penny dropped for Smith at Walsall after he issued two warning letters to a couple of young players he’d worked with about their attitude in training.
Smith, who delivered a speech to business students at Birmingham City University in October 2019, said: “We worked big-time on building a culture at Walsall and there was one story that we knew we were on the right track. Whether I’m at Walsall, Brentford or Aston Villa, people ask me about culture because there can be good culture and bad culture.
“There was one player who, when I first met him, was in my youth team and he did something at training and I’d given him a warning letter and did something the following day and I gave him another warning letter and one day he walks in and he’s got a sausage sandwich.
“Straight away I took it off him, shared it between me and my staff and then pulled the lad in and said listen, ‘What are you doing?’ and then he explained to me, ‘Well, I live at my aunties, my mum and dad are separated, I feel like I can’t ask them for breakfast because they have to feed their kids as well so that was the only thing I could get.’
“It struck a chord with me. He’s different to what I am, he’s different to what some of the other lads are but I need to help him get better. I need to make him a better footballer and let’s see where he goes.
“That story going back to Walsall sums up how we created that culture and it was all the players in the dressing room, all the staff, the board but it has to start from there.
“I like to see people grow and learn, that’s who I am and that’s how I’ve been brought up. It wasn’t just about creating players to play better football, I wanted to help create better people as well.
“For me, if someone comes into our training ground they should hear it, see it, feel it. It should be good feelings, good sounds, good sights. Every day, that’s what I ask my players to show.”
Smith was the fourth longest-serving manager in the country at the time of his departure, as he left Walsall flying high in League One, but said he only opted to move on because Brentford offered him a shot at the Premier League.
“They’re pushing to try to get to the Premier League,” Smith said.
“I always said getting Walsall to the Championship was the improbable dream but getting them to the Premier League was the impossible dream. Brentford matched my ambitions.”
Smith admitted he would have loved to have guided Walsall into the Championship.
“I’d have loved to have won promotion with Walsall,” he said.
“There’s only ever been three Walsall managers who’ve done it in 127 years, so it just shows you how tough it is getting Walsall into the Championship, and there’s no guarantees of that.
“In almost five years at Walsall, I’ve always done my best for the football club. I look back at where I started as the head of youth and then taking over as manager and what I’ve left behind, and I think I’ve done a really good job and left it in a good state.
“You have to move on to new things and I don’t think anybody, any of the staff or players, begrudge me the opportunity to go and manage In the Championship.”
During his time with Walsall, in which he turned the club from relegation favourites to promotion hopefuls, Smith even managed to draw some rave reviews from one of the Premier League’s greatest managers.
Chelsea manager at the time, José Mourinho, paid a huge compliment to then promotion-chasing Walsall by labelling Dean Smith’s Saddlers’ playing style the best he has ever seen from a League One side.
“I have years of cups in this country,” Mourinho said after beating Smith’s Walsall 4-1 in a League Cup third-round game at the Bescot in 2015.
“And I haven’t found a team in League One playing the quality of football that Walsall tried to play. I analysed them before. I watched a couple of their matches in League One.”
Mourinho added: “I was surprised with the quality of their play. They are a different team to normal in League One – not so physical, but technically fast. They were very well organised.
“I am always worried about teams with great belief. After 3-1, we could feel like it was game over but before that everything was open. They created chances and fought hard.”
‘I was quite happy to walk if it didn’t fit’ – Dean Smith didn’t take his dream job on sentiment
After a two year spell at Brentford following his departure from Walsall, Smith consolidated his reputation for providing an attractive yet effective brand of football. His stock couldn’t have been higher after constructing a team widely regarded as the Championship’s entertainers.
Despite having a squad assembled on a shoestring budget at his disposal, Smith was able to develop a playing style which has Brentford among the most feared second-tier competitors. Brentford made 21,744 passes in 46 Championship games in 2017/18 – only four teams made more. Smith’s technicians boasted 79% pass accuracy, too.
From his teenage years, cycling to and from work with the Holte End steps in view and four floodlight pylons lettered ‘AV’ towering over the Aston Expressway, Smith grew up watching some very good Aston Villa teams.
Smith’s neighbour as a kid was Pat Heard, a substitute when Villa won the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in 1982. Smith’s dad wouldn’t let him make the journey to Rotterdam, but Heard made sure he was on the bus as it paraded the trophy through Birmingham the next day.
As a boy, Smith even cleaned the seats in the North Stand at Villa Park on a matchday in exchange for a place in the Holte End, while his father, Ron was a steward in the Trinity Road Stand for 25 years. He used to show chairman Doug Ellis to his seat.
So it might not come as a surprise when Dean Smith’s job interview – following Villa’s sacking of Steve Bruce – became a masterclass in tactics, coaching, player development and maybe some Villa trivia as taught by Smith, soon to be the man to guide Villa back to the promised land.
Smith had previously admitted how he never envisaged becoming a manager – let alone take charge of his beloved Aston Villa one day. The claret and blue hero added: “When I went to Brentford and when I went to Aston Villa for interviews, I said why do you want me? Because if it doesn’t fit, then we can walk now.
“I was quite happy to walk if it didn’t fit. Everyone knows that Aston Villa was my club growing up but it wasn’t a no-brainer, for me. It had to be right. The culture, how we want to grow the football club because there was no difference to Walsall – there was a disenchantment between football club and supporters. That had to come together and the only way to do it is from the top all the way down.
“And it fitted. I sat down with Christian Purslow, Jesus Garcia (Pitarch) and had a phone chat with Nassef (Sawiris) and Wes (Edens), the owners, and they are everything about education, learning, progressing, getting better – that’s all they want to do, for everyone at the football club to get better.”
After securing a win on his opening game against Swansea, Smith’s side would win away at Frank Lampard’s Derby 3-0 and Middlesborough by the same, convincing margin. Most satisfying of all was a 4-2 victory over bitter rivals Birmingham despite their nine minutes in dreamland threatening to spoil Smith’s first game in charge of a second city derby. Villa turned on the style, Jack scored his first against Blues and Alan Hutton was halfway to Mosley before he netted one of the most memorable of derby goals you’re likely to witness.
Hurling himself to the admiring Holte End, the Scottish Cafu would live up to his Brazilian counterpart for one day and one day only, when it truly mattered.
In a turbulent manner, Villa has so often operated, the club’s progress under Smith would all but undo after winning only two of the 14 fixtures that preceded Villa’s 3-0 win on Teesside and Jack Grealish’s shin injury had sidelined, head and shoulders the best player in the league indefinitely.
Smith’s first season with Villa was seemingly in tatters and the play-off picture had forgotten about Villa who’d failed to beat Stoke, Reading, Hull and QPR, before losing 3-0 to Wigan at the height of their mid-season slump.
‘Please welcome back number 10 Jack Grealish!’ Walking out with a captain’s armband strapped to his bicep, the returning Grealish would inspire Villa to a first league win in over a month, dictating proceedings and ending a 4-0 half-time rout against Derby by planting a volley into Scott Carson’s top right corner.
That wouldn’t be the last of Grealish’ memorable strikes that season.
Handing Grealish the captains armband would be a masterstroke from Smith as Villa embarked on a club record ten-match winning run that propelled a Villa side that was languishing in mid-table back into the play-off picture. Emulating a young Gabby Agbonlahor at St. Andrews was the poetic justice Grealish deserved after being assaulted on the pitch, we’ll always have the last laugh and in what turned out to be the final grudge match with Birmingham during Villa’s prolonged spell in the second division.
Eight wins later and Villa had consolidated their play-off place, netted 18 goals and before contesting a play-off final place for the second year in a row and scored one of the Championship’s more bizarre goals at Elland Road – not only would Villa have seen the back of Patrick Bamford but Leeds United too following play-off capitulation at the hands of Frank’s Rams.
Smith’s Villa hit the play-offs in form, and despite West Brom comfortably sitting inside the top six for the duration of the season, it was Villa who were installed as favourites. Conor Hourihane’s introduction in the second half of the first leg could not have been more effective. Striking the ball away from Sam Johnstone from distance, the Irishman got Villa back on level terms having fallen behind to a Dwight Gayle opener.
Villa went on to win the first leg, but after faltering at The Hawthorns, only a penalty shoot-out win could test the bottle of Villa players and fans alike, all so desperate to make use of some handy back-end of season form.
Jed Steer was the hero on the night, Villa were off to Wembley to put some wrongs right.
Banishing the Wembley hoodoo was the aim, but as kick-off approached in the sweltering capital, focus on the task in hand was key and momentum was rife. Smith had taken Lampard’s Derby side apart in the two previous league encounters by 7-0 aggregate score.
After the two previous Wembley heartbreaks, Villa would step up to the fore, win promotion and claim the all-important final Premier League space for the 2019-2020 campaign. The 40,000 Villans packed into Wembley’s West End had to trade with a wee faith and rely on some Scottish vigour. John McGinn put the game beyond Derby and so it was Villa’s time to light up the Wembley arch claret and blue – good times never felt so good!
Smith devoted Premier League promotion to his father, Ron Smith who had been struggling with dementia for six years.
He said after the game, “I went to see my old man on Friday and he kept his eyes open for two minutes and I said ‘the next time I come to see you I’ll be a Premier League manager’. And he smiled and nodded, so for me, that’s enough.”
Dean Smith’s overdue Premier League bow
Smith would embark on his first season as a Premier League manager having earned his stripes at Walsall and Brentford in lower leagues, and whilst the top flight would be a learning experience, Villa would still throw up last-minute goals, a cup final escapade and the odd thriller at the Villa.
Villa plotted their assault on the Premier League with club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens keen to quite literally prove their worth, and provide Smith with the players necessary to not only make up the numbers in the Premier League but compete on all fronts.
Knee-jerk presumptions were made when Villa splashed over £100 million on new talent, but look closer and following the loss of 13 players from the previous Championship campaign, Villa had to not only add quality but add enough players to field a team altogether. ‘Doing a Fulham’ was both lazy and far from the truth.
Restoring Aston Villa’s Premier League status, setting a new club-record winning run and leading the club to a League Cup final was all in a whirlwind year and a half for Smith.
Though after falling to a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United six games into the Premier League’s Project Restart, the writing was on the wall for Smith’s Villa side who plunged deeper into relegation trouble.
It was fast becoming a first top-flight season to forget for Smith, but as the relegation picture became clearer, fixtures were running out and Villa’s gaffer knew there was no margin for error as the final four fixtures of the season approached – it was an opportunity to produce a truly great escape.
“I have never got too high or too low on defeats throughout my career,” Smith told Sky Sports before searching for his first win since January as Villa welcomed Crystal Palace in early July.
Villa fans weren’t expecting to take many points from a tricky run of games that included Chelsea, Wolves, United and Liverpool, and whilst Villa had acquitted themselves well at Anfield, not one forward or midfielder at the club had scored a goal for nine games, the worst goal drought in any Villa side in 25 years.
Amidst Villa’s perilous months prior to and after lockdown, Smith remained the eternal optimist, he never backed down nor shirked responsibility even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival.
Seven points separated Villa and Watford who sat above the dotted line come July 12 and only a win against a bang out of form Palace side would do for Villa side so desperate for the three points that could alter a whole season’s fortunes.
A vital win over Arsenal followed a late blow at Goodison Park before Jack Grealish chose the perfect time to notch his first goal in 14 Premier League games at the London Stadium to seal Villa’s top-flight status on a dramatic final day.
Calm and honest through the toughest part of his professional career, Smith’s man-management, as perfected during his time at Leyton Orient, Walsall and Brentford rubbed off on his players. Villa managed to become the first Premier League team to survive relegation having fallen seven points off the pace with four games left to play.
“It is so important that my demeanour is consistent for the players. The moment they see a little bit of panic or lack of belief in my eyes then I think it is a downward spiral from there.
“One big result could turn things.”
Smith was keen to dismiss the notion that his players were losing heart ahead of the most important two weeks of the club’s recent history, which has been packed with play-off heartache, play-off ecstasy and a cup final to boot.
“The belief is there, that’s for sure,” he said.
“I can see it in their eyes when they step out to play. I can see it on the pitch and I can see it in the meetings we’re having. There’s definitely a belief. Our job is to get lifted again. Keep the faith because there is a lot of belief in that dressing room and we are still working hard.
“How are we going to get out of it? By fighting, by working hard. By being as solid as we have been in the first few games and then hopefully showing a little more quality in the final third.”
Villa hadn’t taken a single point from the last 15 up for grabs before the Premier League was suspended back in March, and during lockdown, Smith had to contend with plotting a great escape without seeing his players on a day-to-day basis and being away from Bodymoor Heath to establish tactical plans.
“People had us relegated after we lost 4-0 at Leicester in March before the suspension but we have used the lockdown well. We couldn’t keep doing what we were doing, we had to get better defensively and get fitter. They now look Premier League players and it now looks like there’s a Premier League culture. It takes time.”
Project Restart performances
Smith 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 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.
“We were conceding too many chances and too many goals,” Smith said when re-evaluating his side’s form pre-lockdown.
“We had to come up with a plan to stop that and we have done that.
“During the lockdown, we did video sessions with the players. We did group sessions. We got their input. I certainly had a vision of how I saw us moving forward and the players worked hard in that mini-pre-season that we had.
“We worked on best practice. We looked at the two best teams in the league, Manchester City and Liverpool. The togetherness, the team shift when they lose the ball, the counter-pressing.
“We had to get better at recovering the ball back if we lost it and, if we could not, making sure we got numbers back behind the ball and forcing the opposition one way.”
Having taken just one win in the first two months of the Premier League season, Villa were in for a rude awakening after plotting a bullish assault during pre-season. Chief executive Christian Purslow was planning to take the top flight by storm.
“Dean thinks we should win every game of football, he thinks if they score three, we’ll score four. Be ready guys, he’s not going away to Manchester City and try to play for a 0-0.”
Too “gung-ho” and “naive” in approaching games, Smith knew his open style and attractive brand of football wasn’t going to harvest the results necessary to remain in the Premier League and credit where credit is due, he identified and rectified his side’s faults.
Since hosting Sheffield United on the opening day of Project Restart, only Manchester United and Wolves had conceded fewer chances until Villa finally secured their Premier League place at the London Stadium.
The league’s indefinite suspension also allowed Smith to take a step back and devise plans to improve defensive frailties and set-piece flaws, both in attacking and defensive phases. Grealish had 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 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, Smith, Richard O’Kelly and John Terry would join 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 Smith and the comfortable environment of behind closed doors stadiums, both thrived to become integral members of a thin Villa squad.
Never had Smith chosen to hang a player out to dry this season, nor disrupt what is a sensitive dressing room full of inexperienced Premier League footballers. Instead, he nurtured their talent and brought the best out of two players in particular who’d been written off before the New Year.
Ezri Konsa also came into his own in time for the restart – a player Smith labelled as having “no ceiling” to his potential. Partnering Tyrone Mings, the two were both assured and comfortable in forming a partnership that took three clean sheets in the post-lockdown period.
He, alongside Grealish and Luiz, were the first three players on a team sheet that had been chopped and changed throughout the season as Smith was still learning the qualities of his squad. Finding his best eleven was a timely benefit for Smith who used lockdown purely to Aston Villa’s eventual advantage.
Whilst Smith never doubted Villa’s ability to remain in the top flight, club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens also remained confident that the coach they appointed in October 2018 could guide this newly formed side to safety.
Smith said: “They (Sawiris & Edens) have sent me messages to pass on to players in terms of keep up the good work, keep working hard, there is hope. We are passing those on. They’re fully behind the players & myself to maintain our Premier League status.”
Mirroring his success when he walked through the doors of Villa Park last season, Smith proved the doubters wrong and lived up to every word of the late, great Ron Saunders: “Do you want to bet against us?”
His reward after keeping Villa in the top flight against all the odds will be the full backing of the owners who were particularly impressed with how Smith coached a better defensive shape and ultimately adapted his own philosophy and recognised his wrongs to ensure the club’s survival.
Setting club records and getting deserved recognition
After making a record-breaking start to the 2020/21 Premier League campaign, it’s time to pay Dean Smith his overdue credit, from a Premier League promotion, final-day survival and a League Cup final appearance, to orchestrating the 7-2 humbling of the English champions Liverpool.
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.
For all the glitz of supreme talisman Grealish, the perfect, first-half hat-trick from Smith’s first-choice striker signing, Ollie Watkins and a stunning audition from Ross Barkley, it was only five years ago that Villa found themselves on the wrong end of a familiar battering at Villa Park.
Kolo Toure cutting an isolated figure in the middle of Joleon Lescott and Ally Cissokho’s six-yard box isn’t a memory that’s been easy to forget for Villa fans – Toure’s and Liverpool’s sixth goal on that fateful day in February 2016 was the tipping point for Villa’s demise.
Smith was just about getting his feet under the table at Walsall by the time Remi Garde’s Villa were facing a first top-flight relegation since Smith would cycle around Villa Park as a 16-year-old.
Now nobody expected the sheer turmoil that would follow Villa’s relegation with ownership problems, financial crisis, the pain and delight of play-off finals, but neither would you foresee what would proceed in the Premier League.
Smith has been at the forefront of everything that’s good about the club in the past three years and counting and finally, some of the game’s top managers are paying his due credit.
“Villa is my favourite team in the Premier League at the moment,” José Mourinho said on New Year’s Day.
“It’s a team that I enjoy more to watch with lots of very good players, very well coached. This is what is waiting for us.”
Smith himself has paid tribute to the backing he’s received from club owners, Sawiris and Edens, who have both backed his ambitions.
“We have grown, become Premier League-ready and our acquisitions in the summer have strengthened us,” Smith said.
“Tactically they are proving there is a growing maturity within what is the youngest average-age team in the league. It bodes well for the future, for sure.”
The future is an exciting one for Aston Villa, a club back in the saddle and making an early assault on the Premier League’s upper echelons with boyhood fan Dean Smith leading the charge.