Behind every good team, there’s a great leader.
Elements of resilience, determination and courage are all key to the make-up of a coach capable of galvanising a group of players and in Aston Villa’s case, accepting setbacks and going again.
Dean Smith is heading one of the more exciting projects in English football, but not simply by design. The Great-Barr born manager has been crucial to the club’s turnaround in fortunes to not only realise the ambitions of his own managerial career but in doing so, is now leading his boyhood club back to the lofty heights from where it once fell.
The life of a Premier League manager can often be a gilded existence – but Smith’s days in lower league football have ensured the high-flying Aston Villa boss hasn’t taken anything for granted.
A lower league journeyman in his playing days, Smith plied his trade at lower levels throughout a career that required a degree of perseverance and strong-will for a player who’d often dream about playing in the Premier League as a teenager. To this day, the many lessons Smith has 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 factory.
Coming from a working-class background in Birmingham, it gave Smith a purpose and a spirit to reach levels even he might not have envisaged, having failed in a pursuit to become a top-flight player back in the late ’80s. Though, every effective leader must be able to take defeat, learn from it and move forward.
In fact, that’s exactly what Smith did to get back in the saddle after early knock-backs in his playing career, when Newcastle United put pay to his hopes of becoming a First Division no-nonsense centre-half. Instead, Smith would captain every club he played for and even wear the Walsall armband at 19 years of age, where he played alongside his heroes, Gary Shaw and Dennis Mortimer in the Third and Fourth Division.
From 25 years of age, Smith knew he wanted to explore a career in management and coaching when playing for Hereford United at the time. But after making the £42,500 move to Leyton Orient from Edgar Street in the summer of 1997, Smith would find the place to embark on his managerial journey. Two years after leaving the O’s for Sheffield Wednesday and later Port Vale, Smith returned to Brisbane Road as a youth coach from January 2005.
His first taste of senior coaching was as an assistant manager to Martin Ling at Leyton Orient that same year, 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.
Following Smith’s first ten games in charge at Villa Park – after he took the reins from Steve Bruce in October 2018 – only two wins in 12 followed as Villa’s 2018/19 Championship campaign fell to pieces. 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 a midseason slump.
Smith’s decision to hand fellow boyhood Villa fan, Jack Grealish, the armband proved crucial to Villa’s revival en route to promotion back to the Premier League. Decisions like these have not only earned Smith his keep but admiration amongst a fanbase that’ll remember one of their own in the same light as those who Smith himself celebrated on the Holte End, almost 40 years ago.
In what was turning out to be a Premier League return to forget for Villa last season, Smith remained the eternal optimist, despite losing 17 of the 28 top-flight games that preceded the league’s coronavirus suspension in March. He never backed down nor shirked responsibility even if only the most confident of Villa fans were left dreaming of top-flight survival after slipping further into relegation trouble following a seemingly ‘nail in the coffin’ 3-0 loss to Manchester United, with only four games left to play.
With a swift rerun to the Championship on the cards, Smith had to galvanise a squad bereft of confidence and belief – like he had managed the year before – in order to preserve his own top-flight coaching status. 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. Then, 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 Premier League place on a dramatic final day.
With Smith’s stock higher than ever, what had particularly impressed club owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, was his ability to recognise his tactical flaws and adapt his philosophy to ensure the club’s survival.
This season, Villa have taken their Project Restart form on another level altogether. Becoming hard to beat is the key difference Smith has endeavoured to improve, and so, with the additions of Matty Cash and Emiliano Martínez, coupled with the outstanding development of Ezri Konsa and Matt Targett, Villa have already kept more clean sheets this season than in the last, while also managing to eclipse their 35 points tally from last term in 16 fewer games.
After back-to-back seasons of proving those who dared to bet against him wrong, Smith is finally earning the credit he’s long overdue deserved, as Villa scope out their path back to the league’s higher reaches.
The making of Aston Villa’s modest manager
Smith’s motive to pursue a successful career in management came about the many positive and negative influences from his former coaches, of whom he wants to become the best.
“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.”
Any Premier League manager who hasn’t leant on a successful playing career, nor any past achievements with big clubs abroad, must have that same hunger and desire to succeed in abundance, as talent and potential can only be fully realised if those two elements co-exist.
As Smith points to, his management style is one of a democratic approach – one that modern-day footballers are likely to respond to, as he would have himself before hanging up his boots 15 years ago. In what has been a turbulent few years with Smith at the helm, success has still materialised, having secured promotion and survival against all the odds in recent years.
What has remained consistent during Smith’s tenure so far, is a collective drive towards an end goal or target, where under previous regimes, Villa as a club have been torn apart by shoddy management and egotistical narcissism. After every matchday, win, lose or draw, Smith opens the floor to players to lead the post-match debrief at Bodymoor Heath.
Leaders who have success over a long period of time understand the real value of growing their own assets, and while spending the money that has been ploughed into the club by Sawiris and Edens, Smith could have easily discarded this seasons’ stars, Douglas Luiz, Targett and Trezeguet failed to impress for much of last season. Instead, Smith installed a belief into his dressing room that not only survival was possible, but with the new season on the horizon, those same players can lead Villa’s ascent up the division, albeit over Zoom calls through the first lockdown period.
As he successfully managed to do at Walsall and Brentford, Smith has promoted a positive culture at the club, whereby each and every player, from Jack Grealish to youngsters like Jacob Ramsey are given the chance to voice their opinions on performances and personal form.
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 formed such an upbeat, palpable atmosphere at Villa Park.
“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’s ability to connect with players on a personal level is a major plus in creating harmonious relationships on and off the pitch. His captain, Grealish probably speaks on behalf of the squad when he said “He’s been excellent since he’s come in.
“I got injured and I came back and he gave me the armband, and ever since then both of us haven’t looked back. He’s been excellent for me,” Grealish added.
“I can speak to him about anything. If I’ve got problems anywhere, off the field, or anything I can always speak to him.”
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, Ron, 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 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 that Smith’s job interview – following Villa’s sacking of Steve Bruce – became a masterclass in tactics, coaching, player development and even some bonus Villa trivia was surely added as Christian Purslow become sold that Smith was the man to guide Villa back to the promised land.
Villa’s inspirational gaffer often points to his impressive CV in the Football League when quizzed on his love for the club he so gladly manages, but having built up Brentford into promotion chancers himself, Smith wasn’t to be sold on his dream job if it wasn’t right for him.
“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”, Smith said.
“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.”
The future is an exciting one for Aston Villa, a club with ambitions to stake their claim for European football for years to come, with boyhood fan Dean Smith at the forefront of an exciting project.