As Dean Smith enters his second year as Aston Villa head coach, it sets off thoughts about how we assess the job of work he has done so far. I was asked earlier in a group chat, what score I would give him out of ten. My instinct was to say TEN, immediately, sparking some debate within the group.
Of course to suggest a maximum score suggests that perfection has been attained, however given that this never happens in football, there are for me other criteria that could determine full marks.
First of all and most importantly is whether Smith achieved the goal set out for him on appointment. If we assume that this was to finish top 6 and secure promotion, then of course he did. He was also tasked with the job of improving the style of play, initially with the first team. He certainly did this overall, both initially and towards the end of the campaign, following a very average 2 month period after Christmas.
Dean Smith is very definite on his style. It involves pushing forward, lots of chances and goals, aided by a high or counter press to apply pressure on the opposition. His team were comfortably able to achieve this in the Championship, however many fans and commentators suggested that it may be unwise to choose that hill to die on in the top flight, as the quality of opposition may not allow his newbees to dominate games in that way. He has not wavered however, as he holds complete faith that his players will grow into the league and be able to make their mark and stay up, following his blueprint.
One of Smith’s major challenges was reuniting a squad, devoid of confidence and cohesiveness, although not lacking quality. Further to this, the squad was brimming with soon to be out of contract players, along with a significant number of loan players, all of whom could have become disinvested in a new project as they looked ahead to their next chapter. For the most part Smith managed to get everyone buying in and marching to his beat, which for me showed not only his coaching qualities, but also what a good man manager he is. Just consider for instance the turn around of Glenn Whelan.
Furthermore to this, the appointment of Smith and subsequent success has re-galvanised the club and supporter base. This process had started during the previous season under Steve Bruce, however the playoff final loss and near liquidation of the club had set it back to zero again. Initially it was Dean’s Villa connections which provided the injection of positivity, however it soon became more about what we were seeing on the pitch and the pure joy of hearing a manager talking about tactics, rather than sleeves, socks, daffodils and sausages!
It would be remiss to gloss over the dreadful spell after Christmas, but it would also be unfair to hold that against Smith having turned it round and made achieved the almost impossible aim.
My favourite Villa manager during my time supporting the club remains the first, the late, great Graham Taylor. My reasons for this have undoubtedly changed since I was an 8 year old boy in the Trinity Road stand, as my understanding of the context has improved. Taylor too was charged with galvanising a toxic environment following relegation to the old Division 2. He brought Villa back at the first time of asking, before then keeping the club up by a hair’s breadth and then masterminding a title challenge, finishing 2nd to Liverpool in 1990.
I had always said that the man who brought Villa back to the Premier League would be on course to match Taylor’s achievements, provided he could avoid being relegated and look to build for a higher placed finish thereafter. The football landscape has changed beyond all recognition since the early 90s, although strangely Liverpool are back at the top of the league as they were then. Clearly being in a position to make a title tilt must be viewed as a pipe dream in the current climate, however there are certainly equivalent targets, such as European qualification or cup wins, for Smith to aim for over the next few years of his tenure.
In terms of the start to this season, it could be described at on par. It has been a rude awakening at times to life back in the Premier League as we have struggled to adjust to the increased quality and maybe the experience and professionalism required to convert leads into wins. So far we have not so much been outplayed as out thought, but the performances provide hope.
Most of all, Dean Smith and his ability to improve his players is a cause for optimism. This has been a feature of his management career to date, as he uses not only his coaching knowledge and experience guide them, but his ability to appeal to the better nature of his players to work hard and take responsibility for their own performance. He is certainly one of football’s ‘nice guys’, but far from making him a pushover, it draws respect from those around him and encourages them to want to please and impress him.
This is undoubtedly the peak position of Smith’s career so far, unless he ends up succeeding Gareth Southgate with England in years to come. He will of course one day, leave Aston Villa and may even find employment elsewhere. However, Smith will certainly want his legacy to be a positive one, alongside the likes of Taylor, Saunders, Little and O’Neil and having become a Premier League manager on his own merit, to make the absolute most of the opportunity he has at his feet.
It has been a wonderful year as a Villa fan. It has not been perfect, but from where we were to where we are, I am not sure where he loses his marks. Despite the bad run, we have seen a record number of consecutive wins, promotion and a return to sold out attendances and Premier League football at Villa Park, all under the tutelage of ‘one of our own’. It is certainly a great time to be a Villa fan and with the club in rude health off the field, the upward curve should continue. I for one would be delighted to see Smith lead that development and take the club further forward over the next few years.