There is one thing I have noticed Dean Smith and his staff are keen to emphasise in preseason regarding new signings. They are looking for not just quality players, but good characters that will fit in with the existing core on return to the Premier League. Smith’s approach is exactly what the club needs in order to progress forward, with the aim of having long term success in the Premier League.
From the limited view that preseason footage and social media accounts of the players give, it seems that the new boys have already settled. Every single time you look on any sort of post involving the squad’s interactions with each other, there are fans commenting on the camaraderie and spirit that seems to exist within the group. This is not surprising considering how quickly Mings, Hause and El Ghazi seemed to integrate into the team last season when brought in by Smith in January.
What really speaks of Dean Smith’s man management is how willing players are to be coached by him again. Most of the loanees from the last season have returned on permanent deals, as well as Ezri Konsa and Jota joining having worked with Smith at Brentford. The signings of players Smith has worked with in the past as well as players judged to have the right personalities, will help maintain the current positive dressing room atmosphere.
To see the effects of a badly managed dressing room, you only have to look back to when Villa were last in the top flight.
In the 2015/16 season the dressing room was poison. The only shared aim of the squad it seemed was to beat Derby’s record of historical awfulness and it even failed to do that. Villa finished on 17 points rock-bottom of the Premier League, having only reached half of 19th placed Norwich’s total.
Captain Micah Richards, a fullback adamant he was a centre back and one half of one of the worst combinations since coke and menthols, spoke of this atmosphere in a 2015 interview with the Telegraph:
“Everybody seems to be – I wouldn’t say passing the blame – but they don’t want to run that extra mile and take responsibility. There’s a few good players in the team and they’re probably thinking, ‘If Villa get relegated, I’ll get a move in the summer’ – but it doesn’t work like that anymore.”
It’s fair to say Micah Richards was wrong, the players that were recruited with the money generated from Christian Benteke’s ill-fated transfer to Liverpool found moves away as soon as they could. The transfer policy of buying French league players with the first name Jordan failed terribly, as talented players such as Veretout, Amavi, Ayew and Idrissa Gueye failed to fit in. These players could not replace the players we had sold, and they knew it, the style was not suited to them and the expectation was too high.
A lot is made of having experienced heads in the dressing room by pundits and fans, in order to keep people in line and be role models to others. This was a thought shared by a certain Tim Sherwood, who in his infinite wisdom brought in Jolean Lescott from West Brom. However, as well as being the second part of the worst centre back pairing in history, he was completely detrimental to the dressing room. In fact, the only impressive thing he added was an infamous ability to tweet without using his hands.
Aston Villa was a cash cow going nowhere but backwards, offering a stepping stone to more promising players or journeymen and a retiring home for those who were past it. Even if there was some hunger for individual success there definitely wasn’t any belief in each other at all. You could tell the team was shot for confidence, missing five-yard passes and skulking around the pitch. Lacking stability or consistency as the club cycled through three managers, it was not exactly a great environment for players to play their best football or be happy doing it.
But look at the squad now, there is a palpable excitement within the fans and importantly the players that was lacking from recent years in the premier league. We have a young but courageous group of players that have been stripped of any deadwood, ready to compete in the highest level of English football.
Jack Grealish is emblematic of this change, as the only remaining survivor from the team that did so poorly in 2015/16. He has turned from a media storm inducing teenager to a talismanic and charismatic captain, who has fully stepped up to a senior role in the team despite being only 23 years old.
The only problem that could be levelled at the club in terms of dressing room atmosphere at the moment is a lack of experienced players, but as we already know this is not a guarantee of squad harmony. Glen Whelan and Mile Jedinak did a job and were great professionals but revamping the squad allows for the likes of Grealish and Mings to lead, while being of the standard required in a higher league. The mindset of this squad is far removed from that of 2015/16 and that can only ever be a good thing.