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Comment: Dean Smith is the Great Barr kid who has come home to Aston Villa

By Matt Maher | Aston Villa | Published:

Dean Smith is the 29th man to be appointed boss of Aston Villa.

With the possible exception of Vic Crowe, there can surely be no-one to whom it has meant quite so much, writes Matt Maher.

For Smith, this is a homecoming in every sense of the word. Not just a return to the Midlands but also to the place where he first fell in love with football.

True, his career both as a player and manager was forged in Walsall.

But it was Villa Park which provided Smith with the memories that remain his earliest and among his most cherished.

His father, Ron, was a steward who used to work in the Trinity Road Stand and Smith and his brother, Dave, used to clean the seats in exchange for a pie, a drink and – most importantly – a free pass into the Holte End.

From there, the young Smith brothers witnessed some of Villa Park’s most famous nights, from a Brian Little and Andy Gray-inspired 5-1 win over Liverpool, to the 1980/81 title-winning season and the glory of a European Cup campaign.

The dream for Smith back then was to one day turn out for Villa as a player.

It didn’t happen, though his career through the lower leagues with the Saddlers, Hereford and Leyton Orient was no less fulfilling.

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Now he returns to Villa as head coach, having earned the right thanks to his impressive work with Walsall and most recently Brentford.

Like many managerial careers, Smith’s began almost by accident. Then the Saddlers’ head of youth development, he was asked to take the reins on a caretaker basis when Chris Hutchings was sacked in January 2011.

“I told the chairman there and then I didn’t want the job on a full-time basis,” Smith told the Express and & Star in 2016. “Then I got into the hotseat and I suppose there was a moment when I really started enjoying it.”

Walsall were nine points adrift at the foot of League One. Keeping them up that season remains Smith’s proudest achievement in management.

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It was his work in the following seasons, however, which really began to draw attention, the Saddlers earning plaudits for their attractive style of play and regularly bloodying the noses of teams with considerably bigger budgets, culminating in the club’s first-ever appearance at Wembley in the 2015 Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final.

Smith moved to Brentford in November of that year, maintaining the good work carried out by his predecessor, Mark Warburton, and securing top-10 finishes in each of his two full seasons in charge. It is those performances, on one of the Championship’s more modest budgets, coupled with the Bees’ penchant for playing attractive football that saw him included on Villa’s five-man shortlist following Steve Bruce’s dismissal.

There is no point disguising the fact Smith may not, at first, have been top of that list. Yet as the days progressed, he gradually came to the fore. Villa’s chief executive Christian Purslow, the man charged with leading the club’s search, will have no doubt discovered Smith is a man who, once met, can not easily be forgotten.

The announcement of his appointment, late on Wednesday night, was greeted with an outpouring of joy from a fanbase among whom he was always the favourite.

Amid the rush of positivity lies the truth Smith has taken on no easy task, comfortably the biggest challenge of his career to date. Though his history might ensure an extended honeymoon period with supporters, he will still face the same issues as his most recent predecessors, most notably the less than straightforward task of establishing a long-term plan while also delivering a short-term fix.

There is also no disguising the rather eclectic mix which now exists in Villa’s football department, thanks to the two other appointments which accompanied Smith.

Jesus Garcia Pitarch, the club’s new sporting director, is a man with strong links to super-agent Jorge Mendes. John Terry, meanwhile, was one of the most high-profile players on the planet and a significant influence in Villa’s dressing room until his departure just five months ago.

His return as assistant boss in some respect threatened to overshadow the appointment of Smith himself.

Yet fans worried about whether such a dynamic can work should find some encouragement from their new head coach’s greatest strength, his personality.

Above everything else, Smith is a people person, capable of forming strong bonds with others, no matter their background or standing.

Though it might be true he has never had to deal directly with players who possess the stature (or in some cases ego) of Villa’s, he has little trouble earning respect.

Players at Walsall spoke of a manager who was prepared to go to previously unheard of lengths to try to resolve an individual’s problems and maintain team unity.

Neither should Smith be viewed as simply some starry-eyed fan who was always going to come running the minute his boyhood club called.

Instead, he is a devastatingly shrewd operator, with an inner steel formed during his upbringing on Great Barr’s Gorse Farm estate.

Supporters can be assured he will have asked the right questions and gotten the right answers before agreeing to sign. One of his conditions, surely, will have been that his long-term assistant Richard O’Kelly also makes the switch. Their success at Walsall and Brentford has been very much a team effort.

“I’ve always known where my roots are and what my values are,” Smith once said. “That has been ingrained in me from the start. I’m just a Great Barr kid.”

Now that kid has come home. Everyone is rooting for him.

Matt Maher

By Matt Maher
Football MMPJ - @mjmarr_star

Sports journalist for the Express & Star

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