Speaking to Sky Sports on his 50th birthday, Dean Smith remembers every last detail of a memorable 40th, his early days of management at Walsall.
“Hartlepool at home. We were 2-0 down and I brought on Emmanuel Ledesma and we won 5-2. We stayed up that season in League One by a point.
“I still remember that day, 10 years on. We were really, really poor in the first half, and the substitute really changed the momentum of the game. Ledesma comes on, and that gives you a sign and a learning straight away that a positive substitution can change the momentum of the game.”
Ten years on, now a Premier League manager with Aston Villa developing England internationals – Jack Grealish, Tyrone Mings and now Ollie Watkins – that learning is a daily process.
“It’s been a progression, a journey that I’ve enjoyed. I feel I’m learning every day. Every day I go home and say: ‘Yep, that’s been an education again.’
“I think management is always about that because you’re dealing with people, and when you’re dealing with people, you’re dealing with emotions, sensitivities and differences. It’s something I enjoy, and enjoy trying to get the best out of them.
“It always has been a constant learning process – learning against other opposition coaches you’re playing against, you’re always looking at what they’re doing against you as well.
“But also learning from people above you; owners, CEOs and people like that.”
A lot has been said of Villa’s improvement this season on the pitch, now fighting for a top-half finish having survived by a single point last year. Tactical shifts have been important, as have savvy additions in the market. Granted, it’s harder to see and measure, but less is said about Smith’s managerial style; that man management and communication.
Smith’s managerial journey
Talent is key, but human relationships trump everything, Smith is keen to point out.
“It’s the most important part. You look at the top, top teams. Pep, Jose, Klopp… the relationships they have with their players when they come off the pitch. You simply have to have good relationships with the players to get the most out of them.
“It’s a short career for them, they want to know they’re getting better all the time. So you have to give them that learning zone, but also that human relationship with them is the most important thing.
“I think it is [becoming more prevalent in the game], but in a way it’s always been there. You look at the greatest manager of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson, and the relationship he had and still has with his players and his ex-players. I’m sure anybody who played under him can still pick up the phone to him.”
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Building that relationship can be helped by small gestures and techniques. Smith recently revealed Villa’s training sessions take place at midday, not the traditional 10.30am, because: “Players, young men, they’re different, they don’t go to bed at 11pm, they go to bed at 2am. They’ve all got an Xbox, a PS4 and they’re up later. Sleep is such an important part of recovery.”
Another technique, picked up during football’s absence in 2020 when Smith and his coaching staff were forced to host smaller video analysis sessions with players, will stick. Smith and Villa have stumbled on a way to give players more of a voice, increasing the idea of ownership and self-teaching, rather than the instruction-heavy approach now being marginalised in modern coaching.
“One of the things I liked during lockdown was the video group work we did. What I’ve come to realise is the smaller the group, the more they are prepared to speak out.
“The bigger the group, the less they’re likely to speak. I find you can get more opinions from players in smaller groups. So we will certainly be doing smaller group work in terms of our analysis from now on. That’s something we’ll take away from it.
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“That analysis side of the game is something we’ve used before but not as much as we can, and will be something we use a lot more now.”
If Smith is keen to learn, the past month has been ripe for lessons. Villa have won just one of their last six and been without talisman and skipper Grealish for the past five games due to injury. They’ve scored only three goals in that time, but conceded only four.
Sunday’s clash with Tottenham at Villa Park is key if Villa want to mount a challenge for the European spots, which could drop down to seventh depending on domestic cup winners.
But the Spurs game is pertinent for other reasons – Villa’s 3-2 defeat by Jose Mourinho’s side 13 months ago was the last match in front of fans at Villa Park. Smith sent a letter of thanks to all season ticket holders this week, summarising the past year and looking ahead to the fans’ return.
Smith has noticed patterns in games that could be put down to the absence of fans, but it’s not something he wants to get used to.
Fewest points lost from winning positions – PL 20/21
Interestingly, 11 of Villa’s 12 Premier League wins this season have been clean sheets, and Smith’s side have lost just five points from winning positions, the joint-fewest in the league. They have also picked up just one point from losing positions, the fewest in the league. In fact, eight teams have picked up four points or fewer from losing positions.
Fewest points won from losing positions – PL 20/21
“I don’t think you see too many teams coming back now. I may be generalising, but if you look at us specifically, if we take the lead we usually go on and win the game. And when we’ve gone behind, it’s been tough to get back into the game.
“There seems to be a trend of that across the league. There’s a neutrality now of home and away results, too.
“Unfortunately it’s become the norm now without fans, and I for one want the fans back. If Villa Park had been open when we beat Liverpool and Arsenal, matches like that, it would have been superb. But it would have helped us to get back into games against Brighton, Southampton and Leicester. It works both ways.
“I for one am hopeful we can get back to some kind of normality with supporters in the stadium. We’ve certainly missed them.”
Two of Smith’s Villa signings, also signed by him at Brentford, received contrasting news on Thursday as Gareth Southgate announced his England squad for the upcoming internationals, with the Euros now under three months away.
Striker Watkins, the £26m summer signing with 10 Premier League goals to his name in his debut season, was called up, while centre-back Ezri Konsa, among Villa’s top performers this season, missed out.
Judging Watkins on his goals tally is simplistic; what will England be getting from the 25-year-old, who was playing non-League football with Weston Super Mare just five years ago?
“He always tops our charts in terms of high speed running and sprinting which tells you just how much work he puts into the team. If you ask any of our players they’ll all say that he’s a really good team-mate, and that’s really important.
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“Yes, he scores goals, and he’ll continue to do that, but he’s got a great mindset for improvement, and he’s one of our most coachable players.”
But Konsa’s overlooking will only give him more hunger, says Smith.
“He’s been our Mr Consistent. I’m never surprised that a player isn’t in an international squad because it’s not my choice, it’s somebody else’s, but I’m sure he’s been talked about. He’s been so consistent for us this season.
“But I know by not getting picked for England it will give him the fire in the belly to keep improving and hopefully make that Euros squad.”
One man already lodged firmly in Southgate’s plans for the summer is Grealish. His absence has been felt acutely.
“We have missed him, just like Tottenham would miss Harry Kane, or Man City would miss Kevin De Bruyne. He’s that type of player.
“In terms of our creativity, we’ve probably dropped off since we had that Covid break [in early January]. But Jack does give us that little bit of quality that we’ve probably missed in the past five games.
“He’s still a major influence around the training ground, he joins in with all our meetings, he’s very affable to all the coaching staff, giving his opinions, and he is well-liked around the training ground.”
That so many Villa players are hovering around the England team is a testament to their progression under Smith – right-back Matty Cash, another signing from the Championship, was also mentioned by Southgate on Thursday.
But the need to improve never ends. This summer, it will be about adding squad depth.
“It’s a constant, ongoing process that I have with the sporting director [Johan Lange] and the board, and that will continue,” Smith says on transfers.
“I always said, the first year in the Premier League is a tough year.
“The second year, you can have a real strong starting XI.
“But in the third year you are looking to grow your squad depth, and improve on that starting XI.”
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