This week, Johnny’s positive look at our managers and how they perform on telly and radio delves into the sweet waters of the Championship and swims to Villa Park to consider the man who has delivered what seems like 105 consecutive wins. That’ll be Dean Smith, then.
Who Are Ya?
Dean is 48 years old and was born in West Bromwich, plying his trade as a strapping defender, mostly doing time down in the boondocks at Walsall, Hereford, Leyton Orient, Sheffield Wednesday and Port Vale. After an impressive 554 games in service to booting people up the backside, he retired and became first an assistant manager at Orient, then Head of Youth at Walsall. After Chris Hutchings got the sack (there was a time when no season was complete without a Hutchings sacking, wasn’t there?) he took over as caretaker and kept them up.
He put in nearly five years there. Didn’t win anything but was runner-up to Bristol City in the Football League Trophy. Moved to Brentford in 2015 where he got them playing good football and comfortably in the top half of the league, finishing 9th, 10th and 9th in his three seasons with the club. That presumably felt like the Promised Land for Aston Villa, who were 15th when he took over in October.
Just over six months after joining he has them 5th with a guaranteed play-off place, a 51% win ratio and an ongoing 10-game winning streak – a new club record.
He’s a Villa fan and from a Villa family, so everyone loves Dean. But can you picture what he looks like? Outside of the West Midlands, the answer is probably no. In a league full of distinctive characters at the managerial helm from Daniel Farke to Frank Lampard, Dean flies somewhat under the radar.
He has a timeless sort of look to him: most certainly not flashy, nor one for extravagant hair or tailoring. Pitchside he’s usually in a fits-where-it-touches suit with an open-neck shirt. When in sportswear he looks like a PE instructor in the Army. One imagines he could deliver a proper bollocking for your inability to properly straddle a pommel horse.
Has a soft West Midlands accent which doesn’t go the full bustin’ Black Country but is always present in some degree. Likes to refer to ‘going out to win football games’ as though there might be some other sport he’s involved in.
Comes across as very down to earth but not in a self-conscious “Look, I’m a man of the people, me” sort of way. In other words, it’s not a cynical construct. At all times in interviews he just seems very straightforward and plain-speaking. In that, as a manager of one of the country’s biggest clubs, he is very unusual.
It is a compliment to say that he looks and sounds like the manager of a lower-league club. Interesting that both he and Chris Wilder at Sheffield United are doing so well. Both seem cut from the same sort of uncontrived cloth, which isn’t to say there is anything especially old school about how they do the job. It’s just that neither seem caught up in the razzamatazz of football’s media glare.
Media Hit or Miss?
When you watch his press conferences it’s really noticeable how low key they are, more like the sort of chat a manager has with the local press. But then, being a Championship manager usually means a much lower profile in the national media, even at a club the size of Villa. As an Englishman doing well, he’s likely to get pretty uncritical press. Those who are not so dazzled by the Premier League have known for some time of Dean’s work and when the Villa job came up he had no shortage of warm words recommending him for the gig.
This suggests that he is very much a media hit, albeit a niche one. I’d imagine that reporters and the local press enjoy interviewing someone who isn’t trying to play some sort of mind game with them. Even when, in his early days at the club, things were far from perfect in terms of results, he seemed to conduct himself in exactly the same way he does now on this tremendous run. Very much on an even keel it would seem.
There’s a real value in being straightforward and plain-speaking in a world of club press officers trying to justify their jobs and look important by shaping a narrative.
Proper Football Man Rating: Too Successful
Dean ticks a lot of boxes for the boys, though they’re disgusted he’s had to work his way up to a top job and shocked that Dean has seemingly thought it perfectly normal and rational that you have to prove you’re any good in the Championship by getting a team promoted. Your PFM is of the firm view that this is the sort of discrimination good young English managers (who are not far off 50) have to endure. Being given a big job in the Premier League without any proof at all that you’re any good, based solely on your nationality and ability to mangle cliches, is every Englishman’s birthright. He has also shown no inclination to employ any family relations or a whole army of old teammates and every PFM knows that’s what you do to maximise revenue before the inevitable sacking in favour of a sexy foreign you hate.
Being a lower-league defender during your playing career gets all PFMs a-nodding and a-twitching their lips in appreciation as they repeat “he’s done a great job there” over and over, hoping to get paid handsomely for doing so. But any worthwhile PFM thinks they could equally have gone in there and done a job and secretly resent anyone who gets the job ahead of him and that praise for anyone else is actually a slight against them.
And there’s also a distinct lack of anti-foreign paranoia about Dean which the boys find traitorous and can’t understand, especially as a German is winning the league with Norwich. Has he learned nothing? You’ll never get onto beIN to roll your eyes and sit with your legs wide apart with that sort of open and inclusive attitude.
So all in all, they suspect he may be honest enough to grass them up after a shopping trolley, casino-based indiscretion with Miss Welding Torch and Bolt Gun Body of 1976. And no-one wants that. He’s just too successful. The boys would like him better if he hadn’t done so well so far because it just shows them up.
What The People Say
Fans of Villa are understandably delighted with their man just six months into his tenure. He seems to have gone about his business with a simple efficiency and no talk of philosophy and projects. And thank the lord for that.
‘I’m 100% biased but he’s amazing. Does give the impression of a standard issue destroy-and-exit British manager, but even allowing for the default Championship chaos he’s delivered more brilliant games at Villa since he took over than the previous six managers combined.’
‘Villa have a recent history of managers known by consistent cliches: Bruce (there or thereabouts), Lambert (we go again), O’Leary (honest bunch of lads). Dean Smith is such a refreshing antidote, never talking in cliches and always offering genuine and honest appraisals of his team.’
‘I love listening to his post-match comments. Unlike the last incumbent, he appears to have watched the same game as me! Refreshing, honest, aware. As Captain Jack would say: “Just lovely.”‘
‘This feels different. It could be something special. He gets the club, he’s honest and you can tell he’s a proper man manager. People like Lansbury still receive his plaudits because he knows he may need them. He hasn’t ostracised players like those before.’
‘Seems very different to other managers we have had. Not just the style of play, but also his philosophy of working as a team with his fellow coaches, and of getting the team to appraises there own performance. He doesn’t make it about himself; it’s about the team and club.’
‘Rotherham away 10/04 sums him up… 1-0 down, down to ten men, had been very poor and Rotherham all over us. At half-time he brings on a centre forward… nothing to lose and we were magnificent. So refreshing. Also… he’s one of us. Means the world.’
‘In Deano we trust! The way he’s turned us around is a huge achievement as we were going backwards with Bruceball. Some of the football we’re playing now is as good as I can remember. He just gets what the club means and you can’t buy that. Kudos too on his use of subs.’
‘Years ago on the BBC Football League highlights he did a piece with Clem. He was at Walsall and was growing a reputation for attractive, passing football, which was quite surprising. He sold it to the players with “Do you want to be talked about on TV?” An approach to managerial media work as impressive as it was unusual.’
‘Where recent Villa managers have traded upon a cult of personality, there is no media facade with Smith. He is tactically strong and trusts his teams to always play on the front foot. Don’t let his guy-next-door vibe distract from the fact he is a very modern manager.’
Plain-speaking in a good way – very refreshing after Steve Bruce’s breathy variations of saying nothing. And bizarrely, with Villa fans all being miserable bastards intent on complaining permanently, putting one of us in charge has wrought joy throughout the club?’
‘Took a bit of time to put his stamp on style of play after Bruce but we haven’t looked back since half-time at Stoke. Riding on the crest of a wave and getting the best out of players that had shackles on under SB. Whelan, Hourihane, Taylor all look free of restriction. Free flowing football.’
‘When we are leading late in games he sets out his team to look for extra/insurance goals, which is something that not even O’Neill with all the money he had would do.’
‘Means more having a manager that gets the club and the fanbase. However saying that, I’d have wanted him regardless as he’s served his apprenticeship and he’d earned this job.’
‘He’s galvanised us, took a little time but we won’t look back now, I want him here for the long haul.’
‘Has installed the most attractive style of football I have ever witnessed down Villa Park and the players now make it look effortless. Also great to hear his tactical nous in pre- and post-match interviews. Refreshing.’
‘Exceptional coach and exactly what Villa need even if we fail to get promoted. Great understanding of the game and more importantly how the game should be played: on the front foot, high pressing.’
‘I’d spent our first 2 seasons in the Championship saying I’d love to see what he could do with our attacking talent based on how he had Brentford playing. When Bruce went he was my number 1 choice and I’m absolutely over the moon he’s our manager, exciting times ahead for #AVFC.’
How Long Has He Got?
We live in shallow times when even the most intense popularity can quickly become fleeting. But being a fan of the club will see him get a longer leash than most. If they go up this year, his stock will obviously be really high.
However, the worry is always that they go through a long losing stretch in the Premier League and everyone gets restless, fearing relegation (no-one should ever fear relegation) and do something silly. If the Villa board have got their heads screwed on they should be looking at a five-year stretch under Dean, regardless of if they go up and come right back down. If he gets them up and establishes them in the top flight, as a fan of the club, legend status awaits him.