Chris Marsh: Boot cleaner Dean Smith deserves the success he's found at Aston Villa
Dean Smith has come a long way from the days he was cleaning my boots as an apprentice at Walsall.
I was absolutely overjoyed to see him guide Villa back into the Premier League.
He really is one of the good guys. And I can tell you he is much better at managing than he is cleaning!
I’ve got a lot of stories about Dean.
But I can remember he was about 18 or 19 years old when he really caught my attention.
At the time, he’d only made a handful of appearances for the Saddlers.
The club was owned by Terry Ramsden and as players, we were on a ridiculous win bonus.
It was something like £750 for every game we won.
The truth is we weren’t winning many games, it started when we were in what is now the Championship and we ended up being in League Two.
But it was still a lot of money and when Kenny Hibbitt came in as manager he, rightly, wanted it to stop.
We had some senior pros back then, the likes of Derek Statham, Tony Grealish, Rod McDonald and Kevin McDonald.
And Kenny went around us all asking to sign a contract waiving the rights to our bonuses.
It was implied if we didn’t we would be dropped and wouldn’t play.
And at a meeting, I think all the senior pros agreed to what the manager wanted.
But then Dean piped up.
“But if we don’t sign it, you’re not going to drop us are you?” he said.
This was a lad who was still a teenager and had only played a handful of games. But he knew Hibbitt couldn’t leave out players like Statham, Grealish and the McDonalds.
I just sat there and thought ‘woah, woah, woah. Who’s this kid?’
I knew him well anyway because he cleaned my boots. But I was not expecting that and neither was Kenny.
From that point, I knew Smith was a leader. I immediately saw him as a potential captain.
And now he is a top-class manager and he deserves it because he really is a fantastic man.
It’s been well documented that Dean grew up a Villa fan and he used to clean the terraces at Villa Park with his dad Ron.
Ron now has dementia, but he is a lovely man and has always been so proud of his son.
My dad was proud of me, but Ron was very vocal and after games he always said Dean had played well – even when he had a stinker.
The way Ron talked, Man United should have been looking at Dean – he never had a bad game!
But he was just so proud. I know Dean went to see him on the Friday before the play-off final and told him he’d return a Premier League manager. And I’m so pleased for him and Ron that he kept that promise.
Dean’s mum is also lovely, his whole family are. And I know he spoke to them at length before accepting the Villa job – he wanted it to be a joint decision.
Dean’s brother is a huge Villa fan who goes to every game. The entire family are local. And he knew if things weren’t going well, their lives would be affected as well.
It’s funny because my mum absolutely loves him.
She always texts him whenever he has done well. And he always texts her back straight away.
She often asks me, ‘have you heard from Dean?’
And I always say I’ve texted him but I don’t want to bother him because he’s got a lot on.
Then she tells me she’s text him as well and he’s already replied!
He’s my mate, but he texts her quicker than he texts me!
And I think that tells you everything you need to know about him.
When I suffered a brain haemorrhage, he was one of the first people to call me and ask me if I was OK.
But then I got a phone call from two other players who were apprentices the same time as Dean.
One was Stuart Sadler, who was released and ended up playing in non-league.
I hadn’t spoken to him for 30-odd years, but then out of the blue he called me to see how I was.
I was delighted he did, but I wondered how he got my number and he said Smith had given it to him.
Then I got a call from a player called Martin Goldsmith, another bloke I hadn’t spoken to for 30-odd years.
It turns out Dean had always stayed in touch with them – even though their careers took them in completely different directions.
Now I think it’s hard enough to stay in touch with your nearest and dearest.
But a couple of times a year Smith always made the effort to touch base.
I put the phone down and thought ‘what a touch that is’.
Whether it’s his mates, players he played with 30 years ago or my mum, he does his best to make the effort with everybody.
Dean treats people the way he wants to be treated and that is why he is such a good man and good manager.
I’m bursting with pride seeing him in the Premier League.
He and his family deserve it.