Aston Villa boss Dean Smith shows nice guys can be winners
Dean Smith might be the perfect example of why being nice should never be mistaken for weakness.
Today marks exactly a year since Smith became head coach at Villa. It is difficult to imagine how the first 12 months in the managerial job of his dreams could have gone any better.
Promotion back to the Premier League was won and though the current season remains young, there have been enough encouraging signs to suggest the club’s large-scale summer overhaul of playing staff, in which Smith played a key role, is going to work out.
The past year has been vindication for methods, honed during his time with Walsall and Brentford, which have transferred successfully to a bigger club like Villa when there were many who doubted they could.
Those methods are underpinned by the personality of a man who has remained fiercely grounded despite the continuing ascent of his professional reputation.
“I’m a husband and father first and a football manager second,” Smith has always said.
The story of him holding a family conference before accepting the job has been told several times.
Yet those family values also extend to the training ground where everyone, from players to administration staff and the chefs, are treated with the same levels of respect. It is the little things which make a big difference. Smith makes an effort to get to know the people around him, what makes them tick.
“He knew the name of everyone’s wife or partner,” recalls one of his former Walsall players. “It was never just: ‘How is the Mrs?’ He genuinely cares about people.”
Players are encouraged to show the same levels of respect to staff, helping to create a culture where everyone takes responsibility.
The onus is always put on players to come up with solutions. During the post-match debrief, held every Monday, Smith encourages players to ask questions of themselves and each other. Toward the end of last season, the squad were leading the sessions themselves, with no input from the head coach.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that because he is nice means Smith somehow lacks steel. On the contrary, his ability to make big calls when required has been demonstrated time and again over the last 12 months and is a major reason Villa now find themselves back in the Premier League. Smith does not shy away from addressing a problem. Back in January, with the team struggling for form, he acted swiftly to end the loan spell of Yannick Bolasie, despite the winger being a regular at that point.
Smith’s ability to be ruthless, meanwhile, is best demonstrated by the fates of Villa’s goalkeepers over the past nine months.
Lovre Kalinic became his first signing at the start of the January transfer window, but shaky early performances saw the Croatian international quickly dropped. His replacement, Jed Steer, went on to be a hero of Villa’s promotion charge, saving a penalty in a pivotal win at Sheffield Wednesday during the club’s record 10-match winning streak, before famously saving two more in the play-off semi-final shoot out win at Albion.
There aren’t too many managers who would have had the courage to move on from Kalinic so quickly, particularly not when their club had paid out a £7million fee for his services. There are surely fewer who, following Steer’s heroics, would have brought in another keeper to replace him as No.1.
To many that may have seemed harsh on Steer but Smith recognised, correctly, the need for Villa to have a more experienced head between the sticks in their first season back in the top flight. Tom Heaton provides just that.
Smith is a boss who explains his decisions, even the difficult ones.
“To put it bluntly, he does not do bulls***,” explained one former player. “He would tell it to you straight and lets everyone know where they stand. Players respect that.”
At Walsall, assistant Richard O’Kelly was nicknamed the Grim Reaper by players, as it was his job to inform anyone set to be dropped the manager ‘wanted a word’ on a Friday afternoon. O’Kelly followed Smith to Brentford and then to Villa and his contribution should not be underestimated. Both share the same philosophy as to how the game and management should be approached, as does goalkeeping Neil Cutler, who first worked with the pair at Walsall before rejoining them at Villa.
The final member of the coaching team, of course, is John Terry. If there is one decision which perhaps best sums up Smith’s unwavering belief in his ability, it was his ease at working alongside someone with a much higher profile in the game.
There have been several occasions when Terry (through no fault of his own, it must be said) has had close to a bigger billing in the national press. It has never fazed Smith, who always sees the bigger picture and the value of having one of the finest defenders of the past few decades on his staff.
Villa’s boss is a man who always has confidence in doing things his way. So far, that has worked out just great.