Dean Smith predicting more excitement as Aston Villa finally start their Premier League season

Making predictions ahead of a new season can be a thankless task, yet recent history means you’d never bank on a Villa campaign being dull.

Villa boss Dean Smith.
Villa boss Dean Smith.

“I don’t do boring,” laughed Dean Smith, ahead of Monday’s Premier League opener against Sheffield United.

Neither, it seems, do Villa. Over the past three years the club has rarely been involved in a meaningless match, through two play-off finals, one promotion, one cup final and one nerve-jangling final day survival.

The latter came less than two months ago and after a first season back in the top flight which often veered a little too close to the tumultuous, a steady, stable, run-of-the-mill campaign would certainly represent progress, though Smith is not one to set targets.

“I am not going to put an actual position on it. We just want to improve and we don’t want to be fighting relegation,” he said.

“We want to be moving up the league and certainly losing a lot fewer games than we did last season.”

Villa’s long-term aims are far grander. Billionaire owners Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, who have already sanctioned more than £200million of signings over the last three transfer windows, delivered another statement of intent last week by convincing skipper Jack Grealish to agree a new five-year contract.

No-one, not least Smith, is suggesting success will be achieved overnight.

Yet for a man who got his first taste of football standing on the Holte End, there is a tantalising opportunity, over the next few years, to take his boyhood club back toward the top of the league and perhaps earn the same reverence as Ron Saunders and Graham Taylor.

“I think the chance is there and it is down to me to go and take it with the players we acquire and the tactics I am bringing to games,” he said.

“I am thankful we have got two very good owners who have invested an awful lot of money in the club, first of all to get it in the Premier League and then retain that status. Now we need to improve year-by-year.

“We are really looking forward to it. We were last season when we spent a lot of money on 13 players because it was such a big turnaround and we lost a lot of key players due to injury.

“This season we have a lot of players back, a lot of players who understand the level they need to be at with Premier League football and are ready for it.

“We have added to that with what I believe are quality players. But the proof will be in the pudding, we need to go and perform.”

The focus during the current window has been on adding quality rather than quantity and Smith believes the additions of Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash, Emiliano Martinez and Bertrand Traore - at a combined cost of more than £75m - have made his squad stronger.

Club record signing Watkins should improve a forward line which floundered over the closing weeks of last season, while the capture of Martinez from Arsenal is viewed by Villa as a huge coup.

The 28-year-old is expected to make his debut against the Blades, with Tom Heaton still several weeks from completing his recovery from a serious knee injury sustained on New Year’s Day.

"These opportunities don't come around very often,” said Smith. “Emi is a player who finished the season really well with Arsenal, winning the FA Cup and Community Shield.

"He's a very good goalkeeper who was well thought of at their football club, but he wanted to play regular football.

"I had a situation where I had an opportunity to get a goalkeeper of that calibre to start the season with us. We've managed to get it over the line and sign him.

"The estimate is that Tom will miss the first three games but again, he's still not training yet and I couldn't take the risk of a 34 year old coming back from an ACL injury returning on that date that we all expect him too.

"We decided to move quickly for another goalkeeper but I also kept Tom Heaton in the loop with what we were doing and kept him informed."

Yet for all the new recruits, Villa’s key man is again likely to be Grealish. The captain will almost be 30 by the time his newest deal expires but Smith knows to keep him around for the full five-year duration the club must keep progressing.

“I’ve said it before that we are very hopeful we can keep growing,” said Smith. “We retained our status last season, now we are looking to build on that.

“The owners have made a statement about where they want to be in the next four or five years and that has to be our aim.

“There are very few one-club-men. Steven Gerrard comes to mind. JT would have been but he saw the light of claret and blue for a season. There’s very few.

“I just like the fact that Jack wanted to commit and the statement that he made after about his club, his city, his home.

“He’s lived every kid’s dream already by being a fan and going on to play and captaining them to promotion at Wembley. He wants to take that one step further now.”

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