Thursday 24 October 2019

Whelan eyes return to the top flight as Villa boss Smith makes his mark

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine
Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. Photo: Reuters/Carl Recine

John Percy

Dean Smith's love affair with Aston Villa is so strong that last year, during a short break in North Carolina when he was manager of Brentford, he fired up his laptop to watch the Championship play-off final on a dodgy stream.

Twelve months later, Smith (right) is the man hoping to fulfil the dreams of Villa's supporters at Wembley by guiding his beloved club back to the Premier League.

Today's final represents the biggest afternoon of Smith's coaching career so far, a reward for an arduous 14-year journey that has taken him from Leyton Orient's academy to scratching around the relegation zone with Walsall.

He has worked hard for this shot at glory, but insists earning promotion with Villa would still not be his greatest achievement. "I would probably say keeping Walsall up in my first year would be bigger because we needed snookers in January," he said.

"My first game was Tranmere away and we were 3-1 down. I looked at Jon Whitney (his assistant) and said, 'I can see why we're bottom of the league'.

"Each job you have has its tough times and good times. Now we're in a good time and we need to make sure we finish that off by getting promoted. Considering where we were in February and where we are now it's a great opportunity."

It was a club-record 10 wins in a row, starting in March, that propelled Villa into the play-off places and Smith's squad are regarded as the favourites to beat Derby this afternoon.

His appointment in October has delivered the anticipated impact, creating a new feel-good factor, yet there is one regret going into the final. His father, Ron, has dementia and is in a home.

"Unfortunately because of his dementia he doesn't know that I'm Villa head coach," he said. "That's probably the tough part of it. I remember after the final of the Football League Trophy with Walsall [in 2015], I had to go and put my dad to bed that night, which is a tough thing to do for anyone. I put my family side to one side and concentrate on Aston Villa."

Ron, previously a steward at Villa Park, may not be attending but more than 30 other family members will be at Wembley, desperate for the club to end a three-year exile from the top tier.

Last year, Fulham beat Villa in the final and many of the players in Smith's dressing room - and assistant John Terry - have unfinished business. Smith said: "I have not looked back at the game at all. There are staff members who have been there but our mindset is to go and do what we have been doing over the last few months.

"I can't control the £170million, that's just the price of it. All I can control is trying to get the players to perform to their best level."

Villa midfielder Glenn Whelan goes into the game with his future uncertain. The Republic of Ireland international is out of contract next month and negotiations are on hold until Villa know which division they will be playing in next season.

"It's not an issue," Whelan said. "I signed a two-year contract to get this club back in the Premier League. I was a whisker away last year and hopefully I have a chance this year.

"After last year, if you saw how we all were afterwards, it is definitely motivation to go out and turn things around."

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