Sunday marked the three-year anniversary of Dean Smith’s appointment as Aston Villa manager.
Villa were a mid-table Championship club on the brink of obscurity when Smith was revealed as manager. Under his tutelage, the club has improved year over year and today has European aspirations.
The last three years have been a roller coaster ride featuring a promotion bid, a relegation scrap, a global pandemic, and transfer drama. Smith has always been a calming presence and has proved to be a cool head in trying times, time and time again.
In celebration of Smith’s three-year tenure, here are our top three Aston Villa moments with the gaffer at the helm.
Premier League promotion at Wembley
One year on from a heartbreaking 1-0 defeat to Fulham in the 2017/18 EFL Championship Play-off Final, Aston Villa returned for a second-straight shot at promotion via the play-offs.
Reaching the final capped off a wild three months in which Aston Villa climbed from 13th in the league table–11 points off of the fourth and final play-off berth–to the brink of Premier League promotion.
From March 2 to April 22, Smith guided Villa to 10-straight league victories, breaking a 109-year-old club record and securing play-off status in the process.
Jed Steer and Tammy Abraham played spot-kick heroes in the semifinal tie with West Brom, making way for Villa to advance to the final at Wembley.
The opponent on that day, May 27, 2019, was Derby County and looking back now, they never had a chance. Villa were on a mission to get promoted. Smith reinvigorated a side that couldn’t get out of its way for most of the season.
On the brink of halftime, Anwar El Ghazi put Villa ahead when he finished off a right-sided cross from Albert Adomah. John McGinn doubled Villa’s lead in the 59th minute when he scored a scrappy header deep in the Derby box. The goal, scored on the Villa side of the stadium, brought bedlam to Wembley.
The sleeping giants returned to the Premier League under Dean Smith, in his first attempt at promotion. Even sweater was having Smith and Jack Grealish lead the charge, two local lads and lifetime fans.
It was at that moment, when promotion was achieved, that we knew Smith was different.
The Great Escape: a point at West Ham achieves safety
From one impossibility to another, Smith pulled off what can only be classified as miraculous when he kept Aston Villa up on the final day of the 2019/20 Premier League season.
Villa had a short honeymoon period after being promoted. The harsh realities of the world’s top league became apparent rather quickly as the club struggled to find its footing in its first top-flight season in three years.
Injuries to record signing Wesley and first-choice goalkeeper Tom Heaton accelerated Villa’s descent into the relegation zone, where they spent the better part of five months.
Calls for Smith to be fired rang out, and to be fair, Villa looked helpless. A new manager for Premier League clubs typically means free points. Villa’s situation was dire, but the decision to retain Smith paid dividends.
With four games to play, Villa were four points from safety. They had taken only two points from the previous 10 matches, and the return to play from the COVID-19 break had not been kind to Smith’s side.
It would take at least eight points and a little help elsewhere to keep Villa in the Premier League. Not many believed it could happen, but a 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on July 12 got the ball rolling. Next: Everton, but the 1-1 draw was seen as a blow.
Everything changed five days later when Trezeguet played hero in a 1-0 win at home to Arsenal. The victory saw Villa move up into 17th place, out of the relegation zone, with a chance to control their destiny on the final day of the season.
Down to London Villa went to face West Ham, who already clinched survival. With Villa fans nervously watching from home, Grealish put the lads ahead 1-0 in the 84th minute. Yet just one minute later, in flukey fashion, West Ham leveled.
With our hearts beating out of our collective chest, we rode out the final few minutes as Villa secured the draw, and results elsewhere went favorably. Villa were safe, and Smith masterminded The Great Escape. But nobody then could predict what would happen next.
Aston Villa are back: the 7-2 thumping of champions Liverpool
These three moments mark the three chapters of Villa’s recent history. Promotion brought a new challenge, survival meant the club achieved some level of stability, and the 7-2 victory over Liverpool on October 4, 2020, was Villa announcing its intention as a top-flight force.
After barely surviving relegation months prior, Villa were pleased to secure Grealish with a new deal. But at the time, it was tough to see what kind of team Villa would be in 2020/21.
Ross Barkley joined on loan from Chelsea, Matty Cash and Ollie Watkins signed from Championship clubs, and Villa splashed on Arsenal back-up keeper Emi Martinez. There were plenty of question marks, but Villa came out of the gate strong with wins over Sheffield United and Fulham.
Matchweek 3 pitted the Villans against Liverpool, newly crowned Premier League champions. Going into the match, anyone around Villa would have taken a point and ran. Glad they didn’t.
As we know now, Villa ran rampant in a historic 7-2 win. Ollie Watkins scored three times, Grealish tallied twice and had five goal involvements, and Barkley registered his first Aston Villa goal.
It was sensational, and for the first time in a long time, it felt like Villa belonged among the Premier League elite. The 2020/21 season was not all rainbows and butterflies. Injuries and inconsistency throughout, but Villa ended the season strong and finished in 11th place.
A little over two years prior, they were 13th in the Championship.
The rise has been meteoric, and all under Smith’s watch. Yes, Grealish is gone now, but Villa spent nearly £100m in the summer and have a squad to challenge for the top-six. Make no mistake about it: the 7-2 win over Liverpool was a launching point. The club has been a top-flight force since.