Aston Villa's turnaround under Dean Smith and the plans for the future-FIFA World Cup | Everything about football and world cup


Aston Villa's turnaround under Dean Smith and the plans for the future

Aston Villa's turnaround under Dean Smith and the plans for the future

In an exclusive interview with Dean Smith, he explains the change of mood at Aston Villa, the reasons for the club's recruitment, and the ambitions for the season ahead. Watch Aston Villa vs Liverpool live on Sky Sports from 7pm on Sunday; kick-off 7.15pm

Aston Villa's cup defeat to Stoke on Thursday night ended a run of eight games without defeat either side of the break, but it will take more than that to put a stop to the newfound optimism surrounding the club. The mood has changed at Villa Park and everyone senses it.

Survival was secured on the final day of last season. Jack Grealish, club captain and star player, signed a new contract. Ross Barkley has since become the fifth addition of the summer following the arrival of new sporting director Johan Lange.

Positivity is in the air again at Villa Park and not before time.

Even the little things are a source of joy now. The beauty of John McGinn, fit and firing once more, bewitching Fulham with a roulette turn. The always satisfying sight of an academy graduate make his Premier League debut as Jacob Ramsey did that day.

Speaking to Dean Smith as he prepares his team to face Liverpool on Sunday, he sums up this new atmosphere. "Games do not come harder than this, but it is a great opportunity to see where we are at with the additions that we have made," he tells Sky Sports.

"There is certainly that feel-good factor about the place at the moment. The quality of signings that we have added to the side that retained Premier League status last season is exciting. What is there not to be excited about when you are bringing in players like Emi Martinez, Matty Cash, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins and Bertrand Traore?"

Villa's recruitment upon their return to the Premier League last summer came under severe scrutiny once the team began to struggle. The turnover of players was significant. A whole new team was signed. Six of last season's signings had not only never made an appearance in English football before but had never played in one of Europe's top five leagues before.

Those six alone cost in excess of £70m.

Villa's then sporting director Suso was replaced in June and it is to Smith's great credit that he refuses to criticise what came before, defending the work that was done alongside chief executive Christian Purslow in the aftermath of the club's promotion at Wembley.

"I just think it was the circumstances when we got promoted," he explains. "Any team that is promoted through the play-offs has the shortest time to get a squad together.

"We were in a position where we had a lot of contracts coming to an end and we wanted to go for a younger, fresher, more energetic team. That is how we saw Aston Villa going forward so we had to make an awful lot of changes and bring in lots of players in a month.

"For any sporting director that is tough. Suso and Christian did a very good job in the time they had, but there was always going to be an adaptation period."

Lange, a highly-respected figure thanks to his work at FC Copenhagen, has since come in as Suso's replacement. Rob Mackenzie, formerly of Leicester and Tottenham, has joined him as the club's new head of recruitment and there has been a notable shift of emphasis.

All five of the new signings this summer have experience of English football. The expectation is that that they will adapt more quickly and the early signs are promising. Watkins scored on his debut. So too did Traore. Martinez marked his first appearance with a penalty save and a clean sheet, while new right-back Cash is already emerging as a fan favourite.

"It was about fine-tuning the squad with quality additions who do not need any period of adaptation. These were all players who could come in and hit the ground running. We were able to do that in this window because we have got the base of the squad already now.

"We always felt that if we retained our Premier League status, we could be more strategic in our planning this year. That is what we have managed to do between myself, Johan and Christian. We have got our targets in and we believe they make us stronger now."

The signing of Barkley has certainly caused a stir.

"Ross choosing to come here is a coup for the club," says Smith. "He is a great addition to the squad. The fact that he has come here to show what he can do and get regular minutes to drive himself into that Euros squad at the end of the season."

At 26, Barkley is still regarded as a work in progress so it says something for the relative inexperience of this Villa squad that he is arguably the club's most experienced player. He is the only member of the squad to have made more than 200 Premier League appearances.

"We entered the season last year and our most experienced players were Neil Taylor, Ahmed Elmohamady and Tom Heaton, who was a new signing," says Smith. "Now we are adding more experience - certainly in Ross with the experience he has had in the Premier League and the games that he has played - and that can only stand us in good stead."

Perhaps this inexperience helps to explain some of the perceived naivety to Villa's play in the early part of last season. Smith's side led late on against Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool but lost the lot. Seven defeats from nine games prior to Christmas sapped belief.

"I believe we were better than six or seven teams last season but we had so many injuries in December and that knocked the wind out of our sails," acknowledges the boss.

When lockdown came in March, Villa had just lost a Wembley cup final and had three months to dwell on a 4-0 defeat to Leicester that left them mired in the relegation zone.

It could have broken them. Instead, it saved their season.

"We needed that lockdown," says Smith.

"We walked off that pitch at Leicester and it felt like we had bottomed out. We needed to hit that reset button. We reflected, we reset, and we have come out of it the other side."

Villa's season, perhaps even Smith's future at the club, hinged on sorting out the defence. They finished the campaign having conceded 67 goals - the most of any team bar Norwich - but that only tells part of the tale. There was a dramatic improvement upon the restart.