Dean Smith's vision for Aston Villa has Europe on the horizon

In an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, Dean Smith assesses his two Premier League seasons with Aston Villa and why Europe must beckon next; watch Aston Villa vs Man Utd live on Super Sunday from 1pm on Sky Sports Premier League; kick-off at 2.05pm

DEAN SMITH GRAPHIC

When Dean Smith was handed the reins of his beloved Aston Villa in 2018, the remit was an unequivocal one.

Two fruitless promotion campaigns had left a sleeping giant of English football languishing in the Championship. The third attempt at guiding the club back into the Premier League had to be the last.

Almost two years have passed since Smith and Villa rose to that challenge, as that most essential of objectives was realised on a heady May afternoon at Wembley with victory over Derby in the Championship play-off final.

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Once the euphoria had subsided, however, Smith admits he was faced with the realisation that promotion may have come too soon for the squad he inherited.

Adaptation and upheaval were needed but the process itself nearly sent the club back to square one, with Villa narrowly escaping relegation on the final day of their first season back in the Premier League.

"Survival was always key in that first season," Smith exclusively told Sky Sports. "You're joining a league where every single club has got a financial head start on you because they had been in the league in the previous season - their squads are stronger.

"As a board and as a head coach, we have a strategy and vision of where we want to be. We felt we probably got to the Premier League a year earlier than expected; it looked unlikely at times during that first season when I took over, but we went on an unbelievable 10-match run to get to the play-offs.

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Dean Smith steered Aston Villa back into the Premier League via the 2019 Championship play-off final
Image: Dean Smith steered Aston Villa back into the Premier League via the 2019 Championship play-off final

"The first season [in the Premier League] was one of upheaval, 13 signings, and one where we just managed to stay up on the last day.

"We're fortunate with the owners we've got that they wanted to invest straight away after promotion, but it takes time for players to adapt and find their form in a new league.

"We managed to do that, wanted to progress again, and made a smaller outlay in the summer after surviving, and that is bearing fruits this season.

"The likes of Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash, Emiliano Martinez, Bertrand Traore, they have just developed as players and that shows me, we are a progressive football club."

Smith: 'We need to start challenging'

Having avoided an immediate return to the Championship by the skin of their teeth, another stepping-stone season of progression has left Villa on course for a mid-table finish and seen the club re-establish themselves among England's elite.

Villa were among the early pace-setters of this Premier League season, winning the first four games of a campaign that saw the club flirt with a European challenge. Ambitions have been reassessed and, for Smith, that is where the next challenge lies.

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Aston Villa manager Dean Smith says Jack Grealish is returning to training after injury, but will miss their game against Manchester United

"Qualifying for Europe is the aim for the football club," he added. "The vision of the owners is to develop players and grow the value and the brand of Aston Villa Football Club across the world. We need to start challenging.

"It's nice to be in the top 10 and we want to continue that, that was one of our aims this season, to make sure we were in the top 12.

"We want to finish the season well, we normally do, and if we can get the points we want in the final five games we should finish in the top 10."

'It's become normal to play without fans'

When the gates to Villa Park open for the visit of Chelsea on the final day of the season, the Aston Villa fans fortunate enough to get their hands on a ticket will be able to examine first-hand the work Smith has done in their absence.

Having last laid eyes on Villa 14 months ago, in a heavy 4-0 defeat at Leicester before the coronavirus pandemic transformed football as we know it, supporters will struggle not to see change.

It's a long-awaited reunion Smith believes could help take the club to the next level and, crucially, erase the unthinkable sense of normality generated by playing an entire season behind closed doors.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Aston Villa’s win over Everton in the Premier League

"The fans will play a major role for us," Smith said. "There has been a neutrality of late, none more so than at Villa Park, where we have lost more than we've won, which doesn't happen very often.

"We've missed the Holte End in full voice, sucking the ball into the Holte End goal, and we cannot wait to have our supporters back."

He added: "I don't think there have been any benefits from playing with no fans. Home and away there has been nothing against you except 11 opposition players. When you are used to 30,000 or 40,000 fans against you, and that can influence games.

"We always talk about the mental side of the game, the adrenaline a crowd brings, but unfortunately, it's actually become normal to play without fans. It's going to be interesting to see how it changes when the fans come back in."

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We take a look at some of the stats surrounding matchweek 35 in the Premier League

For the time being, Smith and his squad will again have to do without their 12th man on Sunday when Manchester United head to Villa Park - live on Sky Sports.

United are unbeaten on the road in the Premier League since January 2020 but Thursday's Europa League defeat in Rome has given Smith hope that Villa can pull off a surprise providing they start fast.

"We've not dropped too many points when we've scored the first goal this season," the Villa boss said. "United have just lost away from home at Roma, so hopefully we can continue that trend.

"They have just played but we have not since the weekend; we certainly feel we can start well and surprise them. They have quality, so we have to make sure we are strong defensively, but we also want to be progressive on the ball and continue where we left off against Everton."

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