Dean Smith and Jack Grealish exchanged words of gratitude in a face-to-face farewell before the record-breaking transfer to Manchester City was confirmed. Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports, the Aston Villa manager reveals what 'Super Jack' can achieve, and how he plans to build from the proceeds.
The spotlight had been intensifying on Grealish for several years and culminated with a second-successive stellar campaign in the top flight, a transformative impact on the international stage at Euro 2020, and a landmark £100m transfer to the reigning champions.
Smith had still hoped Grealish would stay at his boyhood club and continue to spearhead the current trajectory of success. Indeed, the academy graduate had chosen to stay when powerhouse clubs came knocking in previous years - but, the timing, the hype, the release clause and, well, Manchester City, saw the 25-year-old finally end his 19-year stay at Villa Park.
"We're all disappointed Jack chose to leave the football club because he meant so much to all of us, but we also understand why he left and wish him well - obviously apart from when he plays Aston Villa," says Smith. "We were probably 18 months behind where we needed to be to keep him, but we'll strive to get there.
"I thanked Jack for all our time together and he thanked me for everything I've done for him as well. I wished him well and told him not to be a stranger, so he'll remain one of my clan that I've helped along and we'll keep in touch, that's for sure."
In terms of what Jack can achieve, he'll thrive playing at the highest level. It's what he was born to do.
Smith takes pride in how he helped Grealish rise to global stardom and, equally, he recognises the player's impact at the club - carrying Villa to the elite rungs of England's top tier.
- Find out more about Sky Sports
- Stream the biggest moments on NOW for just £25 p/m
- Where will Jack Grealish fit at Man City?
"He's a unique player, a unique character, and I can honestly say he's the best player I've worked with and I've really enjoyed helping his development and him becoming the person he is today. When I first came to the football club, we were 12 games in and he only had one assist. I told him the currency was assists and goals and he started to achieve that over the past three years.
"Yes, supporters are disappointed because he was our best player, an Aston Villa fan and from the area. But, I think, once the wounds have healed, the fans will realise what he achieved for Villa - and also understand that a player who joined at six years old has gone through the academy and now earned the club £100m - a British record transfer. I have no doubt he will get a good reception when he faces us.
"Jack will show what he's worth on the highest stage, in the Champions League - as he did at the Euros. In terms of what Jack can achieve, he'll thrive playing at the highest level. It's what he was born to do.
"I don't think you can compare him with any other player, and, I said the day he left, we weren't looking to replace him. He's very difficult to replace. So we wanted to strengthen our team with a number of players that would help us moving forward."
Spending on depth and experience
Villa spent no time in doing exactly that. Ashley Young, Emi Buendia and Leon Bailey joined the club before Grealish had even confirmed his departure, while seasoned, and clinical, striker Danny Ings became a surprise addition last week. Alex Tuanzebe also rejoined Smith on a season-long loan from Manchester United. That raft of additions totals £93m, which still leaves a slim profit from selling their captain.
Those additions ring creativity and goals. Buendia topped the Championship for chances created and assists last term to help Norwich secure promotion to the Premier League, while speedster Bailey has long been linked with a host of top clubs after his explosive performances for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga.
"Buendia was coming to the club whether Jack was staying or going because we had become a bit overly reliant on Jack's creativity," says Smith. "I didn't want an over-reliance on Ollie Watkins' goals if Jack left. I think we've addressed that problem now. We're thankful Buendia has come here and he's here to show what he's capable of."
Buendia reportedly snubbed Arsenal for Villa, while the Midlands club also prised the Gunners' reserve stopper Emi Martinez last summer, who was arguably the league's standout 'keeper last term - earning him a recall as Argentina's No 1 in the process.
"Emi Martinez proved what a good goalkeeper he is last season. He wanted to be a No 1. He's come to Aston Villa and he's been No 1. At that time, Arsenal had Bernd Leno as well, so I don't think either of them were guaranteed to be No 1, so we managed to get him. It certainly helped that he comes from the same village as Buendia, when we were trying to get Buendia to the club."
There were also rumours Villa filed numerous bids for Arsenal starlet Emile Smith Rowe this summer. City may have knocked on the door for Grealish, but Villa are also making their presence known among the traditional 'Big Six'.
A change of style?
Notably, the additions of Ings and Bailey pose questions about what system Smith could deploy next season, with Ings almost certainly a sure-starter - despite Ollie Watkins excelling in the centre-forward role last term, earning a senior England debut. Playing two up top or using Watkins as a secondary striker appears to be a plausible theory.
"Watkins hasn't played wide for a couple of years," says Smith. "I didn't bring him in to play there. He scored 26 goals for Brentford playing as a centre-forward in the Championship and came to us and got 16 goals also as a centre-forward - so no, I don't envisage him out there.
"We could play three up front with the players we have now, we could play two up front, or one up top with a short striker. So it's given us more adaptability this year, rather than an over-reliance."
Meanwhile, Bailey offers real pace and so much more, according to Smith. Villa ranked fourth in the Premier League for fast breaks last season but still notably lacked a wide player with the kind of blistering pace that can leave most full-backs for dust.
"We're very good at driving transitions anyway but I've always been a bigger believer that pace scares defenders, and Bailey's got that in abundance. He brings more pace into the team, it gives us different options. On top of that, he's a really good footballer. You don't survive in the Bundesliga unless you're a really good player."
Villa's evolution coincides with a notably young team - fielding the second-youngest average starting XI last season at 25 years and 250 days - behind only Fulham - and Smith has sought to add experience to the group for the campaign ahead.
"The squad has a lot of maturity to come, Ashley [Young] will certainly help the younger players, he's one we brought in because we knew we needed some experience in there. Ings, also. They will help push the average age up, but also help the development of this wonderful group of young players we've got."
Relegation battlers to top-four challengers
Villa were undoubtedly one of the success stories of last season, in an almost rags-to-riches tale which saw them soar from staving off relegation on the final day of 2019/20 to locking horns with the Big Six until the final weeks for Champions League qualification last term. So what fuelled that transformation and what does the future hold?
"It was a number of reasons," ponders Smith. "The first thing was the players that played that first season in the Premier League became acclimatised to it: the pace, the strength and the levels they had to get to. Then we added quality to that group as well, with players like Martinez, Watkins, Bertrand Traore, Matt Cash and Ross Barkley on loan.
"We've lost Jack, obviously - but that quality we've brought in again gives us depth in the squad now. Our first season in the Premier League was always going to be tough with the changes we had to make, our second one was progression, and our third one now is going to progress even more.
"We know how tough it's going to be because we've got to overtake a number of established clubs in the top 10, and that's the challenge we've got, but it's one we're all looking forward to. We need to improve on last season, we felt we were one or two positions down on where we deserved to be. Now we've got to go and progress again and we've got some big clubs to progress now, we're ready to do that."
That challenge begins on Saturday against newly-promoted Watford at Vicarage Road, when the Villans embark on a new era without Grealish - but with greater depth and adaptability.