Dean Smith mixes personal pain with pride as Aston Villa head to Wembley

The manager who used to sweep the steps of the Holte End has his eyes on a Premier League return as his side face Derby

It was a moment to cut through the hyperbolic noise surrounding the Championship play-off final. All the talk about the richest game in football – £170m on offer to the winners, another year of hard graft for the losers – paled into insignificance as a hush fell over the stuffy media room at Aston Villa’s training ground when Dean Smith offered a glimpse into the pain he deals with away from his professional life.

As a lifelong Villa fan, Smith does not need to be told how much it would mean to lead this storied club back into the Premier League. There is more than money at stake for Villa’s manager. He has come a long way since the days when he would clean the steps on the Holte End while his father, Ron, worked as a steward in the Trinity Road Stand at Villa Park.

However, while Smith will be supported by 30 of his friends and relatives when Villa face Derby, managed by Frank Lampard, on Monday afternoon, there is no question of the man who gave him his passion for football making the trip to Wembley. This should be one of the proudest days of Ron Smith’s life, but he has been in a care home for three years and has no idea that his son has managed Villa since October.

“Unfortunately, because of his dementia he doesn’t know that I’m Villa head coach,” Smith said. “That’s probably the tough part of it. I remember … you have to excuse me here.”

Smith took a deep breath and blinked back the tears as he remembered taking Walsall to the EFL Trophy final against Bristol City in 2015. “After the Walsall game, I had to go and put my dad to bed that night, which is a tough thing to do for anyone,” he said. His voice wobbled and he paused again to clear his throat. “I put my family side to one side and concentrate on Aston Villa.” More silence. “Sorry,” Smith said, laughing to lighten the mood. “I’ve just killed the room.”

Local pride matters to Smith, who jokes about not being able to find any privacy in the pubs around Birmingham these days. He has established a connection with Villa’s supporters and has found a happy medium by approaching his job with likable equanimity. A more suspicious character might have hesitated to appoint John Terry as his assistant, but Smith does not view the former Chelsea and England captain as a threat to his authority. Admittedly, Terry’s celebrity can grab the attention. It has certainly not gone unnoticed at Villa’s training ground, where a member of staff could be heard complaining about the final being billed as Terry versus Lampard.

Instead, it is a game that pits together two homegrown coaches who have taken different routes into management. For Lampard, it arguably doubles up as an audition for the Chelsea job, which could be available if Juventus lure Maurizio Sarri from Stamford Bridge. The former Chelsea and England midfielder has impressed in his debut season as a manager and it would be a worthy achievement if it ends in promotion.

Smith’s background is more modest. The 48-year-old had an unremarkable playing career and spent four years building his reputation as a progressive coach at Walsall in League One. His insistence on playing fearless football caught Brentford’s eye in 2015 and it has been at the heart of the revival at Villa, who were drifting in 12th place before sacking Steve Bruce.

This is the closest Smith has been to the Premier League and it is testament to his coaching that Villa, who lost last year’s final to Fulham, are favourites. Inspired by the creativity of Jack Grealish, the midfield thrust of John McGinn and the goals of Tammy Abraham, Villa finished in fifth place and will take confidence from thrashing Derby home and away.

Jack Grealish has been a star performer for Aston Villa this season.
Jack Grealish has been a star performer for Aston Villa this season. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

However, Smith is not underestimating Derby, who were fired by the youthful jinking of Jack Marriott, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount in their stirring semi-final win over Leeds. Nor does he feel he has a point to prove against Lampard, who landed on his feet when looking for his first job. He even tells a story about inviting Lampard to give a motivational speech to his squad at Brentford. “Him and Jody Morris have done a fantastic job,” Smith said. “They’ve got some bright players in Wilson, Mount, [Tom] Lawrence and Marriott. They’ll pose a lot of questions. But I believe we should have the answers.”

Smith has found the right answers ever since landing the Walsall job almost by accident. “If you want to have a career managing you’ve got to work your way up,” he said. “That’s why I take my hat off to JT being here. There’s no magic wand. I didn’t actually want the job when I first took it, but I was the only coach left at Walsall at the time. My first game was Tranmere away and we were 3-1 down. I looked at Jon Whitney and said: ‘I can see why we’re bottom of the league.’

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“We scored two goals in the last five minutes to draw the game and eventually stayed up on the last day of the season and I had injected the drug that day of becoming a manager. I know people say it an awful lot, but I don’t get too high or too low. It’s a game.”