Villa Park will be ‘rocking’ for play-off derby with West Brom, says Dean Smith

• West Brom-born Smith is a lifelong Aston Villa fan
• Villa manager says their opponents are favourites

As a lifelong Aston Villa supporter Dean Smith knows his history. “I’m not sure about that,” the Villa manager replied when asked whether Saturday’s play-off first leg against West Brom is the biggest ever game between these two West Midlands rivals.

“I remember being there in 1981 when there was 47,998 [in the stadium] and Brendon Batson’s back-pass stopped in a pool of water and Peter Withe slots one home. Albion might have been third or fourth at the time and Villa went on to win the title, so perhaps that game was bigger.”

That is not to say that Smith is playing down the significance of this latest meeting. Born in West Bromwich, and with avid Albion as well as Villa supporters among his family, he appreciates what is at stake in every sense. “With the funds available now and the prize of getting in the Premier League, it’s certainly a big game for both clubs.”

Footballing reasons are driving his own motivation to come out on top but many will wonder about the financial ramifications of success or failure for Villa and Albion. Villa’s parachute payments have come to an end after three seasons in the Championship, and Albion will surely have to tighten the purse strings if they fail to return to the top flight at the first attempt.

Asked whether the pressure was greater on Villa when it comes to the respective balance sheets, Smith replied: “You’d have to ask WBA that. I can only concentrate on ourselves. They’ve probably let a manager [Darren Moore] go when they were fourth to try and chase that second position. That’s how it appeared to me. We’ve got new owners who have taken over this season. They’ve got a long-term plan and, yes, we want to get to the Premier League as soon as possible but, if we don’t, then we’re fully compliant with everything, so we’ll get on with it.”

Although Smith claimed that Albion are favourites on the basis that they have been above Villa in the table all season, retained the majority of the squad relegated from the Premier League last year and picked up four points from the two Championship fixtures between the clubs this season, that felt like a psychological ploy as much as anything. Villa, it is worth remembering, won 10 games on the trot before drawing with Leeds and losing against Norwich last Sunday in a match when Smith rested many of his key players.

The catalyst for that club-record run was a rollicking at Stoke, when Smith politely told the analyst, who puts together the half-time clips, that he would not be requiring any footage to get across his point in the visitors’ dressing room, and the return to fitness of Jack Grealish, Villa’s talisman. After missing the best part of three months, Grealish started and scored in the next match, which was a 4-0 win over Derby, and Villa never looked back.

Smith is acutely aware that Villa have been branded a one-man team as a result. “Course I am,” he said. “We didn’t win enough games when Jack wasn’t playing.

“Then when he came back, we started winning straight away. Jack is the first one to remind me about that, too. But he’s also the first to know that he can’t do the things he does without the team around him. The likes of [Tyrone] Mings, [John] McGinn, [Axel] Tuanzebe, a renaissance of [Glenn] Whelan, so to speak, [Conor] Hourihane’s delivery, [Anwar] El Ghazi ... I could go through them all. There’s never been talk from us inside that we’re a one-man team.”

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Albion have their threats too, not least up front, with Smith describing Dwight Gayle and Jay Rodriguez as the top partnership in the league. All in all, it promises to be quite an occasion at Villa Park. “I love playing there,” added Smith. “The place is rocking.”