It was ahead of Aston Villa’s 11th consecutive home victory in the Premier League, against West Ham United, that head coach Unai Emery echoed the thoughts of the majority of the club’s fans when he encountered former manager Dean Smith.
Smith was working at the game for Sky Sports and before taking any questions, Emery looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you for everything” as the pair shook hands.
It was a moment that resonated with Villa supporters, who will see the top-four credentials of Emery’s team – built on the foundations laid by Smith – tested by Manchester City and Arsenal this week.
Eight players who were signed and nurtured by Villa under Smith – Emiliano Martinez, Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Douglas Luiz, Emi Buendia, Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey – have been crucial to Emery since he took over in October last year. Smith was also responsible for giving academy graduate Jacob Ramsey his first-team debut.
“It was a really nice touch from Unai and completely unexpected,” says Smith. “I’d come across him before, as I did my study visit for my Pro Licence at Valencia and we played Arsenal a couple of times, in pre-season and in the League Cup, when I was at Brentford.
“We had a good chat after the League Cup game and I actually asked if I could go and see what he was doing at Arsenal. He joked, ‘The way your team is playing, I think I should come in and see you’, so there has always been that mutual respect. I didn’t get the chance to go and see him again at Arsenal because not long after I got the Villa job.
“I look at the spine Unai usually goes for and I’m quite proud of the fact it’s Emi Martinez, Ezri Konsa, John McGinn, who Steve Bruce signed but played really well for me, Douglas Luiz and Ollie Watkins.”
Martinez, Cash, Mings, Luiz and Watkins made their senior debuts for their national teams after being signed by Smith, with Konsa winning his first England call-up last month. No wonder most of them, including Jack Grealish who is now at City but is suspended for Wednesday night’s game at Villa Park, still call Smith ‘gaffer’.
“I keep in touch with a lot of them. Ezri, Jack, Dibu (Martinez) and it’s always pleasing to see them get in the national team squads,” says Smith. “I was really pleased to see Ezri get in the last England squad. I’ve been banging his drum for a long time, I think he’s a Rolls-Royce of a player.
“A bit like Ollie, who I took from Exeter for £1.3 million, I signed Ezri for Brentford, from Charlton, and then for Villa. He made a big mistake against Newcastle in the first game of the season and I texted him after saying, ‘It’s always what you do next’. You don’t see too many mistakes from him, he just keeps improving.”
Smith admits that he cannot take all the credit for Luiz, who Villa signed for £15 million from City and is now valued closer to £100 million amid links to his former club and Arsenal, who failed with a bid for him last year. Luiz took time to settle and Smith believes the fact the Brazilian greeted him in English at that West Ham game in October demonstrates why he is now flourishing.
“With Dougie, I didn’t know an awful lot about him, but Suso (former Villa sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch) sold him to me,” says Smith. “He was the best player in training all the time, but when he first came to Villa, the language was a barrier. He’s from a favela in Brazil, so his education was maybe a bit different from some of the lads.
“Once he started to integrate more and build relationships, then you could see the improvement. He surprised me at the West Ham game when he saw me and he spoke English to me because it would be very rare he would do that when I was in charge.
“Pep (Guardiola) really liked him, but I think City had a big problem because he wouldn’t play enough to get his work permit. I think City moved beyond him in that first season in the Premier League. They had a buy-back clause and it was good for Villa that they didn’t take it up, but you could see him going and playing there now.”
Emery is not just benefiting from Smith’s influence on the pitch but also off it after the 52-year-old transformed the culture and atmosphere inside Villa Park, which has recovered from a brief period of dissatisfaction under Steven Gerrard.
Villa were 15th in the Championship table when Smith was appointed just over five years ago and such was the disconnect between former managers, the team and the fans that a section of the club’s famous stadium had been shut for over two years before his arrival.
“The upper tier of the Trinity Road stand had been shut and there had been a lot of negativity, but it was opened again for my first game in charge and I really wanted to make Villa Park a place where players enjoyed playing and fans enjoyed going because I knew what an advantage it could be,” says Smith.
“We had to make that connection and get Villa Park bouncing again. We got that and Unai’s got that, too. I also tried to set standards and a culture for the players.
“I remember seeing Tammy Abraham for the first time and he came bouncing up to say that he was looking forward to working with me. I reminded him of a game he played on loan at Bristol City against Brentford. He said, ‘Yeah you battered us that day’. And I said, ‘Yeah, I know but if you talk to me like you talked to your manager that day, then you won’t be playing’.
“It was just an early marker to set some boundaries. Jack (Grealish) thinks I did that to him as well because I subbed him off with about 10 minutes to go in my first game. We had a chat in my office and I asked him how many assists he’d got. One. How many goals? Zero. Then I asked him where he thought he could go and play and he said, ‘Premier League and England’ and I said, ‘Not with them numbers you’re not’.
“Jack was incredible for me and has gone on to achieve everything he said he wanted to and Tammy was brilliant in the season we got up as well.”
Villa have won 13 successive Premier League games at home under Emery, beating Luton Town and Fulham since the victory over West Ham, but it remains to be seen whether or not the Spaniard’s achievements are marked in the same way Smith’s were.
Under Smith, Villa set a record of 10 successive League victories on their way to promotion from the Championship, stayed in the Premier League at the first attempt, reached the Carabao Cup final, beat Manchester United at Old Trafford and famously thrashed Liverpool 7-2.
“It would be nice if Unai doesn’t take that 10-game record off me for a while,” said Smith. “Somebody sent me beer mats that say ‘Aston Villa, Dean Smith’ and they’ve got everything listed on there like the 10-game run, the 7-2, beating Birmingham City and some of the other things. I’ve got the full set!”