Dean Smith was still Aston Villa manager when Norwich City dismissed Daniel Farke. For another day, anyway. The second of two departures on the weekend of sackings has replaced the first.
“A whirlwind seven days,” said Smith; for manager and club alike. Norwich have been renowned for long-term planning under sporting director Stuart Webber, but Smith feels an opportunistic appointment, suddenly available and perhaps surprisingly interested.
For Norwich, it feels a coup. When Frank Lampard withdrew from talks, the temptation was to wonder if he had dodged a bullet; if he had concluded, as many others had, that a team whose first 10 games only yielded two points were doomed to relegation and thus taking charge would be an act of self-immolation. Smith has evidently decided otherwise.
Perhaps he studied the precedent of Chris Wilder, another earthy, unglamorous promotion winner who excelled for a while in the Premier League but, after leaving Sheffield United, found his next posting was with Middlesbrough, currently 14th in the Championship.
If Smith believes Norwich was his best chance of a top-flight job, it may suggest he believes other clubs underestimate him. His likeability, normalcy and fundamental decency can make Smith seem the everyman in the exalted environments of the Premier League, but he has earned the right to be there.
If Norwich may have fallen on their feet, Smith looks a good fit. There is plenty of evidence of his coaching prowess. Jack Grealish is the most high-profile example of a player who has improved under him, but Villa’s squad was littered with them, from Tyrone Mings to Ezri Konsa to John McGinn to Ollie Watkins.
That is the Norwich way: lacking a billionaire backer, they have forged a business model by developing young players. A common denominator is that summer spending sprees are yet to produce a dividend: if Villa’s three Grealish replacements may have finished off Smith, Norwich committed around £70 million ($94m).
If those recruits’ first task is to try and secure survival, buys were surely made with an eye on their resale value. Smith’s time at Brentford offers proof he can prosper with a sporting director’s purchases. He can turn potential into profit.
Factor in a habit of playing good football, a tradition at Carrow Road, and a promotion with Villa that could become more pertinent if Norwich go down and Smith ticks most of the boxes. He is not as leftfield a choice as Webber’s previous hires – David Wagner for Huddersfield and Farke for Norwich, both previously of Borussia Dortmund II – but perhaps their top-flight status gives them more allure.
With Southampton, Wolves and Newcastle beckoning before a tougher December, an immediate impact may be required if Norwich are not to be cast adrift. Finding a winning formula proved beyond Farke this season, except for his valedictory victory at Brentford.
The summer arrivals seemed to complicate his decision-making. That neither Billy Gilmour nor Todd Cantwell have played a minute in Norwich’s last six games, while the gifted Greek teenager Christos Tzolis has only made two cameos in that time, offers Smith the possibility to pick a very different team.
The parallels between Smith’s Villa and Farke’s Norwich – a struggle to get the best from signings, a questionable flirtation with 3-5-2 and a poor defensive record – may be unwelcome. They may suggest that Smith is wrestling with the same problems in a different environment and with inferior players but Norwich can take encouragement from the way he revived Villa’s 2019-20 campaign to rescue them from relegation.
City, surely, could not have done better than Smith. Maybe, had he taken some time out of the game, he could have secured a more desirable job.