Dean Smith on Aston Villa's Premier League promotion: 'Potential now is massive'

Watched on by Prince William, Birmingham side return to English football's top flight after three years leaving manager ecstatic

Soccer Football - Championship Playoff Final - Aston Villa v Derby County - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - May 27, 2019  Aston Villa's Jack Grealish and teammates lift trophy as they celebrate winning the playoffs  REUTERS/David Klein       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Sunday marked the anniversary. It was 37 years since Aston Villa became champions of Europe, 365 days since their quest to leave the Championship ended at in play-off heartbreak.

If May 26 will forever remain unique in Villa history, May 27 should now be remembered fondly. The mighty had fallen but Villa have now extricated themselves from the Football League.

Beaten at Wembley last year, they returned with a vengeance and emerged victorious. Derby County are the former title winners who instead find themselves stuck in the second tier, but the £170 million (Dh791.4m) match, the richest game in world football, was won by a club with a rich past.

Footballing aristocrats were watched by royalty, with Prince William their most famous fan, but they had been slumming it.

Villa were Premier League ever-presents until their ignominious relegation in 2016. They were marooned in mid-table three months ago.

“If somebody had told me at the end of February I’d be standing here as a Premier League manager I’d have said 'you’re crackers',” manager Dean Smith said. “But we made history by winning 10 games on the spin.”

A spring surge has culminated in elevation.

Smith, a transformative appointment, grew up four miles from Villa Park, where his father, Ron, was a steward. Smith appointed Jack Grealish captain, and the midfielder said: “To come as captain at Wembley is a dream come true. About 60 of my family are here today.”

His great-great-grandfather was part of their 1905 FA Cup-winning team. Some 114 years later, Billy Garraty’s descendant ran 100 yards to celebrate in front of the Villa fans.

“I can’t describe how happy I am,” Grealish added. “A Villa fan makes the kits, a Villa fan managing the club and a Villa fan as the captain. It’s the perfect scenario.”

And yet both scorers were signed by Smith’s predecessor. Steve Bruce was dismissed a day after a cabbage was thrown at him in a strange protest. Perhaps, after the brickbats, he deserves bouquets.

He loaned Anwar El Ghazi from Lille and, if this proves the Dutchman’s final Villa game, he bowed out in style. He bought John McGinn from Hibernian for a bargain price of £2.5m. The Scot brought touches of class and a more controversial goal.

Soccer Football - Championship Playoff Final - Aston Villa v Derby County - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - May 27, 2019  Aston Villa's Jack Grealish and manager Dean Smith celebrate with the trophy after winning the playoffs  Action Images via Reuters/Ed Sykes
Aston Villa's Jack Grealish and manager Dean Smith have combined well to help realise promotion. Ed Sykes / Reuters

Villa outflanked a Derby side with a diamond midfield for the opener. Ahmed Elmohamady crossed from the right and El Ghazi stooped to supply the diving header.

He was energetic and influential. His deflected shot looped up and, as goalkeeper Kelle Roos made a tentative attempt to claim, McGinn nipped in to head in the second. It was the sort of goal that is often disallowed, but Roos was culpable.

“The nature of the second goal,” rued Frank Lampard, his debut year in management almost ended in glory.

“It is cruel but that is football. It is disappointing but my overall feeling is pride because of what has been achieved.”

On the day, the Derby manager accepted: “Our issue was the last third.”

Perhaps Lampard erred by beginning with strikers Martyn Waghorn and Jack Marriott on the bench. They brought urgency and improvement. Marriott’s predatory low effort was only their second shot on target, but Villa defended valiantly as Derby mounted an onslaught in vain.

Now County face an uncertain future. Harry Wilson will return to Liverpool, Fikayo Tomori and Mason Mount will go back to Chelsea.

Lampard may yet join them, though he said: “I have not had conversations with any other club. The conversation I will have is how we are going to compete in the Championship next year.

"We can’t compete with a squad of 13. The squad does break up a bit. The loans go; whether we can get any of them back remains to be seen.”

It may be farewell, too, to Ashley Cole, who could retire. “Immense,” Lampard said of the 38-year-old.

So, too, the challenge for Villa now, but Smith said: “The potential now is massive.”