Smith proud as Villa prove doubters wrong

LONDON (Reuters) - Aston Villa’s first Premier League campaign after a three-year absence began with a defeat in London almost a year ago and ended back in the capital with a draw that guaranteed survival.

Soccer Football - Premier League - West Ham United v Aston Villa - London Stadium, London, Britain - July 26, 2020 Aston Villa manager Dean Smith speaks with Aston Villa's John McGinn during a drink break, as play resumes behind closed doors following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pool via REUTERS/Matt Dunham

What happened in between that opening day loss at Tottenham Hotspur and Sunday’s 1-1 stalemate at West Ham United was not always pretty, but staying up means everything.

Villa had splashed the cash last summer with a frenzy of signings, spending well in excess of 100 million pounds bringing in the likes of defenders Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa and forwards Wesley Moraes and Trezeguet.

But for most of the campaign they looked an assortment of individuals and were lurching towards an immediate return along with Norwich City, who had a valid excuse having spent virtually nothing having also been promoted last season.

With four games remaining Villa were second from bottom, four points shy of the safety zone having picked up one point from a possible 15.

Manager Dean Smith managed to steel them for one final push, however, and in their last four games they captured eight points, including a midweek win over Arsenal that proved crucial.

After the draw at West Ham, a result combined with Watford’s defeat at Arsenal, that kept Villa up, Smith said his side had proved the doubters wrong.

“I’m pleased, proud and every adjective to go with it,” he said. “A lot of people had us relegated but we have worked so hard. We used the pandemic well. We have looked strong.

“A lot’s been made of what we spent, but we had to. I would have said this if we had been relegated. It is an achievement from the players. They have grown and become Premier League players. We need to build on that and recruit in the summer.”

One of the biggest challengers now for Villa will be to make sure they are not in a similar position next season and trying to keep hold of captain Jack Grealish will be vital.

The midfielder has impressed since the restart of the season following the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and scored an 84th minute opener at West Ham before the hosts hit back almost immediately through Andriy Yarmolenko to set up a tense final few minutes.

“He has been getting better and better. He has come good when he needed to,” Smith said of Grealish who will be a target during the transfer window. “It (his future) will all be sorted over the next month.

“Tonight we will enjoy a magnificent achievement. It feels better than when we went up through the playoffs.”

Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge