By Phil McNulty |BBC Sports|
Aston Villa went for one of their own when Dean Smith was appointed as manager in October. Now the man who used to stand on the Holte End has led them out of the wilderness and into the Premier League.
The 48-year-old landed the job on the back of impressive work at Walsall and Brentford, but this was a well-respected figure destined to return to Villa, the club that coursed through his veins as a lifelong supporter of the club where his father Ron used to be a steward.
Villa’s 2-1 win over Derby County at Wembley on Monday returned them to the top flight after three years.
Their departure from the Premier League in 2016 was confirmed after a season of total ignominy when they finished bottom with only three victories and 17 points from 38 games, 17 points adrift of the next closest side Norwich City.
Promotion completed the remarkable transformation fashioned by Smith.
He had all the appearances of the perfect fit for a proud club that had fallen on hard times and so it has proved.
It was a victory that received the royal seal of approval as Villa fan Prince William was awash with emotion at the final whistle.
But this was all about the work of Smith, who delivered a team from 13th when he took over from Steve Bruce – sacked after one win in nine league games – to promotion.
The speed of Villa’s rejuvenation under Smith was probably even beyond the expectations of those who brought him back to his spiritual football home, and it would have given him an extra layer of pleasure to share the scenes of elation with supporters at the final whistle at Wembley.
Villa’s joy was in stark contrast to Derby after they lost a third play-off final and now face an uncertain future, with manager Frank Lampard talked about as a potential target for Chelsea and key loan stars such as Liverpool’s Harry Wilson and Chelsea pair Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori by no means certain to be at Pride Park next season.
This was no play-off classic apart from a tense final phase, but for Villa it was all about exorcising the demons of last season’s Wembley loss to Fulham, whom they will pass on the way back up as the Cottagers reflect on more than £100m spent on taking themselves back into the Championship.
Villa’s defeat a year ago caused chaos as financial issues came to light, the club missing a £4m tax payment in June with then owner Dr Tony Xia believed to have cash-flow difficulties because of strict rules about money leaving his native China.
But billionaire businessmen Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris produced significant investment in a £50m majority takeover – and, most crucially of all, brought in Smith.
Smith, who watched last year’s play-off on his laptop on holiday in North Carolina, has proved an inspired selection and overcame a rocky start to take Villa into the play-off in a surge of outstanding form before completing the job at Wembley.
He had a vital connection with Villa’s support, acted as a unifying force and got a struggling team playing pacy, attacking football led by the midfield creation of Jack Grealish and John McGinn bolted on to the threat of striker Tammy Abraham.
The hard work will start once the deserved celebrations die down but Villa can now look forward to keeping another boyhood fan in Grealish, the beating heart of this side who would surely have been picked off by a Premier League club had they not gone up.
And with the estimated £170m riches afforded by this promotion, they can look to keep Abraham and build from a position of strength and optimism.
Abraham still has to prove himself as a Premier League striker but his numbers this season are impressive while even Grealish must show he can be as outstanding in elite company as he has been in the Championship.
Smith, however, can build on his superb achievements so far at a club with a huge fan base and renewed sense of purpose on and off the pitch – back where they and their supporters believe they belong.
Derby will now be plunged into uncertainty after falling agonisingly short again – and much speculation will surround Lampard.
He has impressed with his measured style in his first season in management, even though his achievements must be placed in perspective. Derby finished 15 points away from the automatic promotion places and nine points behind Leeds United in third place.
Lampard has been mentioned as a potential successor to Maurizio Sarri should Chelsea decide to make a change, but for all the romantic notions of a return to Stamford Bridge, where he attained legendary status as the club’s all-time record scorer with 211 goals, it would still rate as a serious gamble by owner Roman Abramovich.
Lampard clearly has great potential but one season in the Championship which ended short of promotion is not a guarantee at one of the Premier League’s powerhouses, despite all the signs that he is a top-class manager of the future and a character with aura and charisma.
Owner Mel Morris is seeking investment in Derby to restore former glories, but the reality is that it is much easier to attract this vital commodity with the Premier League as your home rather than the Championship.
Villa have no such problems as they celebrate a return to the Premier League’s promised land – their course plotted by the man who lived four miles from the stadium that will once more play host to top-flight football next season.