David Freezer: Smith would be a Premier League upgrade for City

Aston Villa manager Dean Smith (left) and Jack Grealish shake hands after the final whistle during t

Dean Smith and Jack Grealish celebrate a win over Chelsea which sealed 11th place in the Premier League for Aston Villa in May - Credit: PA

Whoever replaced Daniel Farke had a tough job on their hands at Norwich City but it doesn’t take long to realise why Dean Smith quickly became first choice for the Canaries. 

Farke left as a legend for his Championship success and significant contribution to a cultural revolution that, despite a painful and unusual exit, has left City in a much better state than he when he arrived in 2017. 

Smith is close to being the man to pick up the reins although it’s believed the final details of the deal are yet to be completed, with the 50-year-old in New York having taken the opportunity to visit his son after his Aston Villa departure. 

When Farke was dismissed after the 2-1 win at Brentford last Saturday, sporting director Stuart Webber inevitably had a list of preferred candidates. However, the following day Villa sacked Smith and that appears to have swiftly changed things. 

It’s understood City’s chief moved quickly and was able to squeeze in a face-to-face meeting before Smith flew out to the USA. A long-term admirer of the former Brentford and Walsall boss, it’s believed that Webber had his sights set – as long as Smith was ready to get straight back to work. 

With news of talks with Frank Lampard also making it into the media, the high-profile coverage of the Chelsea and England legend’s potential return to the Premier League dominated matters, before Lampard’s camp spread word on Friday that he was no longer interested. 

By that point, it was already full steam ahead for Smith, who is expected to bring assistant Craig Shakespeare to Norfolk with him and to sign a two-and-a-half-year contract, if the final details can be ironed out. 

The profile of Lampard and the left-field candidate of impressive Bodo Glimt boss Kjetil Knutsen had stolen the hearts of some City fans. The man just sacked by a rival after five successive defeats was rather less attractive to some, although widely acknowledged to be a safe and sensible choice. 

That mood appears to have shifted over the weekend though, as Canaries supporters read more of Smith’s story, listened to his perspectives on the game and dug a little deeper into his achievements as the feeling of a fresh start began to spread.

The easy – or perhaps lazy – assumption is that the West Midlands native isn’t a significant upgrade on Farke. 

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Sam Allardyce famously joked back in 2012 that he would have a better chance of getting a top-four Premier League job if his surname was ‘Allardici’.  

Perhaps if Smith was joining from a progressive club in Norway and he had an Icelandic passport with the surname ‘Smithson’ he would be given more credit? 

That’s not to say that the experienced manager would be nailed on for success. Whoever takes over a team with five points from 11 games after promotion is in for a thorough test of their credentials and will arrive knowing that a Championship return is possible. 

Smith and Farke are currently available. If a top Championship club decided they needed to make a change to be sure of promotion, who would be top of their list at the moment? You can be almost certain that Smith and Farke would be among the favourites. 

Can Smith, or anyone, keep City up? Of course. There are 27 games remaining and the only focus will now be on doing everything possible to chase survival and breathe fresh confidence and belief into a Canaries squad that hasn’t come close to fulfilling its potential. 

That position at the foot of the table clearly minimised the number of viable candidates for Webber to consider but Smith is thought to be a manager the Welshman has admired since being in charge at Huddersfield, in character and achievement. 

He left Walsall in November 2015 with the Saddlers fourth in League One and joined Brentford with the Bees struggling to recover from Mark Warburton’s exit for Rangers, having reached the Championship play-offs in their first season since promotion. 

Seven wins from the last nine matches finished 2015-16 in ninth and a busy summer transfer window led to 10th in 2016-17 after a mid-season drop off in form, with a reputation for being an entertaining and attacking side.

The goals dried up slightly in 2017-18 and Brentford finished six points short of the play-offs in ninth. When the wealthy new owners of boyhood club Villa came calling in October 2018 amid mid-table mediocrity, his Bees team were seventh.  

By the end of that campaign, he had inspired the Villans to fifth, play-off glory over local rivals West Brom and then over Lampard’s Derby in the final. 

Aston Villa's Jack Grealish (left) and manager Dean Smith (right) celebrate with the trophy after wi

Jack Grealish and manager Dean Smith celebrate Aston Villa's play-off final triumph at Wembley in 2019 - Credit: PA

They scraped to top-flight survival in 2020 but improved to 11th last season, including a memorable 7-2 thrashing of reigning champions Liverpool and victories over teams including Chelsea, Leicester and Tottenham. 

In the Premier League so far in 2021, Smith has enjoyed 11 wins and six draws in 35 games, scoring 40 goals and conceding 52, averaging 1.1 points per game. 

It may not be title-winning form but that is not what City need or can attract. Averaging a point per game for the remaining 27 matches would mean 32 points and being in the mix for survival. Realistically, closer to 40 will be needed though. 

During the calendar year that has included wins over Chelsea, Manchester United, Spurs, Arsenal and Everton (twice). Just one of those victories would feel absolutely huge for Norwich in their current position. 

We all know about Farke’s top-flight record. Just six wins and eight draws from 49 games, scoring 31 and conceding 101 – an average of just over 0.5 points per game. 

Smith may not be Guardiola, Klopp or Tuchel. He clearly hit plenty of low notes at Villa as well and not all of the big-money signings have worked out but Smith has had a sporting director above him, Johan Lange, as well as high-profile chief executive Christian Purslow, so he would fit into City’s structure with Webber. 

His assistant, Shakespeare, is also vastly experienced and was Nigel Pearson’s assistant for Leicester’s great escape of 2014-15, remaining as Claudio Ranieri’s assistant for the Premier League title fairytale that followed in 2016 – not to mention taking over as manager when Ranieri was sacked in February 2017 and earning 23 points from the remaining 13 games to steer the Foxes to the safety of 12th. 

Can the former Walsall team-mates get their careers back on an upward trajectory and turn things around for City? It’s the answer we’re eagerly waiting to find out. 

Would Lampard, Knutsen or keeping Farke have been a better bet? You’d struggle to make a convincing case. 

With Smith having also been interested in signing both Todd Cantwell and Milot Rashica during his time at Villa, it would appear he already has some players suited to his style. 

Todd Cantwell of Norwich celebrates scoring his sides 2nd goal during the Premier League match at Ca

Could Todd Cantwell recover his Premier League poise for Norwich under Dean Smith? - Credit: Paul Chesterton/Focus Images Ltd

Cantwell will be particularly intrigued by the role Smith played in the development of Jack Grealish, with the £100million man on record for the “excellent” impact his manager had on him, making him captain in the Championship and getting his career back on track to the top. 

Whoever it is, most Canaries fans will undoubtedly give the new head coach some time to make his impact, in full awareness of the current situation.  

Yet if it is Smith and he can somehow inspire a successful survival charge, he will be inheriting a City project that has made some excellent progress in recent years and is primed for the next stage of development - if someone can build on the positive parts of the Farke era.

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