Michael Walker: ‘Stevie V’ the poster boy of the great Premier League relegation reset

Every team has a strategy until threat of the drop punches them in the mouth

And so, as Steven Gerrard might put it, we go again.

After the third international break of autumn, the Premier League returns, uninterrupted by World Cup qualifiers or national friendlies until late March. The next four months are the core of the season, when races might not be won, but they can be lost.

And losing counts. Ask Xisco Munoz, ask Steve Bruce or Nuno Espirito Santo or Daniel Farke. Ask Dean Smith.

Smith's Aston Villa team went on a four-game losing slump between the last two international breaks, defeats that included a 3-2 home loss to Wolves when Villa were 2-0 up with 10 minutes to go. That was followed by a collective performance at Arsenal that was eye-wateringly slack. By the start of the most recent break, Villa were 16th, two points above relegation with the worst form in the Premier League.


Discussing relegation in November, even at clubs in worse situations, seems premature, but then three months ago Villa's hierarchy will not have entertained the idea of being on the same points as Watford after 11 games. Presumably they started to think the unthinkable and as a consequence Smith was removed. In comes Stevie G, or as one tabloid had it, 'Stevie V'.

Smith was part of the mini-cull of managers that also saw Bruce, Nuno and Farke eased aside in the space of 19 days. With Watford having replaced Munoz with Claudio Ranieri, a quarter of Premier League clubs are under new management before one third of 2021-22 has been played. Four of the bottom five have changed manager. Burnley have not.

It’s not a great reflection of foresight. Nor does it say much about “strategy”, a term Smith said previously Villa’s owners possess.

The problem with strategy is that it’s not as strong a word as relegation. There may have been contributing factors in the dismissals of Nuno and Bruce but this burst of change has been caused mainly by the intense pressure, anxiety and depression of relegation.

We take it for granted that three Premier League clubs will go down each year, and sometimes sniffily we say it is all so predictable. But if we step back for a moment and consider the enormity of Premier League economics, the reality – and fear of missing out – explains why clubs act so early in a 38-game season.

Relegation really is something else. As a sporting concept, it is one of the great strengths and attractions of football. As a financial impact, it is potentially catastrophic. It is a corporate strategy-wrecker of such scale that it obscures other work, sometimes all other work.

Take Smith and Norwich City, for example. What Villa’s losing run overshadowed was the effort and decisions Smith made along the way to get Villa to the stage where relegation is deemed so unacceptable, the irony being that it began in the Championship.

Smith was appointed – post-Steve Bruce – with Villa 17th in the second tier and six points above relegation to League One. It was the end of October 2018. By the following May, Villa were back in the Premier League having won the playoff final against Derby County (and just look at them).

It was a tale with a boy's own element. Smith is a local, a Villa fan whose father Ron was a steward at the ground. Ron was in Rotterdam in 1982 when Villa became champions of Europe, beating Bayern Munich. Tony Barton was Villa's manager, though the team had been assembled by another Ron, Ron Saunders.

So Smith's Villa credentials were indisputable and there was an outpouring of sympathy when Ron Smith died of Covid during this pandemic. An indication of his popularity came from a previous Villa manager, John Gregory: "Dean Smith gave Aston Villa Football Club the kiss of life when the club was an embarrassment."

Today the club would class a return to the Championship as the embarrassment.

Villa have, since the summer of 2018, billionaires Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens in control and hundreds of millions has been spent. Villa did not sign Emiliano Buendia, for example, for £38 million to go down. The very thought of relegation was enough to persuade them to move from Smith to Gerrard.

Smith could point to the £100 million sale of Jack Grealish as a factor in the team's loss of flow. But then Farke could say the same about Buendia and Smith now inherits that situation.

Norwich sold Buendia, even though he was their player of the season, in fact he was Championship player of the season, because they have a strategy. Deservedly, they receive praise for it.

Sporting director Stuart Webber once called Norwich a 'top 25' club, a term that incorporates the tension and difficulty of relegation with the promise of promotion. It's realistic and logical.

Following their last relegation in 2020 – after the 35th game – Webber said bluntly: “We got relegated from a league we should have got relegated from. We’ve gone to war without a gun and – guess what? – we got shot.”

With Buendia gone for a fee Norwich could not resist, they started this Premier League campaign again knowing it would be a serious struggle. Relegation would be the likely outcome. It seemed they were fine and mature about it.

What perhaps surprised those involved, however, was how disappointed they were with the fresh reality of their strategy. There was no novelty in six straight defeats even against Big Six opposition. With no points, it was asked: what is the point of Norwich City? A tight relegation could be tolerated, but a humiliating one? That would be damaging.

And so this most strategic of clubs terminated Farke, albeit after a win at Brentford. It gives Smith something to build on. The players, he said at his Wednesday unveiling, “should take confidence from it”.

Two home games against Southampton and Wolves offer the new manager a chance, then comes a trip to Newcastle. There they are making similar comments. Eddie Howe has Brentford at home for his Geordie Arabia debut. The next two home games are Norwich and Burnley.

Howe will need St James’ Park to be a vitality stadium to inspire players yet to win this season, though Howe’s initial task is to make them coherent defensively.

Co-incidentally the reset has given Stevie V a home debut as well, against Brighton. Gerrard's stature will guarantee headlines; more pertinent is whether it brings Villa improvement.

If so, this reactionary appointment, like the others, will be said to have worked. Relegation will be for three others.

Renewal at the bottom means, for now, optimists outnumber strategists.