Aston Villa: Jack Grealish and Dean Smith on preparation for Premier League return

By David WatkinsonBBC Sport
Aston Villa summer signings
Villa's summer signings include (clockwise from top left) Trezeguet, Ezri Knosa, Jota, Tyrone Mings, Anwar El Ghazi, Douglas Luiz, Bjorn Engels, Matt Targett, Kortney Hause and Wesley

In June 2018, Aston Villa had lost a play-off final and were threatened with a winding-up petition by HM Revenue & Customs over an unpaid £4m tax bill.

Twelve months later, they are one of the biggest-spending clubs in world football having spent more than £118m on 12 new players - only Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus have paid out more this summer.

Since last summer, Villa have new owners, a new manager and are now back in the Premier League following three rollercoaster years in the Championship.

As part of a BBC Radio 5 Live Football Daily podcast special, we speak to Villa's star man Jack Grealish and manager Dean Smith as they prepare to make their top-flight return at Tottenham on 10 August.

Jack Grealish
Grealish's eventful season saw him miss three months with injury before returning in February, sparking a club record 10-game winning streak

'Spurs link affected me - I was crap at start of last season'

The 2018-19 season started badly for Villa. Many of the side who had reached the play-off final the previous May had left, including captain John Terry, forward and top goalscorer Lewis Grabban, goalkeeper Sam Johnstone and winger Robert Snodgrass.

Grealish was the subject of at least one bid from Tottenham - and he later said he had expected to start the season as a Spurs player.

New owners - billionaire businessmen Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris - only took control on the eve of the campaign and Grealish decided to stay with his boyhood club.

"I was really close to going," he said. "I thought the [season-opening] Hull City game was going to be my last.

"I'll be honest... after that Hull game, for about two months until Steve Bruce got sacked and Dean Smith came in, I was crap.

"I think I had about one assist until the start of November and I played most games. Then I had my time out. It gave me the chance to have some rest, which I think I needed.

"I was given the armband and scored twice against Birmingham. The second game was the perfect moment. As soon as I came back I just wanted to get promoted and luckily we did."

When Villa played at St Andrew's in February, Grealish was attacked by a pitch invader but went on to score the winning goal in a 1-0 victory.

My mum was scared by fan attack - Aston Villa's Jack Grealish

"I honestly could not care less that he did it," he said. "That is from my heart. As soon as he did it I was lying on the floor and there was a bit of a fight going on. I was thinking 'I've got to score the winner now'.

"It was just meant to be. After the game I was so happy. My mum was a bit upset thinking he could have been carrying anything. There was only one thing in my mind and that was to score the winner."

Grealish boots
Grealish finished the season in his threadbare 'lucky' boots but says he has now finally replaced them. He has kept one of the pair and will donate the other to Villa if they want to put it in the club museum.

Spend, spend, spend

Once Premier League status had been secured thanks to a 2-1 win over Derby in the play-off final in May, more than 14 players left the club - including top scorer Tammy Abraham, who went back to Chelsea after his loan ended, and defender Axel Tuanzebe, who returned to Manchester United.

Glenn Whelan, Albert Adomah, Mile Jedinak, Alan Hutton, Micah Richards and Ross McCormack were among those released.

So far Villa have spent close to £110m on players including record signing Wesley for £22m. Burnley goalkeeper Tom Heaton became the club's 11th signing for a fee of £8m, swiftly followed by Marvelous Nakamba who arrived from Club Bruges for an undisclosed fee.

Comparisons have been made to Fulham, who spent more than £100m last summer after winning promotion, including five signings on transfer deadline day.

Fulham sacked manager Slavisa Jokanovic in November 2018, then removed his replacement Claudio Ranieri in February 2019 before eventually being relegated.

"We had to bring players in," said Smith. "The season finished and after the euphoria then comes the tough part of the job. We had to rebuild.

"Fortunately we're rebuilding in the Premier League and we've got fantastic owners who are very supportive.

"I wanted to retain the spine of the team and add some quality to that. Three of the players we've signed were with us last season and two others I've worked with at Brentford.

"Even Trez [Egypt international Trezeguet] is great friends with [Villa defender Ahmed] Elmohamady. Wesley has struck up a great friendship with Jota.

"My ambition is to win every game we play. We want to compete in the Premier League."

I knew I'd made it when I upgraded to a Corsa - Aston Villa's Tyrone Mings

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