Aston Villa manager Dean Smith admits he “never expected” Manchester City to meet Jack Grealish’s release clause this summer.
Although Grealish’s £100million exit has been the main story of the summer at Villa Park, Smith will take five new signings to Vicarage Road for the season opener against Watford on Saturday – believing Leon Bailey, Danny Ings, Emi Buendia, Ashley Young and Axel Tuanzebe provide the depth Villa need.
“It was important that we strengthened the squad depth this season,” Smith said. “We felt we had an 11 that could compete against anybody including the top teams – now we’ve got more variation, more adaptability, and more depth and that’s really important.
“Obviously Jack going was a big loss – we wanted to keep him but we would have added more creativity and have added more creativity with Buendia whether Jack stayed or not. I think we’re in a good place…
“We’ve brought in five new players to cope with the loss of one, and they are quality players.”
Smith admitted that when Grealish’s £100million release clause was added to his contract Villa never expected to receive such an offer, but said the fee for a homegrown player reflected well on the club.
“Jack was our best player, but we never expected the £100million to be met,” he said. “It has been met and he goes with our best wishes.
“We had a plan A and a plan B if Jack stayed or went. The plan was always to strengthen, to make us a better team. I feel we’ve done that. The day Jack said goodbye to the players we announced we’d signed Danny Ings and there were a lot of big smiles around the dressing room that we’d kept it quiet.
“I know a lot of people from the outside and certainly on the inside are really happy with our business.”
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Smith plans to tell his players on Friday evening which of them he has selected to replace Grealish as captain, but he was clear he did not expect any one individual to take on his role as talisman.
“I wanted to build a better team if Jack left and I feel we can do that,” he said. “There was an over-reliance at times, an unconscious over-reliance on Jack.
“I think we’ve moved away from that now. Only time will tell if that’s a good thing but we believe in the team we’ve got and the squad we’ve got and what we have to do now is prove it on the football pitch.”
The first test of Villa’s reshaped squad will come away to Watford on Saturday, with Smith admitting facing newly-promoted opposition left plenty of questions.
“They’ll be a little bit of an unknown,” he said. “But with a full house they’ll be lively to start the game. We’ll have to be at our best to beat them.”
Grealish was not the only high-profile departure from Villa Park this summer, with first John Terry and then long-serving assistant Richard O’Kelly leaving Smith’s backroom staff.
Smith said there was “nothing sinister” in O’Kelly’s exit on the eve the new campaign, with the decision entirely down to the 64-year-old – who had previously worked with Smith at Walsall and Brentford.
“Knowing Richard as well as I do, he’s a selfless person,” Smith said. “It wouldn’t have been an easy decision he’s had to take and it would have been in his mind for the last month or two.
“I think he’s just made a professional decision where he’s seen the progress of the football club and felt it was time to step aside.”