By Graham Hill
VILLA boss Dean Smith says he never stopped believing his side could make the Play-offs – even when they were being written off as recently as two months ago.
Few people thought Villa could be challenging for a top six spot when they lost at home to West Brom in February.
And their trip to Stoke City was seen as a game which – if they had lost – then it would be mid-table mediocrity until May.
But they earned a point in the Potteries and proved to be the turning point.
Since then Villa are unbeaten in nine games – winning eight in a row.
It is promotion form and co-incides with the return of Jack Grealish from injury.
But the fact that other players have also stepped up to the plate means it has all come together at the right time for Smith.
He knew the ability was there, if only he could get those players on the pitch at the same time.
There have been unexpected bonuses such as the resurgence of Jed Steer after stepping in for Lovre Kalinic and taking his opportunity – literally – with both hands.
But Smith admitted he never gave up hope and now the challenge is when – not if – that Play-off spot will be confirmed.
The Villa boss is taking nothing for granted, he knows results can easily go the other way too.
Smith said: “We weren’t thinking the Play-offs were gone, but we knew it’d be a big ask from where we were at that time.
“I never stopped believing it, I just felt we needed to stop talking about the top six.
“But such is the level of expectation at Aston Villa, you can’t avoid it.
“So we had to break it down.
“But we knew we were in a difficult position due to a lack of players.
“Now they’re coming back from injury and there’s even competition for places on the bench.