By Graham Hill
THIS season has been a rollercoaster ride for Villa – and we should not forget how low the club have been.
Dean Smith has worked a minor miracle behind the scenes to get Villa into a position where they are now one game away from a return to the Premier League.
But a Wembley final looked a long way off when Villa were in 17th spot – six points off the relegation zone – at the end of October.
Smith had just taken over from Steve Bruce but a 1-0 home win over Swansea was followed by a reverse scoreline at QPR.
Already, the battle appeared to be on to keep Villa’s head above water in mid-table.
But signs of what was to follow came in the weeks afterwards when Villa started to look like a side capable of going up automatically.
Then came THAT game at West Brom when Villa were not only denied victory by a blatantly handballed goal by Baggies striker Jay Rodriguez, but they also lost Jack Grealish with a shin injury that was to keep him out of action for three months.
What followed was a miserable winter sequence that looked to be killing off any hopes of Villa making the play-offs – never mind the top two.
A home defeat by West Brom was followed by a seemingly unremarkable draw at Stoke.
But now Smith’s half-time rant with Villa one goal down at the break, is acknowledged as one of the turning points of the campaign.
Villa equalised and then followed the return of Grealish, newly-made captain and ready to turn it on abasing Derby.
He did just that and also provided one of the goals of the season in a crushing 4-0 win.
Even that did not suggest what was to follow – a record breaking 10-match winning run with Villa suddenly looking like a team again.
When a team puts together a string of results like that then they will leap from the pack and that is what happened with the 10th win of that sequence finally securing a top six place. Now it is time for that hard work to pay off at Wembley – Smith would not want his players to waste what they have achieved.