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Author Topic: Deano - the fifth miracle?  (Read 1340 times)

Online dave.woodhall

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Deano - the fifth miracle?
« on: November 26, 2020, 05:50:55 PM »
Coming to Villa Park in October 2018 fulfilled a career-long ambition for Dean Smith, but looking at the circumstances that obtained in B6 at the time of his move from Brentford you could, at best, describe them as a mixed blessing. Yes, the new owners who had just appointed him were well stocked with cash, some of which had already been put to use to pay some pesky tax bills and other amounts owing to clubs by way of transfer fees, wages and so on, that the previous owner (or then current co-owner, to be precise) had run up. There would clearly be more to spend in future transfer windows, but the nearest one was well over two months away.

Smith’s first problem was the most obvious one; a lower mid-table position for a team that was fancied to be among the promotion-chasers. The previous incumbent, Steve Bruce, who will be remembered for some of the good things he did in his time here, had overseen a run of one win in his last ten games, despite his side being effectively injury-free in that time. Bizarrely, a manager who was highly-regarded as a pivot in his playing days, presided over a situation where Villa were reduced to a mere two centre-backs in the entire squad, with three other players who could play the position being sent out on loan at the start of the season. There was also no left-back in reserve should Neil Taylor, no stranger to the odd niggle, pick up an injury. Despite all this, Dean Smith laid his ambitions bare before the media; asked what his target for the club was, he replied simply, “Promotion!” An unbalanced squad and a poor league position were problems for him to deal with, rather than excuses for failure. Apparently, the owners and CEO were thinking the same way, except that it might take a couple of seasons to deliver.

There was little that could be done about the squad immediately, so Dean got to work on improving what he’d been left with. Once he’d actually spent some time with the players, the difference was quite spectacular. Such was the attacking intent, movement, and flow of chances and goals, it was hard for some of us to catch our breath. Comparisons were made with 110% Ron’s side of 1976/77, still regarded as the Villa Park litmus test for swashbuckling, exciting football. Some urged caution, pointing out that Villa were at, of course, a level lower and that such comparisons were invalid for that reason alone. If that sounds like the miserablism common to too many Villa fans, it wasn’t; even the critics were going around with a sloppy grin on their chops as Villa dispatched one opponent after another, with Tammy Abraham seemingly running a personal Goal of the Week contest.

 At this stage, despite the poor start under Bruce, it was hard not to hum along to the siren song of automatic promotion. Even those who wondered when the brilliant run would hit a bump had to bear in mind that Smith would be allowed to strengthen his side in January, so all looked set fair for the rest of the season. Then the injuries began to bite; first, Jack Grealish who had hit near top form in this run (or at least top form as we understood it then), pulled up with a mysterious problem that took weeks to even diagnose, let alone repair. In the end, it turned out to be what non-experts like me term a pre-broken leg and required a rest period that was to last for over three months. Axel Tuanzebe, who had struck up a strong defensive partnership with the worthy James Chester was the next man to go missing; this was another big blow; Axel’s physical power and pace in recovery was a great help to his defence, and his willingness to bring the ball out from the back, making the extra man in midfield, would also be missed. These blows didn’t only mean the absence of the club’s most inspirational player, it also meant that the worthy James Bree boosted his number of first-team appearances - at centre-back - for a few games, as Villa limped into January.

The opening of the window, it was hoped would bring some immediate relief, but, of course, no such thing happened. Deals tend to happen towards the end of the month, as each club’s requirements become a little clearer as situations develop. Still, Deano took immediate action, bringing Tommy Elphick and Jed Steer back into the club, to mitigate the effects of the previous manager’s discredited ‘policy’. This meant that we had something that vaguely looked like a defence, though many noted the continued absence of a left-sided centre-back, to give us some balance. Kortney Hause came in on loan from Wolves, and his lack of recent match-time showed up painfully on the pitch. Rusty wasn’t the word. We all hoped for improvement from this low base but the wins still wouldn’t come, and a three-nil drubbing against Wigan saw the first doubts expressed as to whether this bloke really was the right one for our club, after all. It would have been fitting had there been more understanding of the problems he was having to deal with. Still, too many football fans find it easier to moan than consider the bigger picture.

Good work by the club saw Tyrone Mings come in towards the end of the month, in the face of several competing clubs. He took a while to find his feet, too, though at least the signing allowed James Chester, who had worked himself onto the treatment table in the absence of any viable alternatives, to get some well-earned recovery time. Watching the defeat at Griffin Park, it was possible to see the improvement in the defence, even while lamenting the lack of creativity further forward. It looked like Dean Smith the manager could have done with a few Dean Smith-style players to play the way he wanted. His old team seemed full of them. Happily, things were, slowly, on the turn. A draw at Stoke was only the second point from the last four matches, but the nature of the come-back and Villa’s second-half superiority was noted. The unfancied Whelan and Hourihane took control of the game after a rare Deano bollocking accompanied the half time cuppa, and, though disappointed that his side hadn’t won, he was happy with the improvement.

This presaged the home game against Derby, another side who had hit a recent slump. The return of Grealish (as captain!), with the momentum of last week’s improvement, saw a comprehensive victory that could have been even more emphatic. It was as delightful as it was surprising; the fact that it only boosted us slightly up to mid-table was a reminder that the odd victory here and there wouldn’t be making much of an impact on the play-off places. In the month leading up to this match, Grealish’s biggest contribution had been his game of cat-and-mouse with his mate Tammy Abraham, convincing the on-loan Chelsea striker to stick around as he would be back playing soon. Happily, Tammy listened, and continued to pile up the goals for us, rather than nipping up the road to sign for the Dogheads.

For those who prefer easy answers to difficult questions, Grealish’s return was the single reason for Villa’s spectacular upturn. Rather, it was Jack, plus the improvement from other players, the more solid defence mentioned earlier that meant that it was no longer necessary to score two goals to earn a point, and the steadying influence of Jed Steer behind everyone else. When the suspended McGinn found that, on his recall, he was required to sit on the bench, he seemed to regard this affront as an incentive to pour even more of his supercharged energy into the midfield battle, and came up with a series of memorable strikes to prove it.

As Villa continued to climb the table, often beating clubs above them in the table, matching, even exceeding the standards of the previous November, the Manager of the Month award came into play. At the presentation, Deano was keen to emphasise that he was the Head Coach, not the manager, a subtle but important distinction. Certainly, there was nothing that could stop the club from achieving its play-off target. Overcoming the dull-as-dishwater defensive display of the Baggies wasn’t easy, especially after the concession of a soft goal in the first leg, but this wasn’t the first time that Dean Smith’s side had had to battle back to win. Villa weren’t at their best in the second leg and had to edge through on penalties thanks largely to Jed Steer’s heroics. The final itself showed how much things had changed in just a few months. Dean’s team went for the win, while Lampard’s Derby reprised the Steve Bruce role from a year earlier, being more fearful of defeat in a game where victory was required.

The celebrations were loud and went on for several days for some, though it’s doubtful that Dean’s enjoyment of the moment lasted too long. Winning a play-off final feels great until you realise that you now have less time to prepare for the new challenge than everyone else(perhaps one of the reasons why a majority of play-off promoted teams are immediately relegated). Throw in the detail of more than twenty footballers leaving the club shortly after promotion has been achieved and the task of survival seems even more formidable. The return of loan players to their parent clubs, the expiration of contracts of some of the older men, the early release of players who were thought not to be needed for the rigours that lay ahead, plus the much-needed culling of many of the club’s youth professionals in a bid, at last to get the club’s youth system producing first-team players again, left Dean -and some of the rest of us- pondering on the wisdom of achieving promotion only to be left with about fifteen bodies (including three ‘keepers) to put a proper team out. This was compounded by the fact that some of the remaining squad were unlikely to trouble the higher division with their presence. Hogan and Lansbury came to mind, but you may feel that you could have added others to the list. 

With the spectre of FFP looming over us, there would clearly need to be a limit set on what the club could spend. Yet the need to sign virtually a team’s worth of players applied another pressure, numbers. The answer was to bring in a bunch of new signings that would be good enough to fit in at this level, but not yet good enough to command fees and wages that we couldn’t afford. If this Smith bloke was half the coach he was thought to be, the new men would develop and improve over the season at Bodymoor Heath and we should be able to stay up fairly comfortably. At least, that was the theory. In some quarters, there was a fear that the miracle-worker Smith had presided over our promotion a year too soon.

Three things then happened that struck what may have been a wrong chord. CEO Purslow and Deano, both singing from the same sheet, were bullish about Villa’s new challenge. Purslow made it clear that Villa hadn’t come up just to be involved in a relegation struggle; Deano was equally positive in stressing that Villa would be looking to win all their games in the new division. Clearly, both were still enjoying the buzz of a spectacular promotion campaign and that may have transferred itself into their comments. By raising expectations for what was always likely to be a difficult time, it meant that poor results would somehow be less acceptable; after all, the top people at the club had effectively said it wouldn’t happen. The other issue was that of loan transfers. Clearly Bruce, while doing it well, had overplayed this market, something the new CEO helped to put right by trying to get buying clauses into as many loan deals as he could. This was a great help when it came to team and squad-building. Suddenly, the policy was completely abandoned, as Villa made it clear that they were only interested in developing their own players, not those of other clubs. The shutting down of this part of our summer transfer profile was probably a mistake, especially as we needed to bring so many new bodies in. Looked at from an accountant’s point of view, the idea made more sense; signing experienced Prem players, whether on loan or free transfers, would mean a big boost to the wage bill, as agents ensured their clients were well looked after.

Either way, some of these chickens came home to roost early on, as Villa kept to their promise of trying to win every game; the big problem being that they hadn’t yet developed a method of hanging onto winning leads. Spurs, Burnley and Arsenal all retrieved losing positions at our expense before the autumn was reached. Some commented on the naivety of new players not used to this level of competition, or even their new team-mates; others wondered whether the problem was centred around what was going on around the dug-out rather than on the pitch. It seemed to be the case that Dean, like many of his players, was having to learn at a higher level while on the job. Necessity meant that he would have to learn quickly.

Deano was finding out early on that honeymoon periods in football tend to be short-lived; the glories of last season had been replaced by more immediate concerns. Happily, he turned things round with back-to-back wins against Norwich and Brighton. Villa were playing some good stuff at this stage, if a little over-reliant on the burgeoning genius of Grealish to make things happen. If there was a concern as to what might happen if Jack was absent, even this was seemingly answered by a tremendous effort against Champs-elect Liverpool which saw the home side denied a famous victory by two late goals. Far from taking inspiration from this performance, Villa hit a dip that brought us right back into the relegation mix. Goals were leaking with some predictability and Deano came in for some pointed criticism. Why were Villa playing a high defensive line against teams like Leicester and Southampton, possessors of swift, counter-attacking players, especially when Bjorn Engels was not the quickest in recovery? The Southampton defeat saw the two teams swap places in the table. A narrow and not quite deserved win against Norwich gave us some respite but was followed by a poor performance at Watford where two of the three goals conceded were when the home side were down to ten men. This was a sore point from some critics; it had been noted before that Smith’s team did not seem very confident at taking the supposed advantage of the extra man.

The New Year’s Day game at Burnley represented a fresh start for the coach and his team; reverting to a 3-5-2 formation not only seemed to shore up the defence, it also allowed Villa to get players further forward to support the much-maligned Wesley, who duly broke a goalless run. Grealish was superb and Villa could have taken an even bigger advantage into half-time. Burnley came back into it, but Villa did well to hang on for three vital points and Deano had ticked a box marked ‘tactical flexibility’ that had been a concern for some Villains. This was followed by a farcical performance against Manchester City where Villa kept their shape quite nicely but forgot to actually engage their opponents, as per the whole bleeding point of the game. Still, the lesson was learned, both at Brighton, where a second-half equaliser was just reward for being the better side after the break, and a memorable last-gasp win over Watford at Villa Park, where thunderous chants of “Deeney, Deeney, what’s the score?” rang out as a fitting response to the over-celebration of the Bluenose’s leading goal before the break.

While all this was going on, Villa’s League Cup run was still going strong. Deano and his team gained little credit from this adventure, the reasoning being that, after all, our opponents were only fielding reserve line-ups. Happily, it then dawned that this was exactly what Villa were doing as well. Admittedly, Liverpool took things a bit far by fielding their youth side against us, but there were reasons for this, even if you didn’t like the idea. With the two Manchester clubs and Leicester the other teams left in the contest, the semi-final draw was, for some, a matter of who you wanted to see Villa get stuffed by. Leicester drew the winning ticket, and the semi-final took on the feel of 1970-71, where the first leg was away (at Old Trafford) and the hope was that the score could be kept within reasonable bounds and thus allow a real contest back at Villa Park. Villa certainly did that, and might even have won at the Scabby Crisp Stadium but for a woeful error in possession. Such was the way that Leicester started the second leg that it might all have been over in the first twenty minutes. Villa defended well, but this was Orjan Nyland’s night, ramming the words down his critics’ throats as he kept Villa in it while the other ten settled down and ultimately nicked what was probably a deserved win in the end.

Surely, such an impressive result and performance, along with the Watford comeback, would give the team a massive confidence boost in the games ahead, a couple of which were six-pointers? A good showing here would potentially take us clear of the relegation struggle, at least for the time being. The resultant run of five straight defeats was as deflating as Villa’s business in the transfer window. Once again, Villa were hit hard by the boundaries of FFP; most of us can think of players who would have made a difference to our team; the problem was aligning our football needs while keeping on good terms with the bean-counters. Nevertheless, history will likely relate that Danny Drinkwater’s stay was not a great success, neither was Ally Samatta’s, while you sense that Borja Baston will probably feature as an obscure item in future Villa quiz tie-breakers. We’ll get back to Pepe Reina later.

It was hard to discern a pattern during this run, apart from the losses. Insipid performances at Bournemouth and Southampton got mostly what was deserved but the showings against Spurs and in the final against the Oil Corporation suggested a team with some quality determined to battle to the last kick. The jury couldn’t quite make up its mind at this stage, but it didn’t like the blame being pushed onto match officials (though god knows there was plenty of room for improvement in this direction). Some members also tired of Dean’s comments after seemingly every defeat at the hands of a top-half side that, “these results won’t define our season”. Some looked at the league table, noted that Watford, West Ham, Southampton and Bournemouth had all enjoyed good wins against their so-called betters, and begged to differ.

Then came the game at Leicester, where the home side took full revenge for the cup upset and left Villa fans wondering where to start the post-match autopsy. The glaring defensive frailty that made every ball into the penalty area a likely unchallenged attempt at goal made some wonder who was actually in charge of any defensive coaching the players might be getting. This had been an issue for some time; all those familiar with events knew that Deano was the head coach; Messrs O’Kelly and Terry were named ‘assistants’. None of this gave the game away as to who might be deemed responsible as the goals continued to flow in the wrong direction. Villa loyalist Andy Townsend condemned Villa as ‘the worst team in the premiership’ after this display, and though the verdict hurt, it was hard to argue with it. Rumblings in the media suggested that should Villa capitulate in the next game against Chelsea, then the owners, not men to tolerate repeated failure, might thank Dean for his considerable achievements and move on. All inhabitants of planet Earth will know what happened next.

When the Great Resumption rolled around, it was hard to know what attitude to take. After all, that game in hand at home to the Blades, should it be won, would be enough to carry us out of the relegation zone. Showings before the lockdown suggested this was wishful thinking. As it was, the draw at least showed that the defence was more solid; an in-form striker and Villa would surely have won with the chances created. Defeat to Chelsea was disappointing, though hardly surprising. The overall feeling of the draw at Newcastle was that we should have won, but a familiar bluntness up front ensured that goals would be hard to come by. The next three games were all lost, without even a Villa goal to cheer. Yet the performance at champions Liverpool was a good one, with chances being created. We were also well in the game against Manchester United before the egregious Jon Moss (and the VAR official) got involved in a penalty decision that at least had the virtue of making Kevin Friend seem vaguely adequate. While all this had been happening, the morale of Villa fans was kept bubbling along by the equally bad results for the other strugglers. At least until that week, when Watford, with two fortunate home wins, pulled clear of the mire. Not only were they now seven points clear of trouble, their goal difference was improved by such a margin, that it was hard to see how a scoreless side like Villa could hope to plug either of these gaps.

In the end, that indefinable quality of luck finally began to turn our way. When the strong defender but poor ball-player Kortney Hause pulled up during the warm-up against Palace, Villa’s only other available centre-back, Ezri Konsa, was asked to move across from full-back. In this simple, unavoidable move, Smith had discovered a centre-back pairing that has done us proud ever since. The authority of Reina at the back was clearly a contributor to this new-found and welcome solidity. The disallowing of an early Palace goal was merely the precursor of the discovery of another hero, Trezeguet, who allied his thirst for hard work on the right side (Trez Bremner, anyone?) with winning strikes from inside the area. Not only had Villa scored a couple of goals, they could easily have had several more in a win that had given us the scent of hope, something that even the most success-starved fans of any club need. The concession of a late goal at Goodison was a set-back, but the point took on a bit of a glow when Watford’s defeat at West Ham meant that the gap was down to three points and a handful of goals. Meanwhile, while Bournemouth’s form had improved, their results and goal difference had not. Now it began to look like us or Watford for the drop.

Super Tuesday rolled around and Manchester City did a job on a Watford side whose manager and coach had been dismissed with two games to go -perhaps the most bizarre occurrence of the whole season, one that still defies explanation. That brought the goal differences level; now all we needed to do was beat an Arsenal side who had beaten Liverpool and the aforementioned City in their last two games. Ulp!

Many optimists hoped for a draw, which would keep the miracle of survival via a last-day win in play. Instead, Villa produced the display of the season to deservedly, if narrowly, take the victory that took us out of the relegation zone for the first time since February. Suddenly, we were favourites to stay up! The team duly delivered the point at West Ham that secured safety and the celebrations and the sighs of relief followed. The dedication by Dean to his dad was moving, and was a clear demonstration of the fact that whatever opinions on Deano’s ability you might harbour, he was the definition of a top bloke. At this time, Dean revealed that he had taken the defensive reorganisation of the side as his responsibility during and after the Lockdown. We still don’t know who had had the job before. Alongside this, Douglas Luiz, (Doo-Gee!! according to Reina’s in-match screams) protected the backline masterfully and was clearly the Player of the Second Bit of the Season, with the help of a few well-timed fouls to lubricate his superb ball-skills. Smith’s more pragmatic approach on the resumption was to stay in matches, rather than dominate them. It worked. Villa, as one poster put it, had had to take their medicine in 2019-20 -a nd though the pain was excruciating at times, the patient was back on his feet and ready for more work.

No doubt the team enjoyed a few end-of-season drinks again, but the time for resting was short, as the new campaign was soon back. This time recruitment was less frenetic, as Villa concentrated on areas that clearly needed strengthening. Ollie Watkins came in to see if he could replicate his goal-machine record at a higher level. Emiliano Martinez had got a run in the Arsenal team at the end of the previous season and impressed everyone; suddenly, we were no longer waiting for the recovery of the valued Tom Heaton. Matty Cash looked like an odd signing but the right flank of the defence looks stronger for his presence, and he can cross a ball, too. Early sightings of Bertrand Traore are just that, but it’s clear he has a lot of things going for him. Throw in what someone on here called the ‘natural improvement’ that a year of Premier League football has given the likes of Luiz, Konsa, Targett and Trez, the signing on long contracts of Grealish, Mings and the under-rated Davis, and the relaxing of last summer’s loan ’ban’, allowing Ross Barkley to come through the door, meant that few were thinking of just survival as the season commenced.

In fact, things can be said to be going rather better than expected. To follow the opening two wins with THAT performance against the champions was more than a win, it was a statement of intent. Victory at Leicester seemed to confirm that this could be one of those special seasons that people will be happy to talk about in years to come. Like ‘76/-7, (this time at the top level) there’s a good feeling around this team as well as the suspicion that Villa don’t have a strong enough squad to keep the quality up when injuries and suspensions hit the first-team. Perhaps it’s the biggest Smith miracle of all, that we can contemplate top-half Prem finishes as being within our grasp soon, and that such an accomplishment would be seen as just be another step on the way upwards.

So how do we calculate a value for the various ‘miracles’ performed by Dean Smith in his two years at the club? We could start with the Villa fan, sensing something in the air at half-time in the Derby match, trying to get a bet on Villa going up. He failed, and the odds of 45/1 probably still hurt even now. How about staying up as a play-off team? Under normal circumstances, survival chances were odds-against, with eighteen of thirty teams being immediately relegated on arrival in the Prem. Throw in the re-building of the squad (absolutely necessary so, no, we weren’t ‘doing a Fulham’) and the odds climb again.

What price on survival you would have got at the start of March 2020 is another matter, of course. Not too many promoted teams immediately qualify for a major cup final in their first season back, so a fair few quid could have been made on that had money been put down in August. I imagine backing a 7-2 win against the current champions would have attracted odds somewhere in the region of 100/1, as well as the recommendation that you might like to try a good lie down. A history-equalling record of four opening wins and a record -beating three away wins on the bounce suggest that Dean might have a few more surprises in store for us. In fact, the surprises have been so prolific that the title of this article has already had to be changed. What might happen next? I’ve got my own preference for this season, but sometimes these thoughts are best not committed to print.


Dave Collett
« Last Edit: November 26, 2020, 08:54:54 PM by dave.woodhall »

Offline Luffbralion

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #1 on: November 26, 2020, 08:45:10 PM »
This is a great read and due testimony to what Dean has achieved. Thanks, Dave

Offline West Derby Villan

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #2 on: November 26, 2020, 09:29:24 PM »
Great article Dave

Online Legion

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #3 on: November 26, 2020, 10:20:11 PM »
Superb.

Offline Villan For Life

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #4 on: November 26, 2020, 11:05:03 PM »
That’s a fantastic read. The last couple of years has been a rollercoaster ride but we are where we deserve to be and things are looking up.

In some ways Dean has given us our Villa back; sometimes breathtaking, sometimes frustratingly inept but always our Villa. Apart from a few glorious years at the start of my Villa supporting life, haven’t we always been like that?

Offline Chipsticks

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2020, 11:15:53 PM »
Brilliant.

Offline JD

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #6 on: November 27, 2020, 04:03:15 AM »
Brilliant article Dave.

Offline Neil Hawkes

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #7 on: November 27, 2020, 06:49:18 AM »
An excellent read.

Offline Percy McCarthy

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #8 on: November 27, 2020, 09:28:09 AM »
Great stuff. He’s done an amazing job.

Offline TelfordVilla

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #9 on: November 27, 2020, 09:34:28 AM »
i didnt even see mention of ten wins on the trot. So many good things have happened since Dean arrived. With time he can become our Ferguson/Wenger.

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #10 on: November 27, 2020, 09:15:29 PM »
Brilliant article,  and ...

i didnt even see mention of ten wins on the trot. So many good things have happened since Dean arrived. With time he can become our Ferguson/Wenger.

... I agree completely. Looking forward to many more years with Dean at the helm.

Offline TonyD

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #11 on: November 27, 2020, 09:21:48 PM »
Cracking read. 

100-1 for 7.2.   I reckon more like 300-1.   Did anyone put that bet on?

Offline brentastonb6

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #12 on: November 28, 2020, 01:35:28 AM »
Thank you, makes you proud of what has been achieved so far .

Offline Scratchins

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Re: Deano - the fifth miracle?
« Reply #13 on: November 28, 2020, 09:10:26 AM »
What a great article, we have been on a fantastic roller coaster ride and the future looks bright.

 


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