The Duke of Cambridge has paid tribute to the father of Aston Villa manager Dean Smith, who died after contracting Covid-19, as he opened the football club’s new training centre.
William said Ron Smith, a lifelong Villa fan who died aged 79 last year, would have been “very proud” of the achievements of his son who has steered the team to promotion and Premier League safety since being appointed in 2018.
The duke visited the team’s training ground to hear about the work of the club’s foundation protecting and supporting communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He shared a laugh with the squad, joking about the use of modern technology in football and a player who was stopped by police just before meeting the duke.
The future king is a keen Villa fan and wore the club’s colours – a claret jumper and blue shirt – for his visit to its high performance centre at Bodymoor Heath in north Warwickshire.
In the open air he met the squad and coaching staff and was told by the club’s manager “You’ve got the right colours on today” and replied “Absolutely”.
William was then asked if he watched Villa’s match against Everton on Saturday, which the Midlands team won 2-1, and said he had, describing it as a “good game”.
Later in his speech, the duke told the guests: “Last year, head coach Dean Smith tragically lost his father – a lifelong Villa fan, a matchday steward, to Covid-19.
“His loss is just one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the club over the last 12 months.
“I want to offer my sincere condolences to Dean and pay tribute to his extraordinary contribution to the club since joining in 2018.
“I know your dad would be very proud.
“I’m immensely proud to be associated with a club that does so much through the Aston Villa foundation in support of the community, especially through the pandemic as we’ve heard today.
“I can’t think of a cooler place than Villa Park to be vaccinated – unless you’re a Birmingham City fan.”
Before opening the centre, William quipped: “As the country’s best armchair manager, I need to chat to Dean about the next match.”
In recent weeks the duke, who is president of the Football Association, spoke out against the European Super League before the project collapsed and joined the football community in its social media boycott to highlight online abuse.
When he first arrived the duke met a group of players outside, including midfielder Ross Barkley and defender Tyrone Mings, and he congratulated them on a good season.
The use of video assistant referees (VAR) – employed when a clear and obvious error has been made by the on-field officials – has divided fans and television pundits.
William told the footballers: “VAR is causing some heart attacks but apart from that it’s been awesome.”
Aston Villa centre back Kortney Hause said he was pulled over by a police officer before the royal visit.
He said he told the officer: “You’ve got to let me go, I’m meeting the Duke of Cambridge.”
The duke replied: “I love it. I won’t ask you how fast you were going.”
During his chat with the squad he described the training facility – reportedly costing £6 million – as “amazing” and quizzed club captain Jack Grealish on when he would be returning from injury.
He replied: “I haven’t actually got a date yet but I’m going to London on Thursday. I’m hoping a week or 10 days.”
During his visit, the duke heard from members of four community outreach programmes associated with the club – Villa Kitchen, feeding the homeless and others; Villa Vision, raising awareness of eye health; a Covid vaccination centre and community antenatal clinics.
When he met a midwife involved with the clinics, the duke was told around 30-40 women a day were seen in converted hospitality boxes in the North Stand of Villa Park.
William said: “I’ve never heard this in a football stadium before, this is really interesting.”
Later the duke revealed Princess Charlotte had a “lovely birthday” and is growing up “very fast” during a visit to Babcock Vehicle Engineering in Walsall.
William said another family was invited to celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday, which fell on Sunday.
He said: “She had a lovely day thank you. Last year it was her birthday in lockdown but this year we were able to have one other family over.
“They grow up very fast. It was great fun.”