When he relives the day that his Aston Villa side recaptured the League Cup by trouncing Leeds United at Wembley, it is not the stunning opening salvo by Savo Milosevic that brings the broadest smile to Brian Little's face. Nor is it the Dwight Yorke strike that com- pleted the rout, or even the image of Andy Townsend raising the trophy. It's the motorbikes.
The gleaming chrome, smooth lines and rumbling exhausts: Little is in love with it all. Had he not devoted his working life to football, in which he cur- rently manages a Gainsborough Trinity side lying third-bottom in the Blue Square League North, he would gladly have been a police motorcyclist. So when he is asked about Villa's preparations in 1996, and the possible lessons for their return to the final under Martin O'Neill's management against Manchester United today, the answer has a full-throttle flavour.
"We stayed a long way from Wembley, at Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon on the other side of London," Little recalls. "We went three days before the game and trained at a local school. Rumour had it there were people watching us for Leeds. Whether it was true I don't know. We didn't worry too much about them. We based our plans on what we wanted to do.
"Just before we set out for the stadium, one of the police outriders asked if I realised how difficult it would be to get there. In fact we had such a smooth run that when we pulled into the tunnel at Wembley, he got off his bike, took off his helmet and grinned at me.
"There's loads of little things that can go wrong before an occasion like that, like a player waking up with his back in agony after a bad night's sleep. But even that trip, which could have been difficult, we breezed through. On the coach I was transfixed by the bikes; it was the perfect relaxation before the big match. I just had the feeling, 'This is right today'."
So it proved, Villa scoring at "ideal times" and proving "better in every department" in a 3-0 cruise. The previous season, Little's first in charge of the club where he was a cult hero as a striker, they avoided relegation on the final day. But in 1995-96, with a team remodelled by his shrewd signings Gareth Southgate, Gary Charles, Alan Wright, Mark Draper, Ian Taylor and Milosevic, they finished fourth – the position O'Neill and Messrs Redknapp, Benitez and Mancini all crave – as well as reaching the FA Cup semi-finals and winning the League Cup.
An intriguing sub-plot is that Villa had earned their Wembley trip by defeating Arsenal. Trailing to two Dennis Bergkamp goals at Highbury, they scrambled a draw through a brace by Yorke and went through on away goals after a barren stalemate at Villa Park. "We were never the better side over the two legs," Little admits. "We had to scrap all the way.
"Arsenal's manager was Bruce Rioch, who was the biggest influence on my coaching and managing style from when I worked for him at Middlesbrough. The irony is that if they had beaten us like they should have, and gone on to beat Leeds, the whole Arsène Wenger era might never have happened. Bruce had already bought Bergkamp, which was a brilliant signing."
Rioch was soon gone; so, unexpectedly, was Little. Less than two years after that "perfect day" against Leeds, with Villa struggling and his marriage breaking up, he resigned for "professional and personal reasons". Since then the claret-and-blue ribbons have not adorned any major prize.
Yesterday, as Villa steeled themselves for their biggest game in a decade, the man whose team's 3-1 victory over Alex Ferguson's side in the 1994 final(see panel at right) prompted Alan Hansen's infamous assertion "you win nothing with kids" was in Greater Manchester for Gainsborough's match at Stalybridge Celtic. When he went to Highbury recently – the Highbury in the north-west – it was to play Fleetwood Town.
But to assume this is a riches to rags story, with Little its victim, is a mistake. Does he have any regrets? "Not really. It's gone and I'm very happy with my life. Most things I've done, I did because I wanted to. Very few people have told me what to do. Yes, it would be great to be involved in top-class football, though not as a manager.
"I'd love to help somebody. Simon [Grayson] asked me to go to Leeds last year, but the club wanted it on a sort of trial basis, to be reviewed after three months. If you're offered a job, you want people to believe in you. But I want to work in football, that's why I took this job. I could've said no; no one forced me! I know what people will say but it's what I wanted to do. I don't do what people expect me to. I'm my own man."
With no disrespect to Gainsborough, who went into yesterday's game after back-to-back wins to raise hope of escaping relegation to the UniBond League, Little's CV suggests he still has much to offer further up the ladder.
It shows successive championships with Darlington; three play-off finals at Leicester – the last of them taking the club into the Premier League; a stabilising eighth place at Stoke after they had plummeted into the third tier before his arrival; the play-offs with Hull after they were in administration; likewise at Tranmere, where he reached the FA Cup quarter-finals.
He accepts that it "didn't work" at Wrexham, who surrendered their League status on his watch, but managing a club riven by in-fighting also proved beyond his predecessors and his successor.
Villa, whom he joined as a long-haired Durham schoolboy 40 years ago, and with whom he spent the whole of a playing career spoiled by injury after a single England cap, have remained close to his heart. If he never presided over another game, he would go to watch them at his spiritual home (even if, to his chagrin, his young sons by second wife Lizzie have resisted the charms of Dad's old club in favour of United and Liverpool respectively).
When Little looks at today's Villa side and hails the "steeliness" of Richard Dunne, the word is spoken as if he is eulogising a Honda Blackbird, while he also admires the counter-attacking menace and all-round excellence of James Milner.
"It's always hard to beat United but Villa took four points off them in the League, so they'll feel there's a chance," he says. "It's a testament to Martin that no one turns them over now. It's just fantastic to see them battling on the three fronts we fought on 14 years ago."
...and the day Villa beat United
Manchester United were firm favourites ahead of the 1994 League Cup final and on course for the Treble, while Aston Villa had lost the last three games. But after 25 minutes Dean Saunders' first-time ball allowed Dalian Atkinson to put Villa ahead. United dominated and in the second half Lee Sharpe looked certain to score, only to be denied by Kevin Richardson's challenge. Saunders then diverted a free-kick past Les Sealey, deputising for the suspended Peter Schmeichel. Mark Hughes pulled a scrappy goal back but United were then caught on the break. Tony Daley's shot rattled the woodwork at the death and Andrei Kanchelskis stopped Atkinson's follow-up with his arm. He was sent off and Saunders made it 3-1 from the spot. Brian Little was to replace Ron Atkinson as manager eight months later.
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