Football: Born-again Little rules at Britannia

Phil Shaw talks to the former Aston Villa manager about the challenge facing his new team, Stoke City, as the Nationwide League begins on Saturday
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The Independent Online
NOTHING ILLUSTRATES the dramatic change in Brian Little's career path better than the decline in his purchasing power. A year ago he splashed out pounds 7m to take Stan Collymore to Aston Villa. This summer's signings for Stoke City have all been free-transfer men.

Little vacated the Premiership stage six months ago with Villa days away from a Uefa Cup quarter-final. Resurfacing at Stoke after their relegation to the Second Division, he joined a club bereft of funds and plagued by strife between directors and fans.

No one, however, should feel sorry for Little or assume he has fallen on hard times. He left Villa Park of his own volition and is under no illusions as to the extent of Stoke's problems. Moreover, to watch him at work on the training pitch and to hear him talk is to be struck by his renewed appetite for the fray.

Gone is the haunted figure who had "grown sick of everything that detracted from playing football"; who could not conceal his irritation when continually pressed to unravel the Collymore conundrum or the enigma of Savo Milosevic.

He was able to enjoy the World Cup on television from his new home, 15 minutes from the Britannia Stadium. Crucially, after "16 years non-stop work", he claims he has finally learned how to take a holiday.

It would be Stoke's good fortune to have acquired the "old" Little - the tactically astute manager-coach who led Darlington and Leicester to promotion before a largely successful spell back at his first club - as well as most of his backroom staff at Villa.

But one has to ask: whatever possessed him to come to a club now a division below the Potteries' "other" team, Port Vale, and at the same level as nearby Macclesfield?

"When I left Villa I wanted a breather from the game," Little says. "I thought I'd take six months off, maybe a year."

Had he done that, he would have been free to return to the top flight following the annual autumn cull. "When Stoke came to me I wasn't looking for anything, but I talked to them out of courtesy. After I decided I quite fancied it, I told myself: `Whether I stay six weeks, months or years, what I can't do is start wishing I'd hung on for this or that'.

"If I wanted to be a manager in the Premiership I would have stayed with Villa. I'll always love the club and it was a great job for me, which I thoroughly enjoyed."

That still does not explain why he chose Stoke, weeks after sitting in his Majorcan holiday home and watching coverage of the 5-2 surrender to Manchester City which sealed their fate.

"Put it this way. I'm the sort of person who, when he decides to do something, whether it's driving cars or motorbikes or going out at night, just goes and does it. I felt like a challenge. I liked the new ground and the earthiness of the people. I also saw this as a club that should at least be pushing for the Premiership."

His wife, Heather, who he met while working as Villa's youth coach after injury curtailed a hugely promising career as a striker, is a Staffordshire girl. Furthermore, Little retained a good impression of Stoke from his adolescence.

"When I was about 13 I came down here from Durham as a trialist and they let me travel with the first team to a match against the great Leeds side. Stoke lost but there were these great experienced players like George Eastham and Peter Dobing. I really enjoyed it and, though I ended up at Villa, I kept that positive memory."

Stoke's most successful era, under the late Tony Waddington, was notable as much for the team's rugged local backbone as for the ball-players who followed the trail woven by Stanley Matthews. The area has always produced a high proportion of players, but Little does not have the luxury of waiting for talent to filter through.

"I'm honest enough to say that my role is a short-term one. I've set myself a two-year target to try to get Stoke up. I could have asked for a five-year deal but this way they won't feel under pressure if it's not working. I'll oversee the youth policy, sure, but my priority is the first team."

Last season's record also included a 7-0 home defeat by Birmingham, but Little insists that everyone starts with a clean slate. "I've tried to look back no further than the day I joined and not to look for excuses I might need in the future," he says.

In terms of Stoke's fan base, he sees similarities with Leicester. He concedes that the more valid comparison, vis-a-vis resources and the low starting point, might be with Darlington, who dropped into the Vauxhall Conference before he led them to two promotions in succession on a shoestring budget.

The Stoke faithful, while not relenting in their hostility to the board, have rallied behind Little. His first meeting with the supporters' club was scheduled for a function room that holds 400. So many turned up that it had to be switched to the main stand.

Little has taken advantage of the Bosman ruling to bolster his squad, signing Craig Short, David Oldfield, Phil Robinson and Bryan Small, while reviving a penchant for coaching that was shackled at Villa by the office workload.

"I used to have the national daily press, the Sundays, the evenings, two or three TV channels and various local-radio stations, all wanting a different angle. Here I've just got a couple of guys to deal with."

Scrutiny may intensify if the potless Potters make the promotion push their followers anticipate and the new incumbent can expect to come under the spotlight in November. Thirty years after he and his brother Alan started out at Villa, they will have their first managerial duel when Stoke face York.

It will, I suggest, be a great day. "Not for our parents," says Brian Little, breaking into the laugh of a born-again football man.

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