Football: Little learns to cope with living in the firing line

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The Independent Online
Football clubs and fans are very demanding but, as he explained to Adam Szreter, Brian Little does not worry about his position as Aston Villa's manager, whatever the outcome of his side's Uefa Cup third-round tie against Steaua Bucharest, which starts in Romania tonight.

Brian Little wandered back into the manager's room at Villa Park early on Thursday afternoon, smiling almost uncontrollably after taking a private phone call in an adjacent office. "That was the chairman," he said. "He's out shooting in the middle of a field somewhere - I think he just wanted me to calm his nerves before he shoots his next pheasant."

Little is blessed with a "special relationship" with Doug Ellis, who over the years has fired many more Aston Villa managers than most people have had hot pheasant. Ellis admits to looking upon Little as a son, and Little's popularity as a Villa player, allied to a good track record in management, led "Deadly Doug" to declare recently that the job was Little's "until I turn up my toes".

That vote of confidence came shortly after Villa, championship hopefuls at the outset, had created a club record by losing the first four games of the season. Disappointing form in the League has not been helped by implied criticism of the manager by his own captain, Gareth Southgate, and a more blatant verbal attack on the club's record signing, Stan Collymore, by his fellow striker Savo Milosevic.

The one saving grace for Little in a wretched season has come in the Uefa Cup. Tonight's third round first leg against Steaua Bucharest in Romania coincides with the third anniversary of Little's appointment, and he makes no effort to mask the significance of the tie.

"I wish I could have my best team out there," he said - Southgate is injured, Sasa Curcic ill and goalkeeper Mark Bosnich on World Cup duty with Australia. "If we get through this round and put two or three decent League results together, everybody would go into Christmas and the new year feeling a million miles better than they've felt all season."

Little's honesty is endearing, and in public he prefers to stay laid- back, but if Bucharest turns out to be Villa's last excursion in Europe, the focus will switch inevitably to the manager's ability to motivate his talented squad, and Collymore in particular.

"I think people see a different side of me to what my players see," Little said in his defence. "I try very hard not to show too many emotions in front of the camera. I've built up an image of how a football manager should portray himself and I work at that all the time, playing the role the way I think it should be played. It's very hard to change.

"Stan wants to do well, but the problem is that even if he does reasonably well but doesn't score, people are making an issue of it. I have to say I still think it'll work. He has an unbelievable profile and the media make it harder for him, because if it isn't quite right it'll be totally wrong in their eyes. That's a better story."

So far, the fans have shown no sign of deserting either Collymore or Little, and Saturday's much needed win over Everton drew another healthy crowd. "I have a different relationship with the supporters here than most other managers have at their clubs," Little admitted.

"For whatever reason a lot of people seem to think myself and the club is a good partnership. But if it goes on - a degree of failure, if that's the word - then that could change. Even then, if it gets to the point where there is a split, I feel a lot of people would be genuinely sad.

"I'd always do what is best for this club, but I think if my back was up against the wall I'd fight. I don't think I'd lie down. People probably don't know that side of me, but I wouldn't give in to it. I wouldn't want to give it up."

Little's willingness even to contemplate the scenario suffered so recently by David Pleat and Gerry Francis is slightly surprising, but as a founder member of the League Managers' Association he takes a dispassionate view of the managerial merry-go-round.

"I try not to worry about it," he said. "I have a four-year contract here and it would be brilliant if I see it out. But we are going to see coaches changing a lot more frequently to provide different ideas and try different things, and people's mentality will come round to that.

"In Europe, for a long time managers and players have had a couple of years here and a couple of years there and it's been change, change, change. The British scene has been unique in that respect. But because we're now trying to compete with the top Italian clubs, we're going to have to go along with how the Europeans have always done it."

Villa are Britain's sole survivors in the Uefa Cup, but Little says has no time to worry about flying the flag: "We do know that the media spotlight will be on us again but, because of our present position, we also know that if we fail it could be blown up to be an even worse result than it is. We're worried from that point of view, but it's more selfish than a national thing.

"We feel their strength is their attacking play, and the fact that we are without two of our best defenders is concerning us, but if we can work out the right roles in the Yorke, Milosevic, Collymore combination we can score goals.

"At the moment we don't foresee a 0-0 in both games - we'd settle for that in the first leg, but we probably need to go to Bucharest and score. If we sit back too much in this game we'll pay the penalty, so our plan is to be as brave as we dare be in an away leg in Europe."