Football: The Little and Little Show; FIRST NIGHT; ALAN LITTLE AND BRIAN LITTLE

Stoke v York is being billed as the brother of all football battles. By Simon Turnbull
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The Independent Online
Being a little brother is never easy. Being the little Little brother is even harder. Alan Little has spent his entire football career living in the shadow of big brother.

The life of Brian has featured glory on the pitch, as a long-haired Villan of international standing, and glory off it too, with a League Cup win and three top-seven Premiership placings among the managerial credits. The glory game has not been quite so rewarding for Alan. His playing days peaked in 1972 - as a member of Aston Villa's FA Youth Cup winning side, in which Brian was the star. And his management life has been spent outside England's top two divisions - far from the madding Premiership crowds at York City.

On Saturday, though, Alan's professional path crosses Brian's. The Second Division fixture at Stoke's Britannia Stadium could be described as the brother of all managerial battles. "It won't be the first time we've been in opposition," Alan said, rocking back in the manager's chair at Bootham Crescent. "We played against each other at school in County Durham. We went to different schools in Peterlee; I was at Dene House and our Brian was at Acre Rig. We played in the same district side, though, and then in the youth team at Aston Villa. We've also been on opposite sides as coaches. When I was in charge of the youth team at Hartlepool, Brian was Middlesbrough's youth coach and when I looked after the reserves here Brian was second-team coach at Middlesbrough. But this time it's different, of course.

"Nobody seems to know if it's the first time two brothers have been against each other as managers in an English League game. I can't think of it happening before. It'll certainly be pretty unique - the two of us on the touchline together.

"People have been asking, 'What's it going to be like?' 'How are you going to approach it?' 'What does it mean to you?' I can answer quite easily. For me, it means going to Stoke to get a result against another team. I won't get any greater pleasure if we win the game, just because Brian's their manager. I'm sure it's the same for Brian. In fact, I think there's more likely to be sympathy after the game if one of us wins, because we'll have taken points off the other."

Both brothers, indeed, can ill- afford to drop points. Brian's Stoke team are leading the promotion race at the top of the table and Alan's York side are too close to the relegation zone for comfort, having collected just a solitary point from their last six games. The sibling rivalry, though, will be felt most keenly in Wingate, County Durham. Not wishing to see either son suffer the disappointment of defeat, Alan Little Snr and his wife, Ellen, will be shredding nerves at home when Saturday comes.

"They'll probably lock the doors, turn off the telly and the radio and let the afternoon pass by," Alan Jnr mused. "Then, when the game's over, they'll be hoping to find out it's been a draw. They used to come and watch us when we played against each other at school but it's different now that we're managers. They've become aware of the pressures in football management. They saw all the hype Brian had when he left Leicester to go to Villa. They've seen me under pressure as a manager too. And that must be worrying for parents.

"I think they're very proud that they've got two sons in football and they're proud of their other son and their daughter too. Our Ken, in fact, was very close to being a footballer. He had trials with Preston and he was promised an apprenticeship with Villa before a new chief scout arrived and took on someone else instead. So there could well have been three Little brothers at Villa."

Alan made just two Second Division appearances for Villa before Ron Saunders told him that, at 19, he was not good enough to make it to the top-flight with the Birmingham club. While Brian became a hero-worshipped Villan, and collected one England cap as a substitute for Mick Channon against Wales at Wembley in 1975, Alan played the rest of his senior career as a tough-tackling midfield journeyman in the lower divisions - with Southend, Barnsley, Doncaster, Torquay and Hartlepool.

"It's never bothered me, being in Brian's shadow," he insisted. "I'm not jealous in any way. I'm quite proud, actually, that my brother's been so successful and that he's achieved what he has. He was always a quality footballer. I knew from a young age he was going to be a better footballer from me. He had the flair and the skill. He had everything. I was a tackler, a competitive ball winner. I never thought I could do what Brian could because I had different attributes. I was just pleased to make a career out of them."

Alan - at 43, Brian's junior by a year - has made a good career out of his managerial attributes too. Since succeeding John Ward in March 1993, he has guided York to a Wembley play-off win, to famous League Cup victories against Manchester United and Everton and kept the Minstermen in the Second Division for five seasons. He has done so with modest means at his disposal, average gates around the 3,000 mark not allowing for such luxuries as the pounds 7m his brother could afford to spend on Stan Collymore at Aston Villa.

York, out of necessity, are a selling, not a buying club. And they have sold well in the five years and eight months of Little's stewardship, holding their place above the basement division while generating vital finance from the transfers of Jon McCarthy, Dean Kiely, Paul Barnes, Graeme Murty and Jonathan Greening. "We need the money we get from the transfer market to balance the books," Little said. "The gates just aren't big enough. We have to bring youngsters through and sell them on, though I always get a bit to plough back in on replacements.

"Staying in this division is not easy for a small club like ours with limited resources. We haven't got a lot of players and when we've got two or three out it's very difficult. We're having a tough spell at the moment but I see us getting through it because we've got some really good players here. Richard Cresswell has got nine goals for us this season and he's just 21. The way the market is, and with everyone looking for strikers, he may be the next one on the money train. We'll have to see. The important thing is that we maintain our position in the Second Division."

The Bootham Crescent natives have become restive at times, not least during York's depressing run of late, but Little has maintained his current position longer than all but six of his fellow Nationwide and Premier League managers: Dario Gradi, John Rudge, Alex Ferguson, Brian Flynn, Joe Kinnear and Alan Curbishley. It would not, however, be fair to say that he has truly made a name for himself.

"People still call me Brian," he said, laughing. "I turn up for games and they say, 'Hello, Brian. How are you, Brian?' I just say, 'I'm fine, thank you'. I don't even correct them." It will be different on Saturday, of course, with big brother waiting to greet him - and the small matter of a Little family dispute to resolve.

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