Brian Viner: Little's roller-coaster ride swings back to big time of FA Cup

Much-travelled manager faces Premiership opposition again as Second Divison Tranmere entertain Bolton today
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The Rovers versus the Wanderers in the third round of the FA Cup... whoever said that there was no romance left in football?

And just to spike this particular romance with a bit of passion, the last time Tranmere met Bolton in a cup competition, the two managers, John Aldridge and Sam Allardyce, all but challenged each other to pistols at dawn. That was the semi-final of the League Cup four years ago, which the Birkenhead club won emphatically over two legs. In the same remarkable season, Tranmere also reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup.

Since then, a sheepskin (I believe that is the correct collective noun) of managers have come and gone at Prenton Park. The man in charge now is Brian Little, who played for only one League club, Aston Villa, yet has coached or managed at nine. They are - it would make a good quiz question - Villa, whom he served as youth coach and later as manager, Wolves, Middlesbrough (as coach), Darlington, Leicester, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion, Hull and Tranmere. Not for the Durham-born Little any of your fancy dan southern clubs.

I am early for our meeting at Prenton Park, which gives me a chance to inspect the Tranmere trophy cabinet. Fortunately, I'm not too early, because it doesn't take much time, although I'm sure the Wedgwood Keele Classic Boys Under-14s trophy 1994 was richly deserved and properly celebrated.

I don't mean to be snide. After all, the wall is festooned with photographs of some truly great Tranmere players of the past, among them Dixie Dean, Ian St John, Ron Yeats and Roy McFarland. Their names remain associated with bigger clubs, but not Tranmere. No, the point I'm trying to make is that Little has had to get used to humbler surroundings and humbler traditions since leaving Villa Park six years ago.

Indeed, when we sit down in a small, spartan office he answers the phone to a woman who asks for a pot of tea for two. "You've got the wrong number," he tells her. "This is the manager's office." So making the tea is not among his duties at Tranmere, then? Little chuckles. He is a genial, obliging fellow. "No. Mind, I've done all that before. I used to have to pack the kit away at Darlington."

Today, even if it's for one day only, Little is back where he used to belong, plotting the downfall of a Premiership team. Such are the vicissitudes of the FA Cup. In the second round Tranmere were the giants, decidedly lucky to scrape through against lowly Hornchurch. Now they have a chance to be giant-killers. I ask Little how he has prepared the team for the Bolton game?

"The same as I always do. I prepared the Tranmere players for Sheffield Wednesday last Sunday the same as I did Aston Villa for European games. You see some managers doing things different before a big game, taking the players away somewhere, but I'm not into all that. We study the opposition to see what we need to do on the training field. Our chief scout was at Bolton on Sunday, although we all know the Premiership teams because we see so much of them on television.

"But what we do is far more important than what they do," he points out. "We're not going to try to outplay them, we're going to try to frustrate them, make it hard for them. That's usually how a team from a lower division gets something from a game like this."

Little was 17 when he first played for Aston Villa, 25 when his cruciate ligament gave way and took his playing career with it, a career which included one England cap as a substitute - the 2-2 draw with Wales in the 1975 Home Internationals. He is 50 now. I ask him what his abiding memories are of the third round of the Cup?

"I remember taking Villa to Gravesend & Northfleet," he says. "We won 3-0, but we got booed off and they did laps of honour. I don't think I've been on either side of a big giant-killing, although I remember losing at Brighton [in the League Cup] when I was at Leicester. Liam Brady was their manager and they were bottom of the Second Division. That was probably the worst result I've had. The best was probably getting a draw with Swindon when I was at Darlington. Swindon were going well then, with [Ossie] Ardiles as manager."

Darlington, under Little, had only just returned from a season in the Conference; it was his first managerial appointment. He can't think, he says, of many men who have managed all the way up from the Conference to the Premiership. "Only Martin. Martin O'Neill. And he's gone one better by going up to Scotland."

The other difference is that his near contemporary O'Neill is still at the top of his profession. "But I have no hang-ups about managing at places like Hull," Little insists. "In fact I went to Hull with the specific objective to show that I could manage at any level in any circumstances.

"Basically, I don't care what people think. It's the same job with the same emotions, and the same ambition to win each game. But there's no doubt that it's hardest at the top end. Everyone's writing about you, talking about you. If we lose a match here, not many people will be bothered what I'm doing the day after. That's why I don't get paid as much. They get miles more in the Premiership, but there's territory with that. I'm not saying I wouldn't do it again, but I'm more relaxed now than for many years."

Whether Tranmere will reap the benefits of having a newly relaxed Little at the helm remains to be seen. Certainly, another thrilling Cup run would lift a fairly uninspiring season, although I suspect he, unlike the fans, would take maximum points from the next couple of League games in preference to a glorious win today. All managers know that, ultimately, it is only League form that counts.

On the other hand, Hull's League position wasn't bad when Little was sacked in 2002. "That knocked the stuffing out of me, to be honest," he admits. "I loved it there, even though the club was in administration and we weren't paid for four months. I took them into the play-offs and we were in the top six when I was sacked. It disappointed me to the point where I thought I had to take a breather, and luckily I got plenty of work with Sky, which I enjoyed. But after a year away from the game I had to get back. So I sent off my cv to a number of clubs. The Wycombe job was available, too. And Reading, I think."

It would not have seemed right, somehow, for Little to wind up in the Thames Valley. The gloomy banks of the Mersey seem more appropriate for such a fully paid-up northerner, to whom even Birmingham must have seemed a long way south when he joined Villa as a kid.

It is Villa Park, understandably, where his heart still lies. And diplomatically, he declines to enter the debate about whether his former chairman, Doug Ellis, should stay or go. "That's a matter for Doug. I like Doug, he makes me laugh. And I found him very good to work for. Yes, he could make you scream sometimes. If there was a bee in his bonnet you couldn't wait for it to go away, because he'd go on and on and on. But I had more laughs with him than fall-outs. And I can't forget that he gave me a job, which I think I deserved to have and I think I did well. I took Villa to fourth and fifth in the Premiership, won the Coca-Cola [Cup]. [His successor] John Gregory's second game was the quarter-final of the Uefa Cup against Atletico Madrid."

As for Ellis, Little has affectionate memories of sitting in the chairman's office while he negotiated with his Crystal Palace counterpart, Ron Noades, for the services of Gareth Southgate. "The way they did that deal was frightening. I remember Doug threw in a line which saved him 50 grand on a transfer of well over £2m, and came off the phone with a smug smile on his face. Southgate was a fantastic signing for us. He was a midfield player when he came but I moved him to centre-back because I saw in him someone who sensed danger. Within four months he was an England international and he hasn't looked back. Whether he appreciates that I don't know." A brief rueful pause. "I don't need appreciation."

Little himself gives grudging appreciation to the late Ron Saunders, his own manager at Villa, for passing on a certain footballing ethos. "I find myself quoting him which makes me laugh, because me and Ron used to fall out for fun. There are so many things he did that I would never do. But some of his techniques I use. I find myself saying 'We're 1-0 up, so let's win 1-0'. When I was a player I disagreed with that. He's had a bigger influence on me than I ever would have imagined."

He concedes more readily the influence of Bruce Rioch, who appointed him to the coaching staff at Middlesbrough. "Bruce and [his assistant] Colin Todd were fantastic. Their appetite for work was incredible." And yet Rioch, I venture, appears to have been cast off the managerial merry-go-round. "Yeah, it's a surprise. But at Boro Bruce ran the place and the chairman, who was also the chairman of ICI, was fine about that.

"Since then, the job has changed, and maybe that's why Bruce is out of it. Like him, I learned early on just to run the thing. If I could do a deal on a loan player, knowing that I could move someone else on, I would just do it. These days chairmen and chief executives want to make those decisions with you. Even over minor things. They call you and say 'I hear this or that is happening' and you say 'Yeah', so they say 'Well, hang on, let's talk about it'. I'm not saying it was better the way it was, but it's changed.

His implication, though, is clearly that the manager's role is diminished. In some ways, perhaps, it suits him not to be dealing with multi-millionaires every day. He talks fondly of the morning he haggled over £5 a week in a player's wage packet at Darlington, but incredulously of the time he and Ellis concluded Aston Villa's first £20,000-a-week pay deal, with Dwight Yorke and his representatives. "We looked at each other, Doug and I, and said 'What's happening to this game?'. And since then, in the six years since I was in the Premiership, it's gone through the roof again."

He smiles wistfully. "I can't help comparing things with when I was playing. We were just ordinary lads doing OK for ourselves, living on the same streets as everyone else. When I retired in 1980 I had a three-bedroomed detached house, mine without a mortgage. But that was it. End of story."

As for the story of Tranmere Rovers v Bolton Wanderers, it could be that another compelling chapter is about to begin. Whatever, if Tranmere go 1-0 up and Little duly barks his instructions, the ghost of Ron Saunders will surely look down on Prenton Park not with a smile, for he didn't go in for smiling much, but at least with grim satisfaction.

BRIAN LITTLE THE LIFE AND TIMES

Born: Horden, County Durham on 25 November 1953.

1969: Joins Aston Villa as an apprentice.

1971: March: Signs as professional for Villa. 30 October: Plays the first of 301 games for Villa as a substitute against Blackburn Rovers. Scored 82 goals.

1975: Wins League Cup with Villa beating Norwich 1-0 at Wembley. Won his only England cap, coming on as a substitute against Wales.

1977: Another League Cup-winner's medal, scoring twice as Villa beat Everton 3-2 in a second replay at Old Trafford after two draws.

1979: Serious knee injury forces early retirement.

1986: Goes into coaching with Villa. Also coaches Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he is appointed caretaker manager; loses only one of his eight games in charge but leaves when Graham Turner is given the manager's job.

1989: Given the opportunity to prove himself as a manager when handed the task of taking Darlington back into the Football League after their relegation to the Conference.

1990: Steers Darlington to the Conference title and an immediate return to the Football League.

1991: Continues remarkable start in management by taking Darlington to the Fourth Division title. His success is noticed by bigger clubs and he leaves the North-east to become the manager of Leicester.

1994: More success as he steers Leicester into the Premiership but he leaves the Foxes. 25 November: Appointed manager of Aston Villa.

1996: Villa win League Cup by beating Leeds 3-0 in the final, reach FA Cup semi-finals and finish fourth in the Premiership.

1998: 24 February: Resigns as Aston Villa manager.

April: Appointed manager of Stoke City and leads them into the 1998-99 season. Makes good start, taking the team to the top of the table after six straight wins and holding the position until December. But results deteriorate and a finishing place of eighth leads to Little's departure after a year in charge.

1999: 3 August: Becomes manager of West Bromwich Albion on a two-year contract. The Baggies remain unbeaten for the first nine League games, but only two of those games are won. Then defeat at home by Walsall leaves them 16th and they struggle from there onwards.

2000: 6 March: Little sacked after 3-0 home defeat by Birmingham leaves West Bromwich in the relegation zone. 25 April: Joins Hull City as manager but walks into a financial crisis which eventually leads to the club being shut out of its Boothferry Park ground. Despite the problems, which are finally resolved when the club is taken over in March 2001, Hull reach the play-offs but lose to Leyton Orient. After a promising start to the following season, the team starts to falter and by February even the play-offs look beyond them. 27 February: Little is sacked.

2003: October: Appointed manager of Tranmere Rovers with the club 21st in Second Division after two wins in first 13 matches. December: Rovers finish year in 15th place with seven wins from 24 games.

He says: "I was out of football for 18 months. At times I genuinely feared I wouldn't get back in."

Peter Parker

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