Reformed rebel Little still longing to let his hair down

Glenn Moore meets the man who has turned from cavalier player to roundhead manager of Aston Villa
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The Independent Online
It was put to Brian Little, as he prepared to face a 50-strong media inquisition in the build-up to tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup final against Leeds, that this was the price of success.

"Not yet, it isn't," he responded, and even his soft Durham burr could not disguise the fact that this was a man who had learned, through bitter experience, never to take anything for granted.

There are two ways of looking at Brian Little's career. The positive considers 300-plus matches with Aston Villa, 82 goals, a promotion and two League Cup winners' medals, and international recognition. It adds two championships and a promotion as a manager and the current Villa revival. The negative dwells on a talented player who failed to fulfil his potential and was then cruelly cut down through injury at 26.

He seemed sprinkled with stardust when, having won the World Youth Cup with England, he was capped at 21. But he played just 20 international minutes. The season after his injury Villa lifted the League title. They went on to win the European Cup, while Little was selling Villa lottery tickets from a Mini Metro.

When he turned to management he was sacked two months into his first job and was a phone call away from leaving the game. Even after he found success, there was pain in the controversial move from Leicester to Villa.

All of which explains the transformation from cavalier player to roundhead manager. To meet Little now is to meet an accountant from central casting. He has short, greying hair, is neatly dressed, quietly-spoken, and exudes diligence and intelligence. The only thing Flashy about him is the name of his alsatian.

Yet, dig into the Match of the Day archives and there he is, shirt flapping outside his shorts, hair long even by the standards of the hirsute 1970s, at times a full beard and moustache. Off the field he had a rebellious streak and regularly fell out with Ron Saunders, the manager.

"He was not someone I thought would be a manager," admits Allan Evans, his former team-mate and now assistant at Villa. Doug Ellis, the Villa chairman who hired Little as manager a quarter of a century after signing him as an apprentice, said the change was down to "maturity. As one gets older one does not do crazy things but you expect it from youngsters."

He was also, recalled Ellis, "quiet, modest, almost shy, but I knew he had a terrific tough streak. Discipline-wise I do not think you would find a stronger manager in the country. He does not say much but, by God, when he does they jump to attention."

"He is fair. He never slaughters players in public," said Evans, "but he will have a go behind closed doors."

Little took over at Villa in November 1994 with the team sliding towards relegation. He quickly brought in several young players and the drop was narrowly averted. Further re-building took place in the summer but the foundations for this season's success were laid at the Bodymoor Heath training ground. He would take the team on long walks, explaining what was required of them, then he, John Gregory and Evans, would split up, taking forwards, midfielders and defenders respectively, and working on the system. Come the first day of the season, Villa, playing three central defenders with wing-backs, three midfielders and twin strikers, faced Manchester United. They were were 3-0 up at half-time. "It has all stemmed from there," Little said. "Confidence is a big factor in football, going out there knowing you can do well.

"We have a group of players who want to progress, who want to be something. They are led by several guys who have been at the top and have a lot to offer. Most of the new lads are young international players whose previous clubs have not had the best of times. They have real talent, we have given them a stage, an opportunity to blossom."

While he could sign such players as Mark Draper, Gareth Southgate, Gary Charles and Tommy Johnson, more established talents could not be tempted. "We tried to get Les Ferdinand but he preferred Newcastle. I could understand that. But I hope, if we are trying to sign a player like that this summer, he will want to come to Villa Park."

It is one of the players he inherited who has shone brightest: Dwight Yorke. "He is revelling in the confidence we have in him. People say he is shy; he is anything but. He is a happy fellow and very talented. Some of the things he does are incredible. The other day he was standing in a dustbin keeping the ball up on his head 200 times taking fivers off everybody. Giving him confidence - and keeping it in check - will bring the best from him."

Little himself was a less explosive player. Ellis likens him to John White, the Tottenham inside-forward who was killed by lightning while playing golf. "They both ghosted into positions, he had a great deal of pace over five or 10 yards," Ellis said.

The chairman appears to regard himself as a father figure to Little, which is not surprising since he first knew him as a 14-year-old trialist, watched him court and marry Heather, a former Villa secretary, and signed his brother, Alan, unseen, just to get Brian.

"The day of the signing his mum and dad came down and I remember his mother saying, 'I'm very sorry, Mr Ellis, Brian will not sign for Villa. He does not want to leave home.'

"He had already been with us 18 months as a schoolboy and I said: 'We can't have that. He may be shy the first few days but he will soon get over it'.

"She said: 'I'm very sorry but he won't leave. Now, if it was our Alan, he would go anywhere'." At which point Ellis asked if Alan could play football. Mrs Little said yes, he's very good, but Villa's chief scout said there was no record of him. Ellis turned to Mrs Little and said: "If I take Alan, will Brian sign?

"She said: 'That's different,' so I took Alan. He was with us three years and I sold him for pounds 8,000 to Southend, which was a lot of money then." Alan Little, the elder by two years, now manages York City.

Brian stayed to make the England team but his potential went unfulfilled. "I never achieved what I should have done as a player," he said. "Even before the damaged knee finished me I did not make the most of what I had. Not that I was a bad lad, I was just a bit laid back. My motivation now comes from the memory of those days, that is why I try so hard to do my job properly."

It is also because he feared he would never get the chance. After being sacked by Wolves - after seven matches as caretaker-manager - he took a job as a car salesman. Before he could start Bruce Rioch, a former team- mate, then manager at Middlesbrough, asked him to become reserve-team coach.

That led to a job at Darlington, who had just been relegated to the Conference. "I knew if I failed, I might not get the chance to manage again." First he fired 20 players in an hour - "The first two took me 40 minutes, then I realised they did not want all the bull. The rest walked in and I gave them their letters."

Then he spent pounds 400 of his own money on a set of ties and towels in club colours. "I wanted the players to feel good about themselves." Little also carried the goalposts to training on a local park. The reward was successive promotions, the first, crucial one, clinched with a goal three minutes from time at Welling United.

That now seems long ago. Little is back at the club he loves, and at Wembley. There is just one thing troubling him. "I would still like to have my hair long, but it doesn't really go with the job," he confessed.

Still a rebel at heart, but a mature one.