During a recent (Football Manager 2011) press conference to announce my first game in charge of Harrogate Town, I was asked about my thoughts of the Gainsborough Trinity manager Brian Little. Unsure whether it was the Brian Little, formerly of Darlington, Leicester and Aston Villa, I quickly ‘googled’ him on my phone and was surprised to see that it was indeed the very same fella. I commented that Brian was one of the good guys in football and the Trinity fans can be proud of their manager. I then put my budding Conference North management career on hold and looked a little further to find out whatever happened to Brian Little.
After spells as caretaker manager at both Wolves and Middlesbrough, Little’s first full time job was at Darlington where he replaced Dave Booth with the club rooted to the bottom of the 4th Division. Little was unable to prevent The Quakers from slipping in to the Conference, but he was able to mastermind an instant return to the Football League.
Darlington retained the vast majority of their squad following promotion, and were able to maintain their momentum and clinch a second successive title and promotion to the 3rd Division. At this time Little’s stock had risen and he was attracting the attention of clubs further up the Football League. A north-east lad, his work in the north-east was beginning to be noticed further afield. A month after Darlington were promoted to the 3rd Division, Little was appointed as the new manager of Leicester City who had narrowly escaped relegation to the 3rd Division themselves. Little transformed a Leicester side that had previously struggled in to a side that was in contention for an automatic promotion slot all season. Little’s Leicester side were unable to clinch a top two spot however and had to settle for a play-off berth, something that would become a regular occurrence during Little’s time at Filbert Street. Leicester lost the 1992 play-off final to a Blackburn Rovers side invigorated by the recent injection of the millions of steel magnet Jack Walker. Little regrouped and took Leicester back to the play-off final the following season, but The Foxes were again foiled, this time by Swindon Town. It was a case of third time lucky as Little led Leicester to the top flight via the play-offs at the third time of asking, The Foxes beating East Midlands rivals Derby County at Wembley.
Four months in to their Premier League season Little returned to what he described as his spiritual home, Villa Park. Little made 247 appearances scoring 60 goals in a ten year playing career at Aston Villa, and was overjoyed to be appointed manager in November 1994 following the sacking of Ron Atkinson.
When Little arrived at Villa Park the club was in turmoil sitting bottom of the Premier League. Villa had been unable to build on their runners up spot in the inaugural Premier League season and were bottom of the division when Little replaced Ron Atkinson. Little managed to drag Villa to last day survival with a 1-1 draw against already relegated Norwich City.
Long time Villa dictator Doug Ellis backed his manager following their survival and Little was able to bring Gary Charles, Ian Taylor and Savo Milocevic to Villa Park as well as signing Mark Draper for a second time, having initially took him to Leicester from Notts County. In addition to the new signings Little brought Mark Bosnich and Ugo Ehiogu in to
the first team squad to replace the likes of Nigel Spink and Shaun Teale. It was also under Little that Trinidad & Tobago international Dwight Yorke began to fulfil his undoubted potential. The new signings gelled and in his first full season Little led Villa to the now coveted 4th place in the Premier League, as well as League Cup final victory against Leeds United.
Little’s stock as a manager was on the rise after his impressive first season in the top
flight, and he was mentioned as a potential replacement for Terry Venables as England manager at the time, although that role would eventually go to Glenn Hoddle, Little’s tormentor from the play-off defeat Leicester suffered to Swindon Town. Although they were knocked out in the first round of the UEFA Cup, Villa had another successful season and finished 5th in 1996/1997. However, as the 1997/1998 season progressed it became clear that all was not well with Brian Little; his enthusiasm began to wane and Villa were treading water in the bottom half of the Premier League. It turns out that Little’s marriage to his first wife was breaking up which explained the loss of his usual enthusiasm for the game.
However, less than three months after tendering his resignation, Little was back in
football, pitching up at Stoke City. Stoke had just been relegated to the third tier of English football, and in a surprise move Little dropped down to Division Two to try and mastermind a return to the second tier for The Potters. The season started fantastically and at Christmas Stoke were sitting in an automatic promotion slot. However, rumours
of indiscretions with female club staff derailed the harmony at the club and a drastic collapse at the Britannia Stadium saw Stoke fall from top of the division to not even qualifying for the play-offs. Little tendered his resignation after the last game of the season.
Once again Little was back in work before the start of the season, taking over at
West Bromwich Albion prior to the 1999/2000 season. The Baggies had high hopes of being able to mount a promotion charge but struggled from the outset. Little and Albion were hit by the loss of influential midfielder Enzo Maresca to Juventus in the New Year, and with Albion languishing in the bottom half of the division Little was relieved of his
Little’s love of the game was beginning to show through, as he was back in employment
with Hull City less than a month after leaving the Hawthorns. Hull were in a dreadful predicament, in the lower reaches of the bottom tier of league football and locked of their ground by their owner. In January 2001 Little was forced to sell star players Theodore Whitman and Ian Goodison to ease the clubs debts. Little commented at the time “I had come in for the final game of the previous season and almost straight away it became clear there were problems. Those became a lot worse during the summer when the club were locked out of Boothferry Park by the landlord. It did leave me thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ But we knuckled down as a squad and just got on with it. Unfortunately, the financial situation didn’t get much better even though we were able to return to the ground before the season kicked off.” Hull City were unable to pay the players wages at the start of 2001 and appeared numerous times at the High Court, successfully staving off winding up orders. On March 11th 2001 Adam Pearson completed a take over of the club and wiped out the estimated £1.5m debts the club had as well as announcing ambitious plans for a new stadium. The new ownership stabilised the club and Little was able to build a squad to challenge for promotion. Little’s Tigers looked well on course to climb out of the bottom division, but in February 2002 Little left the club following a run of poor results.
Little took this chance to take an extended break from football, and was out of the
game for over a year, his longest spell since starting in management, before arriving at Prenton Park to take over from Ray Matthias as Tranmere Rovers manager. Little achieved short term success on his appointment, leading Rovers to an FA Cup quarter final in his first season. In his second season Little once again endured play-off heartbreak, losing over two legs to Hartlepool United in the semi-finals. Tranmere started the 2005/2006 season as the bookies favourites for promotion, but Little was unable to mastermind another successful campaign, instead steering the club to safety following a relegation battle. Little was again out of work at the end of a season, leaving the club by mutual consent. Little told the Tranmere Rovers website “I’ve thought about this long and hard over recent days and am sure this is right for the Club and for me personally. I’ve really enjoyed the last 3 seasons here, despite the problems we have had this season. The play offs last year and the quarter final FA Cup games against Millwall stand out. Finally, I would like to wish everyone at the Club every success for the future.” Ten years after leading Aston Villa in European competition, Brian Little was out of work after four posts outside of the top flight. Little may have looked back and wondered where it all went wrong; from being linked to the England job, Little was now fighting for jobs in the lower echelons of English football, and was linked to vacant roles at Port Vale and Gillingham.
It was however in North Wales where Little would pitch up next, taking over as
manager of League Two side Wrexham in November 2007. However, like Hull City previously, Wrexham were in financial crisis and Little was unable to do anything with a squad lacking in quality and depth, and at the end of the season Wrexham were relegated to the Conference following a defeat to Hereford United. Mirroring his time at Darlington almost twenty years previous, Little did promise to stay on at The Racecourse Ground and signed a two year contract, stating his desire to return the club to the football league. This time it was not to be, with Wrexham lacking any major investment, the club struggled in the lower reaches of the Conference and only eight weeks in to the new season, Little once again left a club through mutual consent.
Little was once again out of work for 11 months, before pitching up at an unlikely new
home, even by his nomadic standards. In August 2009 Little was appointed manager of Gainsborough Trinity by ambitious chairman Peter Swan. Trinity ply their trade in the Blue Square North, a feeder league of the Blue Square Premier, formerly known as the Conference. Little has been at Trinity for two seasons and has guided The Recreationists to 14th and 18th positions in the Blue Square North. 20 years since Little began building his
reputation at Darlington in non-league football, his career has come full circle as he once again battles at the less attractive end of the football pyramid.
It begs the question of whether Little was fortunate with circumstances at the start of his career, or unfortunate later on in his career? Little was able to build and keep together teams at Darlington, Leicester and Aston Villa, however football has changed at all levels of the game since Little first started up in management. Whether Little has been unable to adapt or has just made bad career choices is open to question. Compared to the likes of Glen Hoddle who started up in management only a few years after, Little’s career couldn’t be more different. Hoddle has stated that he has turned down 26 job offers whilst waiting for the right job. One this for certain is that Brian Little would certainly never have done so, as his CV demonstrates for itself. His career may not have evolved the way many expected after his time at Aston Villa, but Little himself has no regrets, telling The Independent in 2010 “ It’s gone and I’m very happy with my life. Most things I’ve done, I did because I wanted to. Very few people have told me what to do”. Little hasn’t ruled out a return to top-class football, but asserts that it wouldn’t be as a manager, rather as a ‘father figure’ for a young manager.