Brian Little walks on water

Brian Little is revered at Aston Villa. Few men come close to his position at the summit of supporters’ affections and none have earned their adulation as both player and manager. Indeed, Little is regarded by many as Villa’s greatest ever player.

In the first half of the 1990s young Villa supporters were only too happy to invest Paul McGrath with that title, with some justification. Their elders frequently sounded a note of doubt.

“If only you’d seen Brian Little. Now there was a player.”

For all the wizardry of Gordon Cowans, for all the high achievement of Dennis Mortimer and the Villa side of the early 1980s, it’s only really McGrath who has a claim to Little’s crown. When the two were united as player and manager in the mid-1990s, Villa won their most recent trophy. They’ve seldom come close since.

Newcastle-born Little started his professional life at Villa Park in 1970 and grew into the player every young Villa supporter wants to be, whether they know it or not. He signed for the club at its lowest ebb, fighting his way into the first team during their spell in the Football League’s Third Division.

His achingly short playing career was punctuated by both successes and injuries. Villa returned to the First Division in 1975 and won the League Cup the same year. Little scored twenty league goals in the promotion season and played, just once, for England.

In 1977 they won the League Cup again, taking the long way round to beat Everton in the final’s second replay. Little was the difference between the sides when it finally counted, scoring twice and putting in a display that’s still spoken about in B6 today.

Little was a sensational talent. He was Villa’s George Best, a player who would thrive today simply by not spending every Saturday afternoon getting kicked up in the air.

Elegance, thy name is Little. He was a master on the ball and had the touch and turn to craft something out of nothing. His instincts were as flawless as his skills; the winning goal in the 1977 League Cup, albeit with both teams understandably out on their feet, was the greatest example.

It was a tap-in, unmarked, with the goalkeeper stranded. But it was Little’s awareness and intelligence that made it happen.

He was a finisher, too. He always seemed to find the time and composure to transform a good chance into an unmissable one, making him lethal in the penalty area. But Little also had an eye for the spectacular and scored some of Villa Park’s finest goals.

And then it was all over.

Little’s retirement in 1980, at the age of 27, foreshadowed Gary Shaw’s premature Villa finale, also the result of a knee injury. It robbed Little not of Villa’s trophy-laden early 1980s period but a transfer across town to Birmingham City, where his medical identified the problem that proved one too far to continue.

Instead, he soon returned to Villa as a youth team coach under Tony Barton before moving to Wolverhampton Wanderers and into management.

In 1991 Little was appointed by Leicester City after leaving Darlington and Villa replaced Dr Jozef Venglos with Ron Atkinson. Three years before it happened, Little’s reunion with the club he loved was mutually one step away. But it was Atkinson who guided Villa into football’s new era.

The Today supporters’ handbook for the very first season of what was then the FA Premier League described Villa as “superb one week, woeful the next”, a pendulous characteristic that carried such weight that it was projected as the defining feature of the team.

It didn’t apply in 1992/93. Villa’s best team since 1982 finished second and were sorely disappointed not to go one better. The next season Atkinson’s side fell away in the league, taking tenth spot and collecting 35 points fewer than champions Manchester United.

They did, though, win the League Cup for the fourth time. The League Cup and Villa had always felt like they were connected. Liverpool had also won it four times but their pickings elsewhere weren’t nearly so slim as Villa’s, so the sparkle was dulled in comparison.

Despite that triumph the cracks were beginning to show in Atkinson’s management and a chasm emerged between expectations and reality in the 1994/95 season.

His team was built around veteran players and his relationship with chairman Doug Ellis grew more sour by the week as Villa slid towards the relegation zone. With Villa shamed in the UEFA Cup, “Deadly Doug” pulled the trigger in November 1994. Officially, it was the last time he sacked a manager.

Little’s appointment as Atkinson’s replacement was a popular one, but not universally so. Given Villa’s difficulties at the time and Little’s progress at Filbert Street, not to mention his gargantuan bank of goodwill, it’s perhaps surprising that there was a sliver of dissent from a faction of supporters who welcomed him reluctantly because of their fondness for Big Ron.

That tells you all you need to know about the esteem in which Little’s predecessor was and is held at the club. His second-placed Premier League finish was the pinnacle of Villa’s post-Taylor era, a feat not easily forgotten by those who lived it and loved it. Little couldn’t match that but it shouldn’t take away from the achievements of the club under his stewardship.

Villa’s Premier League survival in 1994/95, the season in which four teams were relegated in order to reduce the top division to twenty, was no overnight success. Little steadied the ship with an unbeaten run of eight matches between Boxing Day and the end of January but the second half of the season was every bit as much of a slog as the first.

A 7–1 home win over Wimbledon in February was the highlight and showed the capabilities of the team’s star players, but an embarrassing collapse in a 4–4 home draw against Leicester — never before or since has a draw felt so inevitable from a three-goal advantage — triggered a slump. Villa won just one of their next ten matches.

In the second half of April consecutive losses to Chelsea, Arsenal and Leeds United left Villa in the most precarious of positions. They avoided relegation by three points and Little quickly set about bringing down the squad’s average age, a problem he’d identified as central to Atkinson’s downfall.

Having already brought in effervescent forward Tommy Johnson, midfielder Ian Taylor, left back Alan Wright, right back Gary Charles and winger Franz Carr, Little added three more signings in the summer of 1995.

Pundits and supporters were underwhelmed — it’s said that Dennis Bergkamp and Paul Gascoigne were among the original targets and turned Villa down — but the new trio certainly made their mark.

Mark Draper followed Little from Leicester after catching the eye for the Foxes in their single Premier League campaign. Gareth Southgate, so often a midfielder at the time, made the switch from Crystal Palace and established himself as one of the best 3–5–2 defenders around.

As for Savo Milosevic, the young Serbian striker signed from Partizan Belgrade and hyped up to eleven, bandana and all, his explosive spell at Villa was just the beginning.

The first day of the 1995/96 season threatened to make Villa a minor player in another team’s story. Debutant Milosevic went off with a dead leg just after half time but Villa were already 3–0 up against Manchester United.

Draper’s debut goal was sandwiched between Taylor’s opener and Dwight Yorke’s penalty, prompting Alan Hansen’s notorious “They’ve got problems” and “You can’t with anything with kids” comments on Match Of The Day. David Beckham’s consolation, his first Premier League goal, was more portentous.

Little’s revitalised squad did plenty more winning of their own. Finishing fourth in the FA Carling Premiership represented a staggering improvement from the doldrums of the previous season despite Villa flagging after the spring.

There was no long winning streak, no unbeaten stand upon which to build, just a solid habit of winning near enough every other game.

Some wins stood out more than others. Milosevic scored five times in two games against Coventry City and twice in Villa’s rout of West Ham United. Champions Blackburn Rovers were matched at Ewood Park thanks to another Milosevic goal, and then beaten in the return game in February.

Qualification for the UEFA Cup through the league would have been a solid achievement in its own right but it was the cups that made Little’s Villa.

They reached the FA Cup semi-final for the first time in 36 years and did so without being drawn at home. The Third Round match against Gravesend and Northfleet was played at Villa Park but victories at Sheffield United, Ipswich Town and Nottingham Forest were required to secure a semi-final place.

Liverpool 3–0 Aston Villa was a familiar scoreline. Villa began March 1996 on the end of two goals from 21-year-old Robbie Fowler in a woeful league defeat that took all of seven minutes. They ended it at Old Trafford having suffered the same fate again, albeit without the dismal performance to match.

But there was already a trophy in the cabinet. Villa saw off Peterborough United, Stockport County, Queens Park Rangers and Wolverhampton Wanderers to reach a two-legged Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against fancied Arsenal.

The dramatic tie was won at Highbury, where a 2–2 draw gave Villa the away goals that proved crucial. The tension of the second leg, drawn 0–0 and played on a knife-edge from start to finish, was claustrophobic.

Their progress to the final in 1995/96 was painstakingly charted not only in the club’s official celebratory VHS but in the scrapbooks of countless young supporters. Getting to a cup final, even the League Cup final, still meant the world.

Silverware was the beginning and the end, the whole point of football. Wembley was still the promised land.

Just as a 3–0 league defeat to Liverpool pointed to Villa’s FA Cup exit, a 3–0 league win over Leeds United foretold Coca-Cola Cup triumph.

Howard Wilkinson was questioned about his tactics and team selection at Wembley. Villa, though, were spectacular. Milosevic’s stop-start introduction to England burst into life with arguably the best goal Villa have ever scored at Wembley, a left-footed rifle into the top corner with 20 minutes gone.

A second-half cushion was established by Yorke ten minutes after the break, and Villa supporter Taylor ended the contest with an emotionally-charged late third.

For Villa supporters it was a second trophy in three years after what seemed, then, like a fallow period. But they shouldn’t have been surprised. Little made no substitutions that day. The full game was played by a Villa side that has a claim to be as good as any since 1982, Atkinson’s team included.

Mark Bosnich was phenomenal for Villa. Wing backs Charles and Wright have infrequently, if ever, been replaced with any level of adequacy. A defensive unit of Southgate, McGrath and Ugo Ehiogu was every bit as solid as it sounds.

Draper and Taylor offered craft and industry in midfield. Yorke and Milosevic made their mark in the only way they knew.

Yet it was Andy Townsend, Villa’s skipper, who stole the show. His performance combined culture with courage and earned him the day’s Alan Hardaker Trophy as well as the right to lift the real deal in front of Villa’s ecstatic Wembley support.

Just as Little’s Villa spluttered into life in 1995, so it started to stall in the 1996/97 season. Stan Collymore and Sasa Curcic, expensively acquired both, would become the poster boys for Little’s backwards progress after the heights of Wembley. Johnson’s exit, along with the sale of a still elegant but waning McGrath, hardly helped.

The shock of a UEFA Cup loss to Helsingborg in 1996 lingered at Villa Park but they qualified again by finishing fifth in the Premiership. After guiding his team past Bordeaux, Athletic Bilbao and Steaua Bucharest, Little’s tenure succumbed to Villa’s poor league position in February 1998.

John Gregory, a former team-mate of Little and a senior member of his Villa coaching staff until he took the manager’s job at Wycombe Wanderers after the Coca-Cola Cup win, returned to the club and oversaw an away-goals loss to Atletico Madrid in the quarter-final.

But he turned the team’s league form around enough to secure another UEFA Cup spot and went on to establish Villa as league leaders for a time in 1998/99. It was the peak of Gregory’s period in charge, which ended in 2002 with criticism of his style of play echoing around the stadium.

Little, meanwhile, bounced to Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Hull City, then moved to Tranmere Rovers — a club who’d played such a part in Villa’s original Coca-Cola Cup story under Atkinson — in 2003. He later returned to Villa Park in an advisory role.

Little shouldn’t be managing Wrexham or Gainsborough Trinity. He shouldn’t be Jersey’s Director of Football. He should, if he so wishes, be at Villa Park, imparting his decades of effortlessly acquired cultural knowledge of the club where he’s adored like nobody else.

In a sense, it’s fitting that Villa’s last trophy was won under Little. It came in an era in which winning the League Cup still meant something, everything, to clubs of their stature. To have that moment of glory with a club icon at the helm was truly special.

Paul McGrath might be God. Only Brian Little walks on water.

Chris Nee is the Founder and Managing Editor of Sphinx Football, a platform for football podcasts. He hosts The Stiles Council podcast about the England national team.