Dave Collett writes about the departure of a legend.
February 21st 1998,
If playing for your favourite football team remains a dream for most, there’s always the second prize of managing them instead. And if you aren’t good enough to do either, imagine how it would feel to have done both. Oh, and doing stints in the club shop, coaching the Villa kids as well as acting as Adviser to the Board in more recent times. It makes you wonder if Brian Little ever did anything in his life that didn’t involve Aston Villa Football Club.
His wonderful dash and skill as a striker made him a Villa immortal. Forced to retire through injury just as Villa were entering their greatest period in their history, he moved to the other side of the touchline and worked his way into management. Success at Darlington was followed by taking Leicester into the Premiership. When Ron Atkinson’s time was up and Villa came calling, few begrudged him a move back to the place he loved. Apart from Leicester fans, but then they’ve always come across as a bit odd.
1997-98 was to be the breakout season. Having finished fourth and fifth in the previous two years, the feeling was we weren’t too far off the clubs above us; any discernible improvement could see Villa challenging for the top. The situation of the manager, Brian Little, was secure. After all, this was the man who had saved us from relegation, albeit on the last day of the 1994-95 season. It had been a bumpy ride after he had taken over Ron Atkinson’s ageing squad but his rebuilding of the side with a strong element of youthful players who had plenty to prove at the top level was a roaring success. Villa had to settle for fourth place the following year but this rejuvenated side, with Dwight Yorke proving a huge success in the central striker role meant not only winning but playing attractive football to boot. With two long cup runs to enjoy, one of them taking us all the way to Wembley success, both present and future looked in good shape and in good hands. If there was one criticism, it was that the squad wasn’t quite strong enough for a season involving so many games.
Not much was done to address this issue aside from the summer signing of the mercurial Bolton midfielder Sasa Curcic. The later signing of Carl Tiler seemed an odd one, as Villa were well stocked with good quality centre-backs. Perhaps it was thought that young lads like Hendrie and Farrelly would come into the picture. It may seem a strange thing to say, bearing in mind Villa’s current position but there was a slight air of disappointment with a fifth-place finish. It had been an uneven course, Villa getting off to a good start but then hitting a bumpy spell, not helped with the rumoured on/off transfer of big Serbian striker Savo Milosevic who was supposed to be on his way to Italian club Perugia until the deal was called off. Villa then put together a run of five straight wins (three of them away) to come back into contention only to collapse in the face of a run of tough fixtures combined with a slew of midfield injuries. When the missing men returned, form and results improved enough to land Villa another European slot.
The mood went up another level when it was revealed that Villa were in for Liverpool striker Stan Collymore. There was no denying Collymore’s ability as a forward, though rumours surrounded his value as a team-mate. Press reports detailing that Collymore had a clause in his contract that meant he would always be the best paid player at the club left little doubt as to what the he felt about his own status. The fee for Stan was in the region of £7m. This showed the club’s ambition; it also more or less emptied the club’s transfer coffers, meaning that the only other arrival that summer was utility player Simon Grayson from Leicester City. At the same time, the brilliantly inconsistent Tommy Johnson had made his way to Celtic where injuries were to blight his career.
A front four of Yorke, Collymore, Milosevic and the lightning-quick Julian Joachim didn’t look too shabby, though clearly the issue was, who to leave out? Yorke, of course, had made the main striking role his own. The large fee that had brought Collymore to Villa didn’t make sense unless he was to play a leading role. This seemed to put Savo Milosevic’s place under threat, though this would break up what had become a very useful partnership, Savo’s bull-like strength and control being a good foil for Dwight’s pace and trickery. The plot became even murkier when it was realised that Savo’s extra-EU status meant that he would be required to play a certain amount of game time or his status as a player in England might come under question. All things for the boss to ponder as he strained for a winning combination. And what about the express-paced Julian?
Still, there was a genuine sense of anticipation as the first Saturday rolled up, the feeling that Villa had ‘Gone For It’ and would be in with a shout for the big prizes. Villa’s start to the season soon deflated these hopes. A one-goal defeat at nemesis club Leicester under the management of one Martin O’Neill on a hot August day was a disappointment. This was followed by a four-goal defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers. It may seem a form of special pleading, but it was nowhere near as bad as it looked. Goalkeeper Finan was arguably the visitors’ best player and made several eye-catching saves to keep out the home forwards at important moments. The problems were all in the midfield, where Villa were short -a direct consequence of Yorke, Collymore and Milosevic being played as a three, one of them dropping a little to help the midfield (but not enough) when we were out of possession. Roy Hodgson’s side enjoyed the space, knocking the ball around with little hindrance, with Chris Sutton helping himself to a first-half hat-trick. The start became even worse with consecutive away defeats at Newcastle and Spurs. At least the 3-2 defeat in London saw Villa get off the mark with goals from Yorke and Collymore but already it looked like a season of struggle.
Wins in the next three league games meant there was some relief for the boss who had the additional test of preparing a side for the challenge of European football, a reward for Villa’s fifth-place finish the previous May. It would have to be done without the talent and sweat of Andy Townsend. The condition of his knee was beginning to cause some concern, so when second Division Middlesbrough came calling with a decent offer, Andy was off, leaving us even thinner as far as midfield options were concerned. Happily, both Fernando Nelson and Steve Staunton were happy playing in several positions and Villa were able to play the extra games to a good standard.
Little had come in for some criticism when Villa had been knocked out of European competition the previous year, beaten on away goals by Swedish part-timers Helsingborg IF. Villa had shown little idea of how to break down an ultra-negative set-up and went out. Would Brian make up for the lapse this time around? In fact, Villa’s campaign could be said to be two-paced. While the side struggled to recover fully from such a bad start, with every league defeat seemingly plunging Villa back toward the relegation line, games abroad seemed to relax the team, with impressive results and performances.
The formula appeared to be to draw away without conceding, then take a decisive advantage at home. This worked against Bordeaux though extra time was needed, and a 2-1 win against Bilbao and their unforgettable supporters took us through to a tie with Steaua Bucharest. This looked like a good draw, but the concession of two quick goals in the first half in Romania meant that Dwight Yorke’s goal after the break came more into the category of desperately-needed lifeline rather than the inevitable-telling-of-our-undoubted-supremacy. Villa were much the better side in the return leg, with a highly-energetic Stan Collymore showing the way, but the goals that should have accompanied the performance were missing for a long time.
A rare away break led to a good save from Bosnich and finally, Staunton’s long through ball saw Savo break the offside trap and he finished well with his weaker right foot. That was enough if the visitors remained goalless but a breakaway gave Ian Taylor a chance to ease the pressure and clinch the result. So Brian had a European quarter-final to look forward to, something not seen for fifteen long years. Like one of his predecessors, Ron Saunders back in 1981, he could relax and wait on one front while looking to improve his team’s league placing on another. This, however, he could not seem to do.
Somehow, the league form never matched that shown in midweek European games. A small squad meant that the options for making changes were limited, with full-backs like Grayson and Nelson often deployed in midfield positions. On a brighter note, young Lee Hendrie seemed to be developing into a useful attacking threat, Riccardo Scimeca did quite well at the back when called on. Generally though, there was a sense that it was not a happy camp at this time. Sasa Curcic had never really shown what he could do after a promising start, Collymore had a record of not being the most popular player in any dressing-room he had ever been in, while Savo seemed generally gloomy as befitted one tagged as the Surly Serb. Dark murmurings regarding his reluctance to pass the ball to Stan were in circulation and, as always, gained credibility for some when the team were short of results.
As winter neared, press chatter suggested that Villa might be interested in Rangers’ Paul Gascoigne, not the first man you might introduce to bring some calm to turbulent team matters. In the end, he went to Middlesbrough, and thus a potential transfer that seemed to have plenty of Ellis fingerprints on it disappeared into the ether. Rumours that the captain, Southgate, wanted out were given an airing after a home defeat to Chelsea.
So Villa struggled on, always doing enough to not get dragged down into the relegation mire, but not enough to relieve the stifling pressure with a little run of wins that would have taken them into the top half. At least Villa were able to take home wins from games against some of the other strugglers. We went behind to Everton at home but found enough to come back for an important victory. There was also the boost of a thumping win at home to Spurs where Collymore found his shooting boots at last. This win, along with the resumption of the European campaign in the Spring, as well as the annual temptations of the FA Cup, meant that there was at least an undercurrent of optimism for 1998.
An away draw to Portsmouth showed that the team hadn’t given up on the manager. Villa were forced by injuries to reshuffle the side and then found themselves two goals down after half an hour in horrible conditions. Staunton and Grayson scored near the end of each half to rescue the tie. It was enough to earn a replay, where Savo’s goal took Villa through to the fourth round. This game was noteworthy for the unusual spectacle of the home side being on the receiving end of some booing in the second half. The result was fine, the performance, not. You could say the Villa support wasn’t disgruntled, but was very far from being gruntled. That changed very quickly when Villa travelled to Blackburn for the return match against a side who had already given Villa a going-over on their own pitch. It appeared nothing had been learnt from the first encounter, as Villa succumbed to a five-nil thrashing. The away support made their feelings clear with the chant of, “You’re not fit to wear the shirt!” ringing out loud. Savo didn’t exactly lift the mood when, having missed a late chance at a consolation goal (thus earning himself a round of jeers) he petulantly spat on the ground in front of the away end.
The immediate effect of this was that Savo was left out of the squad as a ‘cooling off’ measure. The next game was the cup-tie at home to friendly neighbours, West Brom. Defeat here would have only strengthened the fears that the manager had lost his way. Happily, the team secured a four-goal win, the first a thunderous strike from Grayson who, presumably as a riposte to the complainants at Blackburn, removed his shirt and whirled it around his head as he ran to the Holte End to celebrate. This helped to give Brian some respite but did nothing to change the fact that Villa’s league form needed some serious improvement.
A manager who changes tack is, depending on your point of view, a man capable of a flexible approach to problems or, alternatively, is panicking under pressure as he seeks a last, desperate remedy. Which, if either, was true for the selection change at Derby is for all to consider. Following a very flat defeat to Newcastle, Little abandoned the three centre-back system that had been a mainstay of his time and went to a flat back four, with Ehiogu and Southgate in the middle. It was thought that the extra player in midfield might result in more creativity and goals, as the showing against the Geordies had failed to do. The immediate results were both encouraging and deflating.
Against a resurgent Derby side enjoying life in the top half, Villa were able to hold out, thanks to a couple of good saves from Bosnich. As far as the other end of the pitch was concerned, there was nothing to show that the change had wrought any sign of improvement, with Collymore having another of his ‘invisible’ games that had become the norm and Villa’s only attempts at creating anything were crosses from out wide which did little to disturb the home side’s serenity. Then, out of nothing, a goal! Big Ugo found himself well up the pitch and with nothing else looking like a good thing, he gave the ball a good welt from a full twenty-five yards. The Estonian ‘keeper, Mart Poom, was able to stop the shot but not keep hold of it. Yorke, following up, just managed to retain possession against the scrambling Derby defenders and slid the ball inside the post. A late goal, a winner, and the end of Derby’s fine unbeaten home record at their new ground.
Those who were there knew that the result belied the performance, but like boxers who have entered the ring once too often, more conclusive evidence is sometimes required before the final verdict can be passed. It came, in due course. Coventry City had never raised their scarves in victory at Villa Park before. The fifth round FA cup tie changed all that. A single goal defeat may not signify much, but only Mark Bosnich’s saves, including one in the super-human bracket that brought an extended ovation from the home support, kept the scores level. Even he could do nothing after yet another good save resulted in a tap-in winner. In truth, it was all too easy for the away side who were rarely troubled at the back.
The midweek saw Villa take on Manchester United. With Villa out of sorts and facing injury problems, the outcome looked all too predictable. I suppose games like these are why we both love and hate football. Villa were virtually unrecognisable, taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Someone must have found -and pressed- the Collymore ‘on’ button, and had it not been for Peter Schmeichel, Villa could have had a two/three-goal lead. One save saw the merest touch from the ‘keeper’s boot deflect the ball onto the inside of the post on its way to safety. A tired Villa side then ran out of steam and conceded two in the last ten minutes.
Thus was the stage set for Villa’s visit to Wimbledon. Though no longer regarded as the ‘party-poopers’ of previous years, with plenty of the old ultra-violence thrown in for good measure, they still represented a stiff mid-table (ie. above us) challenge, with the irascible Joe Kinnear as manager, and a new image of being consistently inconsistent. The Dons were looking to complete a double over us, having won an undistinguished game at Villa Park by the odd goal in three in the autumn.
A three-goal win at Palace in their previous game must have given the home side a boost and that certainly proved to be the case, with the Dons giving Villa a chasing and racing into a two-goal lead in the first half -hour through Jason Euell and Carl Leaburn, something for the thirteen thousand crowd to get stuck into. At least suffering a deficit early in a game allows time for a response and Milosevic’s deflected shot minutes before the break allowed us to hope. It all proved to be false, though, as Little’s team barely threatened in the second half and few could complain at the final score, one that left the view down the table even more nerve-inducing than normal in this deeply disappointing season.
As the news filtered through of another mediocre performance, off-the-record comments filtered into some newspapers that some of the Wimbledon players had been less than impressed with the attitude of some of the Villa lad. Dog doesn’t usually eat dog, at least not in the press, but here was a questioning of how many of them had the bottle for what was now shaping up to be a full-blown relegation battle.
Against such a worrying background, Brian Little chose not to neglect his duties and addressed the Shareholders’ Association meeting on the following Monday. A transcript would have been useful but a national daily reported the event as one that started in an atmosphere of tension -unsurprising, considering the position of the team- and ended with Little receiving a standing ovation from his audience. The article included a reference to his children being upset by playground taunts from other youngsters over their father’s struggles. He vowed to carry on, rescue Villa’s season and then reappraise his position and the club’s at the start of the summer. Just reading it gave you a lift. Brian was still here.
The following afternoon, I was walking down my street when a good mate of mine, Derby fan, saw me coming and started singing, “Hey rock ‘n’ roll! Little’s on the dole!!” (The same chant, with name changed, had been common currency in 1973 when another Brian, Clough, had resigned his post at the Rams.) As we chatted, it became clear that Little had resigned, an amazing fact when considering the events of the previous evening. The club were reported, as usual, as having begun the search for a new manager. This didn’t take long, with John Gregory, Little’s former team-mate and coach, being approached, after making a strong start to his new managerial career at Wycombe.
What Gregory achieved will not be soon forgotten by those who were around at the time. As for poor Brian, we were left to speculate what was behind these remarkable events. The usual suspects soon formed up: discontented fans; a split dressing-room; speculation surrounding the state of his marriage. Captain Southgate threw in the opinion that he thought his ex-boss, pale and drawn, had been ill.
With Gregory-inspired Villa immediately shooting up the table, life as a fan quickly took on a more pleasant aspect. It was easy to forget the fate of the previous incumbent. So it was that, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, scraping up the old bathroom flooring in our new house, and the radio on, we listened to Cov playing somebody else while we toiled. When the co-commentator came on, I knew I’d heard his voice before but couldn’t quite place it. Eventually, it sunk in that it was the Man Who Walks on Water himself, bright as a button, sounding almost as sharp as he’d been as a player. Why couldn’t I identify him? Probably because the last few times I’d heard him speak he had seemed really down and frustrated at his inability to rouse his team. So now Villa were fine, and so was Brian. Looking back, it doesn’t really mean much that one of the game’s most promising bosses never enjoyed success at any of his subsequent clubs. I doubt whether any of those jobs meant anywhere near as much as the Big One to him.
Anyway, you just can’t shake this Little fellow off, can you? Whether acting as adviser to the board during the darkest times of the Lerner Years, or helping out on the Villa commentary for many games during the season, with extra ‘Pashun’, as they say, Brian’s always around, just like you’d expect from someone who knows that Villa Park is his home.