To put it simply, Brian Little is a legend at Aston Villa. Joining as an apprentice in 1969, he went on to make over 250 appearances for the club before his career was cut short due to injury at the age of just 25. He worked in the club shop, sold lottery tickets on the club’s behalf, became youth team coach and finally became first-team boss in 1994. He’s still the last manager to win silverware at Villa Park and even today, works as an advisor to the board.
Slight of frame but with a huge heart, Little was part of the club during its meteoric rise from the Third to the First Division and his goals helped the Villains win two League Cup Finals in 1975 and 1977.
As part of our series looking back at the 1978-79 season, STEVE MITCHELL sat down for a chat with the man himself to reminisce on what was a golden era for the men from the Midlands.
SM: So Brian, before we talk about the mid-seventies at Villa, how did you end up signing for the club?
BL: I joined in 1969 although I’d already been at the club in ‘67 as a schoolboy. There was a lot of interest from other teams at the time with Newcastle (his hometown club), Leeds, Manchester City and Burnley all keen to take me.
Eventually a guy called Malcolm Musgrove, who was related to my mum’s side of the family, was assistant manager at Villa and he asked me to go there. As soon as I walked into the club I knew I wanted to play for them. I signed as a 15-year-old in ‘69 on a three-year apprenticeship.
SM: Growing up in the North-East, who was the player you looked at and thought “Wow, I want to be like him?”
BL: Dennis Tueart had a big influence on me. I thought he was a wonderful player and I remember playing against him when he was at Manchester City. He ripped us to shreds and I remember thinking, “Crikey, this guy is something else.” That same season we played them in the cup, beat them and I scored two which made me feel really proud.
I mean George Best was my footballing idol but Dennis had a real impact on my playing career.
SM: Villa were in the Third Division when you joined, right?
BL: Yes. They’d just gone down and Tommy Docherty was in charge. Funnily enough, that worked in favour for me and some of the other young lads coming into the team as it gave us a chance to establish ourselves.
We actually won the FA Youth Cup as a Third-Division side and I played in that team along with my brother, Alan, and players like John Gidman and Bobby McDonald.
SM: Being a forward player who lets be fair, was slight of frame, how did you cope with some of the brutal tackling from big centre-halves?
BL: When I joined the club I was a midfield player and I think that helped me with the physical side. Then I was moved up-front as they recognised I could score goals too. To be honest, the tackling was something you just put up with, you learned to be ready to ride some of the challenges but make no mistake, I got clobbered a few times; I must have done, because I had to retire at 25!
SM: So it’s 1971, Villa are in the League Cup Final, where was Brian Little watching the game as you were not in the team that day?
BL: I was at Wembley though. All the squad went down and if I remember rightly, I had to join up with the England Youth Team after the match (Which Villa lost 2-0 to Spurs).
SM: Four years later and you’re back at Wembley as a player in the 1975 League Cup Final against Norwich. Must have been a proud day for the Little family?
BL: I actually watched the game on YouTube recently and I think it was the first time I’d seen any footage since ‘75. I played well in that game and I think my performance probably got me selected into the England squad if I’m honest.
SM: Tell me a little bit about your relationship with (manager) Ron Saunders.
BL: I can honestly say I never got nervous before a football game ever and this used to drive Ron barmy. I don’t think he could ever accept how laid back I seemed to be. I remember he used to come up to me before games and be tearing his hair out (what little he had) asking me, “Are you ready to play today?”
I used to wind him up and he used to do the same to me. I think deep down however, we both had a mutual dislike of each other.
SM: Returning to England for a moment, having only got one senior cap, is it something you look back on with regret?
BL: Not really. Having got into the England set up, I came on as a sub against Wales in the Home Internationals and I thought I’d be in the next squad to play Scotland. For some reason (England boss) Don Revie decided to leave me out then the following season, I got injured around October and that basically ended my chances of getting back in the team.
Remember, back then, there weren’t many international matches like today. I got in the squad before the likes of Trevor Francis and Tony Woodcock who were similar in their style of play, but after my knee snapped against Everton, those two guys jumped ahead of me.
SM: Let’s move on to 1977, a great season for Villa and another League Cup winners medal for Brian Little. Before that however, a personal triumph in the semi-final against Q.P.R.
BL: I got a hat-trick in that game yes, in a replay at Highbury.
SM: To the final itself and the match that was known as “The one month final.” The first two games were poor to say the least, but then more personal triumph for you in the third match at Old Trafford. Would you say that was your best game for Villa?
BL: No I don’t think that was my greatest game but people remember it because of the occasion. The semi-final was better from a personal point of view. Actually, the game I remember most fondly was beating Liverpool 5-1 at Villa Park the previous December.
That result sent shockwaves around the world; I’d say that was my favourite match of all time as a player.
The final was great, of course it was. This might sound crazy, but I used to take football with a pinch of salt as a player. I remember being on the coach coming back from Old Trafford and everyone is at the back drinking champagne except for me; I was just sat at the front desperate to get home.
SM: Do you think that because there was a month between the replay at Hillsborough and the second replay at Old Trafford, you took your eye off the ball in regards to the league title as at one point, you were chasing Liverpool fairly hard and only finished six points behind them?
BL: If I said yes then that’s an easy way of getting out of it but I honestly think we didn’t. As a player you always want to play matches despite what anyone says. It’s the training that’s tiresome, not the amount of games.
Ron Saunders would never have let us do that anyway. He had a strong work ethic and we were a hard working side. You wanted to play in those days anyway as your appearance money was worth more than your annual salary.
The schedule was tough; of course it was, as we had games to catch up with. That was the thing that got the better of us in the end.
SM: Did you feel that after that win, Villa should really have gone on to bigger and better things? I asked Bob Latchford the same question a couple of years ago and of course, he played in that final against you and he felt Everton never really kicked-on in the way they should have.
BL: Not really because remember, within four years Villa had won the championship and then the European Cup. If anything, that cup win was just another step in the team’s development.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t part of it because I’d retired by then but you had the likes of Ken McNaught, who came from Everton, Gary Shaw was playing in the youth team and then Peter Withe signed for the team. He was a magnificent signing by the way.
SM: Looking at the season the Football Pink is focusing on, I read an interview with Andy Gray in which he stated that if Villa hadn’t picked up so many injuries in the first-half of the campaign, they could have mounted a serious title challenge. Would you agree?
BL: I can see where he’s coming from for sure. Many people thought the ‘77 team would go on to greater things but like Andy said, injuries took their toll. I missed a lot of it (78-79) again with a pelvic problem which was actually the injury that eventually forced me to retire.
I think at the time, Ron Saunders looked at the side and thought he had to make changes although the spine of the team was the one that eventually went on to win the First Division in 1981.
SM: Did you fear that your career could be cut short due to the amount of injuries you seemed to pick up?
BL: When my knee first gave way I remember the specialist explaining that there was a lot of cartilage damage but telling me there was no way he’d clean it out. Obviously today you would have an operation straight away.
The second time I had a problem they started talking about experimenting with treatments, but I told them no way were they using me as a guinea pig. To be fair, I was always philosophical about injuries as back then you were always aware that your career could be finished just like that.
Even as I sit here talking to you today I’m contemplating having a knee replacement. Like I said earlier though, when I failed my medical at Birmingham City, it was my back that was the problem, a displaced vertebrae, that’s why I had to retire.
SM: So was coaching always in the back of your mind?
BL: Not at all; I remember when I retired I still had three years left on my contract at Villa and a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go into the printing business with him. After three months I thought to myself, “What the hell am I doing here.”
I went back to Villa Park as I was down there quite a lot still as I knew all the lads and stuff. Then the people that ran the club shop asked me if I wanted to work in there, so I agreed and went to work in the club shop, incredible.
Not only that, I went around the pubs and clubs selling lottery tickets and delivered scratch cards to agents on behalf of the club. I did all this for around six months and then Ron Saunders left and Tony Barton came in and he said to me, “Brian, do you want to coach the youth team?” I thought thank god for that! I never looked back from then.
SM: How proud were you then, to return to Villa as manager in 1994?
BL: It was really awkward at the time because I was loving life at Leicester City and we had got back into the Premier League. People kept coming up to me asking when I was going to go back to Villa, but I was aware that fans at the club loved me as a player and I was concerned that going back as manager, people might forget about that if things didn’t work out.
Then I remember John Gregory (who was my assistant at Leicester and came with me to Villa) coming up to me and saying if you don’t go now you might never get another chance and you’ll regret it.
Actually, it was an incredible experience to go back, and even when I left after three years it was on good terms with Doug Ellis. Even to this day he always tells me I left too early.
SM: In 2007 you were inducted into the Villa Hall of Fame, another special moment for you I guess?
Without a doubt; I don’t really know what to say. I still remember getting on the train at Durham station back in 1969 and my dad saying, “There you go son, there’s one pound ten shilling, will ring you every week.”
It’s brilliant really.
FOLLOW THE WHOLE 1978-79 SEASON IN THE ENGLISH FIRST DIVISION WITH STEVE MITCHELL HERE ON THE FOOTBALL PINK. FOLLOW HIM ON TWITTER @barafundler