Experienced first team manager Brian Little was appointed by Hull City in April 2000, replacing rookie manager Warren Joyce with a more tried and tested head. In short, it worked for a season as the Tigers reached the play-offs – but the full story is far more complex than that. Little inherited a squad in transition that was created largely to bludgeon its way out of the relegation mire a year earlier. he used his Leicester City connections to attract midfielder Lee Philpott to the club, and also bought in talents such as former Manchester City defender David Brightwell and stalwart Scunthorpe United goalkeeper Paul Musselwhite. The season started poorly and City were in the bottom three by early-September 2000, however a run of just two defeats in 15 League games lifted the Tigers to eighth as Christmas approached. A winless run hampered progress as turmoil off the pitch meant that the club was facing financial collapse and players were not being paid. Despite this misfortune, Little signed strikers Kevin Francis and Rodney Rowe in January 2001, the classic big man/little man combo, pacey left back and long throw specialist Andy Holt and experienced midfielder Mark Atkins. With these new signings and a strong collective spirit built by Little, results began to pick up again – February, March and April 2001 saw City win 12 of 17 fixtures and enter the end of season play-offs. A tense 1-0 victory over Leyton Orient in the first leg at Boothferry Park, featuring a John Eyre strike, was followed by a narrow 1-2 loss at Brisbane Road thanks to the early crocking of dangerman Holt and the powerful left foot of O’s left back Matt Lockwood. A season of turmoil and struggle had ended well, albeit with a disappointing denouement.
The start of the 2001/02 season saw massive changes in the boardroom, with the arrival of Adam Pearson and his wodge of Freeserve money, and on the pitch, with Little splashing out on strikers Gary Alexander and Lawrie Dudfield, midfielders Julian Johnsson, David Beresford, Ryan Williams and David Lee, plus defenders Michael Price and Ben Petty. The intention was clear, Little’s City would attack its way to the top of the League Division 3 table. It worked – City spent practically the whole season in the top six vying for one of the three automatic promotion places. Memorable heavy-scoring victories over York City, Cheltenham Town and Oxford United alternated with occasional defeats, until a New Year run of just four wins in eleven matches saw a nervous Pearson act impetuously and sack Little at the end of February 2002. It proved an act of folly, which Pearson himself later admitted, as the Tigers drifted into mid-table and won only one more game all season.
Brian Little was born in Peterlee on the County Durham coast, his father worked as an electrician in the local colliery and this was to be Brian’s future also until he showed an aptitude for football as a teenager. In April 1969, aged 15, pacy and skilful striker Little left school and signed apprentice terms at Division Two side Aston Villa (though they rapidly dropped into Division Three). Little quickly impressed in the Villa youth team with a glut of goals and in March 1971 he was handed his first professional contract and elevated to the Villa reserve side. In October 1971 he joined the first team squad and made his debut in a 4-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers. His second appearance, and first Villa goal, came in late April 1972 against Torquay United by which time Villa had secured the Division Three title and returned to the second tier. Little ended the season by scoring twice in the second leg of the FA Youth Cup final, securing the Cup for Aston Villa with a 5-2 aggregate victory over Liverpool.
Though still only 18 years old Little started the 1972/73 season in Villa’s first team squad and scored three times in 20 appearances as the club narrowly missed out on a second successive promotion. He became a more regular starter in the 1973/74 season as Villa finished in mid-table, then burst onto the national scene in the 1974/75 season with 24 goals as the Midlanders secured promotion to Division One and won the League Cup final in March 1975, defeating Division Two rivals Norwich City at Wembley. In May 1975 Brian was selected for the England senior squad to compete in the British Home Championship and won a solitary England cap when he came on as substitute for the last 17 minutes of a 2-2 draw against Wales at Wembley.
Now a Division One player and an England international, Little’s ability in front of goal and his potent partnership with Scotsman Andy Gray saw him thrive in the top flight – additionally Villa again won the League Cup in 1977, defeating Everton in a second replay. The Villa board’s tight grip on the club’s purse strings led Little to request a transfer in May 1979 – a move to Birmingham City was mooted, a £600,000 transfer fee was agreed and Little sanctioned the move, only for it to collapse in July 1979 when a medical revealed he had a congenital spinal defect. Little played on for Villa but the nagging threat of his spinal condition perhaps hampered him. In March 1980 he suffered a serious knee injury that required surgery, when he returned to fitness in October 1980 he was unable to progress beyond the reserve team as Villa’s tight-knit squad powered to the Division One title. Little suffered a relapse of his knee injury in January 1981 and had a second surgery, a month later his doctor advised him to retire from playing. Only 27 years old, Little’s playing career ended with 82 goals in 302 senior appearances for his only club.
In August 1981 Little started working in the commercial department at Aston Villa, as well as doing punditry work on Radio Birmingham and writing a weekly column in the Birmingham Mercury. Life on the fringes of football didn’t suit him though and in August 1982 he was appointed youth team coach at Aston Villa. Over the next three years Little helped developed several future stars of the English top flight until January 1986 when a falling out with first team manager Graham Turner forced Brian to resign – an association with Aston Villa that had lasted nearly seventeen years came to an end.
Within a few days of leaving Villa Little was appointed first team coach at struggling Wolverhampton Wanderers. At the end of the 1985/86 season Wolves were relegated to Division Four and in August 1986 Brian took on the role of first team manager. In October 1986, after only 11 matches in charge, Little was sacked and replaced by Graham Turner, the man that caused him to leave Aston Villa nine months earlier. Within two months, in December 1986, Little was appointed to the coaching staff at Middlesbrough, who were managed by former teammate Bruce Rioch. Rioch and Little led Boro to successive promotions in the 1985/86 and 1986/87 seasons, rising from Division Three to the top flight. Having built a strong reputation as an assistant, Little resigned his post at Middlesbrough in January 1989 and within days was appointed first team manager at Division Four strugglers Darlington. Darlo were relegated to the Conference National league at the end of the 1988/89 season but Little’s side bounced straight back the following season and restored its Football League status. Darlington then swept aside the opposition and won the Division Four title in the 1990/91 season, securing Little’s reputation as a multiple promotion winning manager.
In May 1991 Brian switched to manage Division Two side Leicester City. In his first season Brian piloted the Foxes to fourth place in the table and they reached the play-off final only to lose to well-monied Blackburn Rovers. The 1992/93 season followed the same pattern, finishing sixth in the table only to lose the play-off final to Swindon Town. In the 1993/94 season Leicester City reached a third consecutive play-off final and this time prevailed over local rivals Derby County. Little, who had turned away an approach to become Middlesbrough’s manager in January 1994, had restored his reputation for promotions and took the Foxes into the top flight.
In November 1994, after 188 matches in charge of the Foxes, Little resigned in order to accept his dream job, first team manager at Aston Villa, the club he served for eighteen years and had left eight years earlier. Marooned in the bottom two of the Premier League when he arrived, Villa won only once in Little’s first nine games in charge but a run of just one defeat in eleven games during January and February 1995 lifted the Villians clear of relegation danger. Having steadied the ship, Little’s side pushed on in the 1995/96 season and finished fourth in the table thanks to the impressive goalscoring feats of Savo Milosevic and Dwight Yorke. In a seven day period at the end of March 1996 Villa lifted the League Cup, beating Leeds United 3-0, then lost the FA Cup semi-final to Liverpool by the same scoreline. Little’s Villa side finished fifth in the 1996/97 season but in the 1997/98 season his side dropped into the bottom half while progressing to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. In February 1998, after four defeats in five League matches, Little resigned from his post and drew a close to his second spell at Aston Villa – he led the club for 164 senior matches.
In May 1998 Little was appointed manager of League Division 2 side Stoke City but after narrowly missing out on a play-off berth at the end of the 1998/99 season he left the Potters after 52 matches in charge. In August 1999 he was appointed manager at League Division 1 side West Bromwich Albion but disappointing form from the off saw the Baggies struggling in the lower half of the table and Little was sacked in March 2000 after 41 matches. A month later he was appointed manager at Hull City.
Little left the Tigers in February 2002 and spent over a year out of the limelight before returning to football management in October 2003 at League Division 2 side Tranmere Rovers. Brian led Tranmere for three seasons, reaching the play-off semi-final in May 2005 only to lose out to Hartlepool United. Little left Tranmere in May 2006 after 146 matches in charge and again had a spell out of the game before taking on the manager’s role and League 2 strugglers Wrexham in November 2007. Little was unable arrest the decline and the club dropped into the Conference National league at the end of the 2007/08 season, mirroring Little experience at Darlington nineteen years earlier. Brian remained in charge at Wrexham for the start of the 2008/09 season but was dismissed in September 2008 after a poor start in the Conference.
In August 2009 Little took over the managerial reins at Conference North side Gainsborough Trinity, building a squad of professionals that turned out to be less than the sum of its parts – Little was sacked in August 2011. Between November 2014 and November 2016 Little was the Director of Football for the Jersey Football Association, briefly becoming manager in early 2016. This was his last formal role in football, although he continued to undertake pundit and ambassadorial roles for Aston Villa for several more years.
Date/Place of Birth: 25 November 1953, Peterlee, England
Appointed by Hull City: 25 April 2000; 46 years, 152 days old
Left Hull City: 27 February 2002; 48 years, 94 days old
Tenure: 673 days
Wolverhampton Wanderers (1986), Darlington (1989-1991), Leicester City (1991-1994), Aston Villa (1994-1998), Stoke City (1998-1999), West Bromwich Albion (1999-2000), Hull City (2000-2002), Tranmere Rovers (2003-2006), Wrexham (2007-2008), Gainsborough Trinity (2009-2011)
Hull City Record
Playing Record: Played 97, Won 41, Drawn 28, Lost 28, Goals For 113, Goals Against 95
Achievements: 6th in League Division 3, 2000/01 season