If you watch a match this afternoon, take a moment if possible to look into the eyes of your manager. If your team is winning you may think that you see happiness, but it’s not. It’s relief and respite. If your team is losing or drawing you may just get to see a haunted soul. Ironically, given that it is statistically likely that most managers will lose as many games as they win, the life of the football manager is one of surviving from one match to the next. In the most extreme circumstances, one match can lose a manager his job and, in select cases, destroy his reputation.
Managers in the Premier League are the top of their game. At the prime of their game, and it’s a long way down. Even some of the most established Premier League managers will be more than aware that their reputations will only last for as along as their teams can keep their heads above water. It is an insecure profession and, since all managers have been players at some point, they know it. It is, therefore, likely that some older managers may have shivered yesterday when a minor announcement appeared, almost as a footnote at the bottom the sports news. Gainsborough Trinity, of the Blue Square North, have hired Brian Little as their manager.
Little’s managerial career has become a metaphor for almost imperceptibly slow decline. Little started his managerial career at Wolverhampton Wanderers at a time that the club was in free-fall, plummeting from the First Division to the Fourth Division in successive seasons. His reputation grew at Darlington, where he took the club into the Football League and then to the Fourth Division Championship, but he became a household name following his periods at Leicester City and Aston Villa. At Leicester, he took the club into the Division One play-offs three times before finally getting them into the Premier League, before being poached by Aston Villa in November 1994.
There was something inevitable about his appointment at Villa Park. Little was, after all, arguably the face of the seventies at the club, having played for them 250 times between 1970 and 1980 before his career came to an early end through injury. His initial task at the club was to rebuild a squad that had not repeated their run for the Premier League title in 1993 and he managed to do this reasonably successfully, finishing fourth in the Premier League and winning the League Cup in 1996. From this high watermark, however, his career began to wane.
He resigned from Aston Villa in at the end of 1998. The club hadn’t built on the success of two years earlier, and Little fell upon his sword with the club looking over it’s shoulder at the relegation places from a position in the bottom half of the Premier League table. His reputation was still strong enough for him to find another job at Stoke City, but after a strong start in Division Two their form fell apart in the second half of the 1998/99 season and they missed out even on the play-offs. Little resigned again, but pitched up again almost immediately at The Hawthorns in charge of West Bromwich Albion. This time, there was no honeymoon period and Little was sacked in March 2000, with the club battling against relegation to League One.
From here on, the bigger clubs shied away from him. At Hull City, he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time initially, as Hull battled against their landlord, David Lloyd, although he managed to get them into the Third Division play-offs in 2001 before resigning unexpectedly in March 2002 with the club in a play-off place. His next stop was Tranmere Rovers, and yet again he was successful, getting to third place in League One and taking the club to the FA Cup quarter-finals in 2004, but this couldn’t last and he resigned in the summer of 2006. His last appointment was a Wrexham, who slipped out of the Football League under his tutelage. He left barely six weeks into the 2007/08 season.
What, then, will Little make of Gainsborough Trinity? They were members of the Football League between 1892 and 1912, and have been leading a largely anonymous life in non-league football since then, although they do hold the dubious honour of being the club that gave Neil Warnock his managerial break, in 1980. Their ground, Northolme, is a reasonably tidy non-league ground and the club currently sit in the bottom half of the Blue Square North win one win (against Droylsden) from their opening five matches. Their current squad contains a couple of semi-notable names. Luke Beckett was a handy striker in the lower divisions for Chesterfield, Stockport County, and Huddersfield Town, whilst Mark Greaves played almost 200 matches for Hull City between 1996 and 2002. The potential should be there for them to improve their league position.
There are bigger clubs than Gainsborough Trinity in the Blue Square North but keeping an eye on the goings-on at Northolme will be interesting, if for no other reason than to see whether Little, who a little over ten years ago was managing a club in the Premier League and the UEFA Cup, can cope with the micro-management required at a club at which everybody knows everybody else. It has always been a curiosity that the world assumes Premier League management to be more difficult than lower down the level because the spotlight falls so squarely upon it, even though the resources to hand give these clubs every advantage that there could be in modern football. We may learn quite a lot about Brian Little over the next few months.