Eighteen years ago this week, on Tuesday November 22nd 1994, Brian Little stunned Leicester City by breaking his contract as the Club’s manager in order to join Aston Villa.
Although Little’s departure caused dismay, consternation and anger in Leicester, it came as no great surprise. The fans had been expecting it for about a week, during which the press speculation linking Little with the Villa managerial post had mounted inexorably.
To understand the impact of Little’s departure, and the sense of betrayal that it engendered, it is worth remembering the huge strides that the Club had made since his arrival at Filbert Street three and-a-half years earlier.
When he famously arrived by helicopter onto the Filbert Street pitch to take over as Leicester City’s manager, the Club had just avoided, by the narrowest of margins, a drop into the Third Division for the first time in its history.
He turned this round completely.
In his first three seasons, he took Leicester City to three Wembley Play-Off Finals. These were against Blackburn Rovers, Swindon Town and Derby County. Steve Walsh’s two goals in the Derby final finally secured a coveted place for Leicester City in the Premier League. Gates were up at Filbert Street and the Board made money available for transfers.
Little was rewarded with a new contract. The future looked good. However Leicester struggled in the Premier League and by the beginning of November they were near the foot of the table.
It was at this point that Little began to be linked with the Aston Villa vacancy. Initially he denied that he would be leaving Leicester but by Saturday November 19th his departure looked likely. Centre-half Jimmy Willis revealed that the players were braced for the bombshell news that Little’s departure was imminent. His view was that, “If a Club like Villa, where he played all his career, want him then he would be a fool not to go”. The bookmakers closed all bets on Little’s departure and gave odds on his successor. This list included Ron Atkinson and Steve Coppell.
On the following Monday, the 21st November, Gary Lineker, who had just finished his football career and who had returned to England from Japan, was being filmed for a crisps commercial on the platform of Leicester Station. When interviewed, he said, “He has a contract. He will have to stay, unless he walks out…but in football managers generally preach loyalty to players”.
On the same day, Leicester City Chairman was defiant. “Villa will never be given permission to speak to the manager. If he walks out with thirty months left on his contract there would be no way he could manage Villa because they wouldn’t get permission to hold talks”.
This threat was unenforceable. The proposed Code of Conduct for Premier League Clubs enabling this to happen was not yet in place.
Referring to the fact that Little had committed himself to Leicester a few days previously, George went on, “If he now says he has changed his mind, I will say, ‘tough’. I don’t see why any big club feels entitled to just come in and take a manager from someone else if they feel like it. It’s a nonsense.” George also denied that a compensation figure of £1.5million pounds had been accepted.
All doubts were cleared up the next day. Unusually for those days, the Leicester Mercury put a football story on the front page. A huge banner headline read “LITTLE OUT”. It went on to say that Little had quit citing ‘personal reasons’ and that he refused to link this decision with the Aston Villa vacancy.
Sitting alongside Martin George at a Press Conference, Little said, “I felt it was time to do something else. Football is my life and I would hope to get another job at some stage. I just feel that at this stage of my life I have to do something else.”
The Directors issued a statement accepting this decision “with much regret”. They recorded their “sincere thanks for the immense contribution made by Mr Little to the Football Club since the summer of 1991”.
Allan Evans, the Assistant Manager, was put in temporary charge of the team. Coach John Gregory resigned. Another Leicester Mercury front page headline proclaimed, ‘WE FOUGHT TO KEEP LITTLE’. Martin George reiterated that he had done everything possible to keep the manager. He strongly denied any suggestion that lack of money for transfers was one of Little’s ‘personal reasons’ for quitting. “There is money available”, he said.
There are three postscripts to this story.
The day after Little’s departure, Leicester City beat Arsenal 2-1 in front of a capacity crowd at Filbert Street.
Three days after Little’s departure, he was unveiled as Aston Villa’s new manager, soon to be joined by Allan Evans and John Gregory.
Eleven days after Little’s departure, he returned to Filbert Street for Aston Villa’s game against Leicester. The hostility of the capacity crowd towards Little was unbelievable. On arrival at the ground he was greeted by a vociferously hostile crowd as he left the team coach. Inside the ground, on all four sides, banners were held aloft by the crowd proclaiming ‘Judas’ and ‘Liar’. This stoked up the hostile atmosphere. He was barracked throughout the game.
With the passage of time, many fans are now prepared to concede that Brian Little did a very good job as Leicester City’s manager.
However, the sense of betrayal and hurt when Little walked out on the Club eighteen years ago this week was palpable and very deeply felt.