Villa's Greatest Heroes: Brian Little

It's March 24, 1996, and Savo Milosevic has just curled the ball into the top corner of the Leeds United goal from 30 yards.

Wembley explodes. Roars from the Aston Villa fans are matched by groans from their counterparts. Only one man stays quiet. He gives a big smile, and raises his hands in the air, but he is still utterly calm and composed. And why not? Brian Little has been here before, after all.

21 years earlier the competition had provided the Aston Villa manager with the first of the two trophies he would win as a senior player. But it was two years later, in 1977, that Little shone brightest in an Aston Villa shirt, burying ten goals on the extended road to victory in the competition.

The run was capped by a brace in the rollercoaster second replay of the final, a 3-2 win finally seeing off Everton. The job was done, cruelly, in the absence of Little's injured strike partner, Andy Gray, who watched from the bench.

The word 'partnership' is often misused in football. It has never been better applied than to the young Geordie and the younger Scot, brief as their on-field acquaintance would prove to be.

"He did more than anyone to establish my reputation as a goalscorer," says Gray, just 19 when he was first paired with Little. "You could never meet a more unselfish player - he would just slip me the ball to do the job."

It paid dividends in goals. But it was no surprise that Little shone in that final without his henchman; rather than playing for Gray, he played for himself, and did so breathtakingly.

Anyway, he was always one to save his best for when it mattered. Like Gabriel Agbonlahor - who scored at Anfield, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge in his first full season before adding goals against Manchester United, Chelsea and the winner against Birmingham City in the first two months of his second - Little had the knack of performing best on the biggest stages, be that his first team debut, cup finals or the European stage.

Not that Agbonlahor and Little were similar players. The nearest fit to the Little mould in the current Aston Villa squad is Ashley Young. There are differences, and the young pretender has a long way to go before he comes close to the level the master achieved, but the similarities are pronounced, from the untucked shirt to the supreme confidence. And, perhaps most notably, in the way Villa Park draws in a breath almost as one and every person in the stadium rises higher in their seat - although in Little's time, of course, it was onto tiptoes - to see what piece of trickery is about to be performed.

Certainly, I have no doubt Little admires Young's technique. For that was always the key word. Little had skill, Little had class, Little had brains, passion and an eye for goal, but, ah, that flawless technique. It shone in his 19 minutes for England, in which he created an equaliser for David Johnson. Sadly, he was never given another go. "He won just one cap, which is ridiculous when you think that if he had played for Liverpool he could have been at least as effective as Kevin Keegan," maintains Gray.

It was a cruel irony, then, that it was an argument over technique which contributed to his first departure from his only playing club, after a disagreement with Graham Turner when Little was making his name as a promising youth coach.

"Tony Daley was taken away from me too early and, because of that, didn't spend enough time on technique," he said - later, of course, for he was never a man to air dirty linen in public. "Sixteen is too young. In the long run, joining the first-team squad at that age slowed his progress."

Few would argue. Had Daley's lightning pace been allied to a shrewder control of the ball, he would have amassed far more than seven England caps, and would likely have left Villa for Manchester United or Liverpool rather than Wolves, Watford and Walsall. And Daley was far from the only promising young English player whose skills were never properly developed.

At a time when England have failed to qualify for the European Championships and managers, pundits and fans are bemoaning the lack of technique of English players compared to their international peers, the point is underlined. Why didn't more people see the problem coming? "To think I've seen Sid Cowans control the ball in the air with a pot on his foot," sighed Little when discussing the problems in the 'modern' game - more than 15 years ago.

All this was after injury cruelly ended Little's playing career. But without a diagnosis of injury he might - might, for I don't think anything could really taint the memories of Little - have lost some of the sparkle he still holds for the Holte End by, like many of Villa's best and brightest, taking the road to the less glamorous side of the Second City.

Despite the love he held and still holds for Villa - "If I wasn't in football I'd buy a Villa season ticket," he once said - it was only the claim from the Birmingham City doctor that he had a back problem that stopped the move across the city taking place. While Little would never publicly undermine his manager, he wasn't body and soul a Ron Saunders man, and that was enough for Villa's most successful modern manager to decide his time in claret and blue had run its course.

Saunders was right, but Little was to leave by stretcher rather than by transfer. The end was a less surprising one than a move to Blues: Little's knee went.

It was far from the first time, but he had always battled back before. This would prove once too far; the next two years were a nightmare of injury, rehabilitation, pain and breakdowns for Little before he finally accepted defeat in February 1980. He was just 27.

For injury to strike him, as it has so many of Villa's brightest - even of his contemporaries, the names Shaw, Gray and Cowans ring with what-might-have-beens - was cruel, for Little was amongst the very, very best to grace the Villa Park turf, and arguably the most beloved of its supporters.

Little was the children's player, the one you pretended to be in the playground, easily avoiding a challenge, throwing a stepover before flicking the ball behind his other leg in an age when to do so invited a challenge like a steamroller. It was no wonder his appointment to the managerial hotseat in 1994 brought such joy to Villa fans in their late twenties and early thirties - this was their boyhood hero coming home. He repaid the adulation in silverware, albeit just one piece.

That spring afternoon at Wembley was Little's Villa at their best; fluid, attacking and confident in their own ability as well as that of their teammates. Ian Taylor, like Milosevic a Little signing, added a second. Dwight Yorke, who truly blossomed under him, capped things with a third. The eleven men in claret and blue - and it was eleven, Little seeing no need to make substitutions - did it in style.

"I've been upstairs and my two kids are up there. They're eating pizza at the moment and they're picking their man of the match. And they've picked all the guys who played," he smiled.

The season - Villa's best in years - did not entirely fulfil its promise, for just a few days later Liverpool beat Little's side in the FA Cup semi-final. A fourth-place finish in the league also hinted of more to come from the team.

It wasn't to be. But there was something fitting that the trophy Brian Little won as a manager should be the League Cup. It brought back some rather special memories.