ON Saturday morning residents of the houses that now stand where Darlington’s former Feethams home once was may spot a familiar face strolling around. He’ll be trying to picture where the centre circle was, where the barrel-roofed East Stand used to be, and the Polam End from where St Cuthbert’s Church spire could be seen rising beyond the roof of the Tin Shed.

For Brian Little memories of yesteryear will come flooding back; of David Cork scoring four against Boston, of 9,000 crammed in for an FA Cup replay against Cambridge United, of Les McJannet's cheeky back-heeled goal against Halifax, or of winning the Division 4 title against Rochdale.

These were halcyon days, the early 1990s when Little was Quakers’ manager, Feethams was home and the team won back-to-back titles: promotion from the GM Vauxhall Conference and then Division Four.

“A fantastic two-year period and I’ll never forget it,” he says. “It was a brilliant time in my life.”

Newcastle-born Little will be back in the region on Saturday at Quakers’ match – selling and signing copies of his new autobiography - and says he will likely take the opportunity to visit where home once was. “I’m the sort to get there early, so I’ll probably have a look around.”

Writing the autobiography has meant looking back on a career spent entirely with Aston Villa as a player, and after a brief spell in charge at Wolves he cut his teeth in management at Darlington. He did so well he was headhunted by Leicester City before going on to take charge at Villa, Stoke, West Brom, Hull and others.

Winning the League Cup in 1996 with Villa means he is one of just six English managers to win a major trophy since the Premier League began in 1992-93. The others are Ron Atkinson, Roy Evans, Joe Royle, Steve McClaren and Harry Redknapp. 

Appointed by Quakers as a 37-year-old fresh from three years as a coach under Bruce Rioch at Middlesbrough, Little was at the Feethams helm from February 1989 until the summer of 1991, a glorious period that did not last long enough, such times never do. But the memories remain for the supporters during this era, when relegation to the Conference felt like “falling off a cliff”.

This weekend Little will watch the match against Nuneaton at Blackwell Meadows, directly across the road from the Blackwell Grange Hotel where he was interviewed for the manager’s job by chairman Archie Heaton coming up 30 years ago.

The Echo reported that former Newcastle manager Willie McFaul and ex-Bradford City boss Terry Dolan were also on the Feethams board’s short-list, but Little got the nod and the rest is history and all covered in the book, A Little Is Enough.

“It’s taken me a while to do the book and having had 50 years in football and managed ten clubs I feel I could’ve written five books," says Little, now 65. "I could’ve done one on my time just at Darlington, there were that many stories. If I’d sat down with Kevan Smith or Les McJannet I could’ve had even more.

“If I had to fine players - David Cork was always late for training, for example - I’d write them a little poem. I wish I’d kept hold of them because some were quite funny. The girl in reception would be laughing as she was typing it out for me, and they would always end in ‘you’re fined a fiver’.

“I didn’t fine them a lot, just enough to keep them on their toes to let them know that I was watching them. We had a really close mentality, which I’d tried to create after the experience of the first few months.”

His visit comes with Darlington struggling, just as they were when he replaced Dave Booth as manager and unable to halt the slide out of Division 4, as League 2 was then known.

“Having had that little spell at Wolves I felt I was ready. I’d actually been coaching and scouting for ten years before Darlington. I’d had to retire when I was 26, and then started coaching so things I learned in that time stuck with me.

“I’d notice players who had three or four relegations under their belt moving from club to club, I was a real stickler for these things.

“A players’ mentality was always important to me. When I went to Darlington I wanted northern-based lads. There’d been a few players travelling, and I wanted people who had family in the area, who wanted to be proud of playing in front of their friends and family.”

It was Valentine’ Day during in his first week at Feethams, and a love affair would develop but it took time.

“It was a hard going at first,” he adds. “Early on we were at Rotherham, the top of the league team, and we beat them, that was unreal! Why could we beat the top of the league team not keep that up? Then it kicked in, which I’ve explained in the book, there wasn’t the determination inside the dressing room. They thought they’d shown me they could play, but then they put their slippers on and didn’t work at it enough.

“So by the time we got to the end of the season releasing 20 players was nothing to me – I did it in an hour.

“That first two or three months taught me an awful lot. But getting relegated with Darlington could have been the end of my managerial career. Sometimes people get given a job in a difficult situation, it doesn’t work and then they are not given another chance. So Dick Corden was important to me because of his belief in me.”

Corden replaced Heaton at the season’s end, which finished with a 5-1 thumping at Scunthorpe United, and Little is glowing in his praise of the man who was Quakers’ chairman during the early 90s.

The book includes a chapter dedicated to those who have influenced Little’s life, and in it says Corden was responsible for “probably the greatest sentence anybody has ever said to me in my entire football career.” You’ll need to buy the book for that sentence.

The same chapter includes warm words for Smith, universally known as Smudger, who was the title-winning captain in ’89-90 and ’90-91, the tall defender hardly ever missing a game.

Little, still the calm, measured personality that Darlington supporters became familiar with, clearly enjoys reminiscing, and said: “Smudger, for all that he was my captain, I used to find out about nights out that he shouldn’t have had! I had to keep him in check, but he was great for me.

“I always loved Corky, he would always be able to do something different and that resonated with me. Jimmy Willis and his brother Paul, they were funny lads, Scousers and they wouldn’t shut up!

“We would play some outstanding football at times. They were a good group who played really well together. They were a well-balanced team, the midfield players - Andy Toman and Garry Gill - they complemented each other so much and nobody overran us.

“I liked Gilly. I always likened him to me because I felt if he wasn’t a footballer he probably have gone travelling around the world, and I always felt I would’ve done that if I hadn’t become a footballer.

“Mark Prudhoe was a character too. I used to do a lot of the goalkeeper coaching and he did lots of sessions with me. Having a good goalkeeper was an always part of having a successful team.”

Prudhoe, now goalkeeping coach at Sunderland and credited for Jordan Pickford’s emergence, was one of several Quakers injured during an infamous match described by the Echo at the time as the ‘Battle of Northwich’.

Looking back, Little says: “I always remember going to Merthyr Tydfil, that and the Northwich game were the roughest games I was ever involved in, crikey.

“And remember we’d play against teams and Barry Fry would have sent someone on loan to play for them!”

Fry was the manager of Barnet, the team Darlington pipped to the ’89-90 Conference title on the final day of the season with a never-to-be-forgotten 1-0 win at Welling. Crucial was a 2-0 win at Barnet in front of almost 6,000 fans in the closing weeks of the season.

“Barnet away is one I remember very well,” says Little. “We changed formation for that one, and I convinced our players that man for man they were better than Barnet. The physio, Ron Lamprell, reckoned it was the best team talk he had ever heard.

“Welling always sticks in my mind too, with Gary Coatsworth’s goal. I took him to Leicester and people loved him there, and Jimmy Willis came too.”

Leicester came calling at the culmination of the ’90-91, Darlington having followed Conference success and returning to the Football League by topping Division 4.

Again the title was won on the final day with goals by Frank Gray and Cork securing a 2-0 win against Rochdale front of 9,000 at Feethams.

It was Little’s last game before returning to the Midlands where he’d been a hero as a striker with Villa having come through the ranks as a young lad from Peterlee.

“People mention Aston Villa to me - I swept the terracing, I cleaned everyone’s boots, I cleaned the toilets, you do all that and you become part of the club, you can’t help it, and Darlington was the same. There were so many experiences, and you develop a feeling for the place.

“I’d spend time on the terracing at the open end at Feethams, standing at the top there, just plotting and planning what I needed to do. It would be during the week when everyone had gone home, I’d be on my own on the terracing reflecting on what was going at the time, and also being proud to be a manager of a football club.

“Pretty much everywhere I’ve been as a manager I’d spend time standing on the terracing and sitting in the stand, just taking the place in and taking a look at what I was in charge of.

“I did everything. I used to push the skips full of kit around the cricket pitch back out to the bus, I’d lock up the ground, make sure the alarm didn’t go off.

“There was so many things like that were a great grounding. Frank Gray and myself would answer the phone when there was nobody on reception. People would ring up about tickets and then say: ‘Is that Brian Little?’!

“It was a great period for getting stuck in. I even designed the kit! Nowadays the managers don’t get anywhere near doing that. The team used to wear hoops a long time ago, I looked back and thought it was time to do that again, so that’s where the idea came from, and I added the bits of gold.

“The two full seasons I had was a great time to be at Darlington. We were flying, we were so competitive, we had a great bunch of players and they were terrific days.”

*Brian Little will sign copies of his new book at Saturday's Darlington game. To book a place in hospitality email joanne.cameron@darlingtonfc.org

  • Brian Little’s autobiography, A Little Is Enough, is available from www.brianlittleofficial.com - £12.99 (paperback) and £18.99 (hardback)