Friday saw Brian Little bring to an end his time at Tranmere after two years and seven months in charge. He left the club by mutual consent following a miserable season at Prenton Park. Here, we look back at his reign at Rovers.
September 27, 2003. A 2-1 defeat at home to local rivals Wrexham left Rovers 20th in the Second Division having taken only eight points from their opening ten games. Later on that evening, news broke that the club had sacked Ray Mathias from his position as manager.
John McMahon took over in a caretaker manager role and led the club to only their second win of the season three days later as a Danny Senda own goal help Rovers to a 2-1 home success against Wycombe Wanderers. It was a false dawn though, and a 3-1 defeat live on Sky at Luton was proceeded by a shambolic 6-0 defeat at Plymouth Argyle.
With Lou Macari dithering over a contract to become new Tranmere boss, the club knew they had to act quickly. Within 24 hours of the full time whistle at Home Park, Macari’s offer was ripped up and former Aston Villa boss Brian Little was unveiled to the waiting media at Prenton Park.
The reaction from the fans was a positive one as Little brought a decent reputation with him and was thought of as a big name in the Second Division.
His first game was at Blackpool 48 hours later in the LDV Vans Trophy. Trailing 3-0 at half time, Rovers pulled two back after the break but still went out 3-2. Little was given a rousing welcome by the Prenton Park faithful a few days later as Oldham visited the Wirral for his first taste of league action. A 2-1 win was followed by another victory at home to Swindon Town.
Rovers lost only two games out of Little’s first twelve in charge and progressed to the third round of the FA Cup thanks to victories over Chesterfield and Hornchurch.
Little shouts instructions during the cup win over Hornchurch
Entering the new year in 15th position, old rivals Bolton Wanderers visited in the FA Cup third round. An immense performance by Rovers saw Simon Haworth put them infront before a last gasp Kevin Nolan goal took the tie back to the Reebok for a replay.
Eugene Dadi looked to have won it for Tranmere until another late goal sent the game into extra time. Just seconds in, Iain Hume scored an absolute belter to win the game and send Rovers through to round four.
Little gees up the players before extra time at the Reebok
The cup run continued as Luton and Swansea were despatched to see the club reach the FA Cup Quarter Final once again. A tough trip to Millwall was negotiated successfully as John Achterberg became the hero of the hour, his penalty save sending the tie back to Prenton Park for a replay. With Sunderland awaiting in the semis at Old Trafford, Rovers were beaten 2-1 at home and for the first time questions were asked about Little by a couple of fans. Why had he dropped top scorer Eugene Dadi for such a massive game?
The cup form had also had a detrimental effect on the league campaign as a real chance of a play-off spot was seemingly forgotten about as Tranmere slipped away a little. The defeat to Millwall paved the way for a nine game unbeaten run in the league which was ended in the penultimate game away to Port Vale, an injury time Stephen McPhee goal finally ending Rovers’ hopes of a top six finish. Grimsby were beaten in Birkenhead on the final day and Tranmere finished the season 8th.
The summer saw several players arrive early on as Theo Whitmore, Jason McAteer, Mark Rankine, Calvin Zola and Michael Jackson all joined. Added to previous signings by Little of Goodison and Beresford, it was a strong squad that entered the 2004/05 campaign.
An opening day defeat at Peterborough luckily wasn’t a sign of things to come and Rovers hit back with four wins in their next five and weren’t defeated again in the league until the epic 5-4 reverse at home to Bradford in October.
Early cup exits in both the FA and Carling competitions against Peterborough and Portsmouth respectively put extra pressure on Little to achieve promotion financially, though the club did continue their run in the LDV Vans Trophy only to be beaten on penalties in the Northern Semi-Final.
A few cracks begun to appear in the league programme as a 4-0 thrashing at Bristol City in November paved the way for away day defeats at Port Vale (3-1) and the farcical and extremely costly 6-1 defeat at fellow promotion chasers Hull.
Tyrone Loran was released and Eugene Dadi was finding first team football hard to come by as fans became frustrated with a supposed negative outlook by Little. The team was starting to struggle and Bristol City publicised the weaknesses live on national TV as the Sky cameras were present to watch Leroy Lita hand the Robins a 1-0 victory at Prenton Park in January.
That was followed with a resounding 5-1 win away at Wrexham though, a result that galvanised the promotion challenge. A home win against Walsall set Rovers up for the massive game away at league leaders Luton. A sell-out crowd saw the recalled Dadi poke Tranmere infront within minutes only to be denied the win thanks the a dubious second half penalty.
The tendency by the manager to chop and change the team wasn’t helping, and by the time Hull City came to Prenton Park in early March, victory was a must to keep any hopes of promotion automatically alive. The visitors ran out comfortable 3-1 victors and opened the gap between themselves and third placed Rovers to seven points.
The remainder of the season saw Little’s side simply fizzle out in games and become inconsistent. The 4-2 defeat at home to Doncaster was arguably the day Eugene Dadi sealed his fate as he was sent off for elbowing an opponent. With third place all but secured with a 2-1 win at Hillsbrough, Little threw the kids in for the final couple of games to rest Rankine, McAteer and co. for the play-offs.
By the time the first leg came at Hartlepool Little had once again dropped Dadi and decided to play winger Paul Hall as a striker. It cost us again as Hartlepool took a 2-0 lead back to Prenton Park. Dadi was restored for the second leg as a packed Prenton Park roared on a superb late fightback as Tranmere forced the game to extra time. It was more penalty shoot-out heartache though as Rovers fans were left to ponder another season at this level.
The summer saw Taylor and Hume sold, Dadi allowed to leave and Paul Hall allowed to join Chesterfield despite scoring 12 goals. Chris Greenacre was the main arrival as Little waited for Alex Bruce to regain fitness before bringing him in on loan to replace Taylor.
Opening day defeat at Swansea was proceeded by a 2-2 draw with Blackpool and a 4-0 thumping of Oldham. It was a false dawn though as early exits from all cup competitions compounded the troubles in the league. Things seemed to come to a head in November when MK Dons recorded their first away win of the season at Prenton Park and the club issued a strange statement shortly afterwards. Local press and former Tranmere players saw the statement as a move by the club to force Little out, although that was quickly denied.
The answer from Little was to sack his assistant Richard Hill. Not much changed on the field though. The goals of Chris Greenacre were proving vital. With the transfers of Summerbee and Bruce ending up complete and utter failures, Little brought Simon Francis in on loan from Sheffield United. The right back scored on his debut in the draw with Swansea at Prenton Park but Rovers still couldn’t find a decent run of form.
A combination of losing 4-1 at home to Brentford and another penalty shoot-out failure at home to Carlisle in the LDV’s seemed to give Tranmere a long overdue kick up the behind. An eleven game unbeaten run followed, and although it consisted mainly of draws, it was enough to lift Rovers away from immediate danger. The pressure was relieved somewhat off Little, yet he adamantly ruled out any chance of the play-offs to further anger some supporters.
The arrivals of David Raven and Dino Seremet didn’t change much and a nightmare run through April had both Little and player-coach Jason McAteer criticising the fans for their reaction during games and from there on in relations between manager and fans became strained.
With survival seemingly assured with a win over Port Vale at the end of March, the club organised a Fans Forum which would give fans the chance to put their questions to Lorraine Rogers, Brian Little and John McMahon.
Defeat against Rotherham, Forest and Colchester meant that by the time the meeting came around there was a lot of ill feeling amongst fans. It was an uncomfortable looking Brian Little that turned up, although all questions were answered fairly by the panel. It seemed to settle many fans down.
A 3-0 defeat at Prenton Park just 48 hours later undid all the work the forum had done. A small protest outside the ground was quickly moved away by Police and stewards, whilst any ‘LITTLE OUT’ banners around the ground were quickly removed by stewards.
The vital last gasp win at MK Dons last week assured Rovers’ safety when it looked as though the club was heading for a return to the bottom tier of English football. The season had been an awful one though, and rumours in the press in the days following proved accurate as Brian Little left the club by mutual consent on Friday morning with one game of the season remaining.
Little’s time in charge at Rovers was certainly eventful. Few will forget the fantastic fight-back against Hartlepool or the brilliant win in the FA Cup against Bolton. Unfortunately, for every positive memory their seems to be twice as many negative ones. The football had become dull and lifeless, the crowds had dropped and the matchday atmosphere in Prenton Park had become worst than it had been in some years.
With the exception of a pop at the fans a couple of months ago, Little remained dignified until the last.
The search to find his replacement begins in earnest.