Mark Griffiths13 Comments

THE CULT OF GLEN LITTLE

Mark Griffiths13 Comments
THE CULT OF GLEN LITTLE
Glen_Little.jpg

What defines a cult hero? There's a limitless number of characteristics that qualify a footballer for the category, but if it's a player who moves like Kramer from "Seinfeld", is usually ruled out for a month if he plays more than fifteen minutes, but make those drawbacks worthwhile with the flashes of imperial flair he brings to a level of the game which ought to be beneath him, then Glen Little fits the bill.

Down in the depths of the English pyramid, five leagues down to be precise, Little is still meandering an eccentric course across the pitch at the age of thirty seven.

He's always attracted a level of affection, his idiosyncratic wanders down the wing making an impact wherever he's gone. By the time he was twenty he was already making friends, winning the Irish Cup in a spell at Glentoran which yielded a goal every three games, he was adored by Burnley fans during a spell at Turf Moor which included nearly three hundred appearances spread over eight years, and was equally revered at Reading.

He arrived at Wrexham after failing to establish himself at Aldershot, injuries and age having driven him further down the ladder in search of game time. At first he merely trained with the Conference side, as they were under a transfer embargo and couldn't sign him up. It would turn out to be an unusually lengthy trial as manager Dean Saunders saw something in him, but couldn't act on his hunch, and Little showed admirable loyalty to him. Things came to a head in August 2011.

A Monday night friendly had seen Little at his beguiling best, clearly head and shoulders above everyone else against Connah's Quay Nomads, but it was difficult for Wrexham's fans to enjoy one of their first chances to see him at work: their financial problems meant they had to raise a £250,000 bond by the end of the day or be kicked out of the Conference just days before the opening match and face a season without football and probably extinction. The game took place against a backdrop of angry protest, as the board failed to meet the payment, offering £100,000 instead. The next day the fans rallied in remarkable manner, paying the remainder themselves as the owners looked on.

With financial matters stabilised manager Dean Saunders was able to offer him a short term contract; Little celebrated the event by going straight out that onto the training pitch and pulling a hamstring.

Thus a pattern would be formed. He'd bewitch with a cameo, then break down. But what cameos! In Saunders' last match as boss at Southport he came on for the final seventeen minutes, having previously accumulated a grand total of four minutes on the pitch that season, and grabbed the game by the throat.

The home side, reduced to ten men and fighting for a goalless draw, were dragged about by his intelligent movement and smart passing. Everything went through him and suddenly light was shone on a gloomy fixture. It didn't work – the game ended 0-0 – but that merely cements his cult hero credentials. Heroic failure, the poignant sense of falling just short of something substantial, would be the motif of his season.

Two and a half months later he'd managed just a further five minutes on the pitch, but that merely served to heighten the anticipation. This wasn't the first time his adoring public had been kept waiting: in 1997 Burnley assistant manager Glenn Roeder had announced that Little was “not fit to lace the boots” of new manager and fellow shambling winger, Chris Waddle, and he found himself in the cold.

The Clarets toiled, not scoring until their seventh match or winning until October, and leading into the Christmas fixtures they were second bottom of the third division. Little had been allowed just 22 minutes on the pitch in the league, and the fans were furious.

It was then that Waddle relented and recalled him. The fans were rewarded for their patience as the prophet returned from the wilderness, leading a fight back which was capped on the final day of the season as victory over Plymouth hauled them out of the relegation places.

For Wrexham, Little returned in a home game against Darlington which was going badly. The visitors had taken the lead and their stubborn rearguard was holding firm comfortably when Little entered with the game three-quarters through.

Immediately things began to knit together around him as he drifted about the pitch, paying no particular attention to structure or formation, merely going where he felt he could hurt the opposition. Immediately players who had looked bedraggled and bereft of ideas were energised – the young players seem particularly to want to be drawn into his intricate passing movements as he gave and went, exchanging short balls and dragging defenders all over the place. Fourteen minutes after his introduction Wrexham had taken a decisive 2-1 lead.

A first start for the club in an under strength side in the FA Trophy yielded a beautifully curled goal from Little but also suggested that, played from the start, his extemporising genius had a detrimental effect on the team's shape as his team mates struggled to fill the gap when they lost the ball. In future his starts necessitated a change of shape in midfield; he could only be used in that way if the side was bent into his shape, which was naturally a gamble.

So his vignettes off the bench continued. A constant game changer in a side which was pushing for the Conference title but running out of steam as injuries, transfers, fixture build-up and a deteriorating home pitch hit home, he was still given the odd chance in the first eleven, and over Easter even managed back-to-back starts. He ran the game at title rivals Fleetwood in what was a last desperate stab at catching the league leaders, then put in another virtuoso performance at home to Grimsby. But the other pattern in Little's recent career, the break down after serious exertion, returned to haunt him and he would miss the rest of the run-in.

Even off the pitch he had a presence though. His regular spot in the front of the main stand became a focus for supporters when Wrexham scored as Little would swing his scarf above his head, sparking a frenzy of mimicry.

His cult hero status assured, he'd return one more time in a desperate gamble to keep the promotion dream alive. Having lost the first leg of the play-off semi-final 2-0 in Luton, Little was thrown on from the start of the second match only to see a recklessly conceded penalty apparently take the game out of Wrexham's reach.

Still, with Little given a free role in front of a double pivot, Wrexham battled on. They hauled back two goals and ended up playing with five up front and Little running an empty midfield. They couldn't get the goal which would force extra time though. Little's time at The Racecourse remained tantalisingly close to glory without quite achieving it. The definition of a cult hero.

The pattern continues. This season he's made five appearances, all from the bench. He picked Tamworth apart on the break as they over-committed for a late equaliser, and rescued an awful performance against Hyde by bringing calm to proceedings and making the key breakthrough with a 78th minute penalty. Dispatched, of course, with a deft flourish. No slamming the ball into the bottom corner for Little.

He's not as athletic or co-ordinated as fans who recall him in his pomp will remember. But that magnetic touch is still there and he still reads the game beautifully, bustling around, looking deceptively clumsy until you see what he's actually doing with the ball. And then he played seventy minutes in September in a hectic match against Dartford, and hasn't been seen since.

At his age, and with his injury record, logic dictates that this will be his last season, although he seems infused with a boyish eagerness and love of the game: he seems someone who'll release his grip on the honour of being paid to play football reluctantly, drifting even further down the leagues to keep living the dream.

As a long career flickers and dies, he soldiers on, determined to bring fantasy to the muddy pitches of non-league football one last time.

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