Northern Irish internationalist Andy Little is recovering from ANOTHER nasty injury, as the striker looks to regain fitness but more so, his enjoyment of the game. This, is Andy Little’s story. Part One.
Little grew up playing many sports, before moving into the world of football, after joining Rangers, aged 17.
“I played nearly every sport when growing up, to be honest. I played Golf; Tennis, while also playing a bit of rugby at school. Come the age of 14, however, I started to concentrate on football a lot more. I signed with Rangers a year late – most people move over from Northern Ireland when they are 16, but, I stayed on at school as I hadn’t really been offered anything at that point. I went on trial while I was 16, but I was 17 by the time I had moved over. At the end of my week-long trial, they offered me a 2-year youth contract.”
During Little’s youth career, he won various titles, including the Youth League and Youth Cup.
“We had been pretty successful – we had won the league, the last two seasons and we had won the cup the previous year too. We had beaten Celtic in the final 5-1 – it was comfortable. However, the second year it was totally different. It went into extra-time and our right back had a shot, their keeper fumbled it and I took a touch – unfortunately I was facing the wrong so I tried a backheel and luckily for me, it went in! John Fleck was the star of that final; he scored the either the equaliser or the goal to put us 1-0 up, I can’t quite remember, but it was an absolute screamer. Then, I managed to get the goal which made it 2-1, before Flecky ran the length of the pitch at the end to score a third. It was an amazing feeling at that age: to play in Scotland’s national stadium, in front of a big crowd – I think there was around 10,000 fans there that night. It gave me a good taster for what was to come.”
The experiences which Little and his team-mates gathered allowed them to progress further up the ranks, as they pushed for places in the firs-team.
“I think it could’ve been done better, to be honest. We had a lot of good players at the club, who left. They’ve gone on to have good careers, elsewhere but they could’ve stayed longer. I think everyone thinks that about their youth team, though. You”ve always got a special bond with the players you come through the ranks with. There was still decent enough numbers, though – John Fleck, Danny Wilson, Ross Perry, Rhys McCabe, Jamie Ness…these boys all broke through and played so it was a reasonable number, but, I think there is a better progression now to the first-team.”
Despite having not played a senior game at club level, Little was called up to the Northern Ireland squad.
“I had been involved with the [Rangers] squad all season, but I hadn’t actually played. I then got a phone call from [then Northern Ireland manager] Nigel Worthington one night – he had a few injuries and I got called up. I made my debut as a late substitute for David Healy – who is a hero of mines. To be called up, make my debut and for us to win, it was amazing week – it was a World Cup Qualifier and ironically, Artur Boruc was in the nets for Poland. We won the game 3-2 at Windsor Park.”
When Little’s bow for Rangers came, it was in the 2009 Scottish Cup Semi-Final victory over St Mirren.
“I think the good thing was, we were winning 3-0 when I came on. By that point, the game was comfortable, which slightly eased my nerves, and I got 20 or 25 minutes on the pitch, too. It was a dream come true but to make it at Hampden, in a Scottish Cup Semi-Final, made that moment a little bit more special.”
The following season, Little made his starting debut, at home to Celtic. Unfortunately for the Northern Irishman, it only lasted a few minutes due to a hamstring injury.
“It was devastating, obviously. To make my debut, and get such a big opportunity to do so, in such a big game was great and I didn;t even feel any nerves before it – so, for it to end so suddenly and so frustratingly, I was absolutely devastated. Perhaps, though, that game and that injury toughened me up for future disappointments that would come my way because you are going to get them in football and I have had my fair share of them!”
Little is known and remembered at Ibrox for his goal-scoring exploits, but he also filled in for the Gers in numerous other positions in his time at the club.
“Like any young player, you get moved about a bit when you are coming through. I played centre-midfield as well as right-back. It was Sandy Jardine, actually, who had a look at me in a reserve game one time and he recommended to Walter Smith that I would be a good right-back. For a legend, such as the late Sandy Jardine, to recommend you, it was an honour. He obviously saw something in me; I ended up going back to striker, and that is where I see my position as, but, I have always considered myself quite versatile too. On the other hand though, it is sometimes a bad thing because I just want to play every week, no matter where I have been but if you are mostly seen as a versatile player who can fit into lots of places, then, you can’t always be guaranteed to start and that can become an issue, as well.”
Despite the positive strides in which Little made in the infancy of his senior career, he has always remained humble.
“I don’t think I have ever got ahead of myself. I don’t think I have ever viewed myself as an outstanding talent. I never thought I’d get the chance to play with Rangers. I knew it was going to be a challenge to stay in the team or at least around it because there is a lot of good players there – at that time, I just felt as if all my hard work was paying off. Every extra year I got at Rangers, I loved it. I went out on loan to Port Vale as well, at the start of the folliwing season, so I realised I still wasn’t going to be a regular player for Rangers at that age – 19 going on 20. If I wasn’t going to play, I needed to go out and get some experience. I picked up another injury and came back to the club and got back in and around the team. It was just another episode of the rollercoaster. Unless you have genuine quality, like Kieran Tierney at Celtic just now, then when you played for one of the Old Firm, you are never going to be a regular starter due to the quality of squad that they have available to them. The guys in front of me were at a different level to what I was.”
Little signed a new contract as Rangers geared up fir life in the Third Division.
“After spending 6 years trying to get a regular game – and being behind some great players such as Kris Boyd, Kenny Miller, [Nikica] Jelavic, [Kyle] Lafferty, [Steven] Naismith and boys like that, then, I knew with them leaving, it meant I could get an opportunity. To get the choice to play for Rangers week-in, week-out, regardless of what league we were in and who we were playing against, I was always going to take it. It was massive for me confidence wise; despite all of the adversity and the negatives that were surrounding the club at that point, I was loving being a part of it. At the end of the day, we won the league and for me to play a big part in it, that is all that mattered to me – I didn’t really care about the off-pitch stuff.”
The following season, however, would be Little’s last at Ibrox.
“[Speaking of the injury he picked up early that season vs Dunfermline] It couldn’t have came at any worse a time, to be honest. I was still in the team and I was looking forward to a season of hopefully doing well again. It was massive frustration, once again. “Why me?” was the kind of thoughts rushing through my mind. At the end of the day though, you appreciate when you play football, there is a potential for these things to happen. I don’t blame Alex Whittle [the Dunfermline player involved in the collision] or anything like that, these things happen and it was just unfortunate. It was really, really, bad timing for me and it was also the first time I had ever broken a bone. It was a weird feeling for me, having to be in hospital for a period of time but I just viewed it as a bit of a speedbump. I did have a few doubts [about getting a new contract], because he [Ally McCoist] had delayed his decision and delayed speaking to me. The season ended on the Saturday, we were playing away to Dunfermline. On the Tuesday, I had a meeting with him. I would’ve expected him to speak to me the week before the Dunfermline game, so I was absolutely gutted. I have never been as upset, in a football sense. I was in tears leaving the building. Even though I had a few doubts, to actually hear the words “you are being released” and it becoming official – especially when it wasn’t my decision – was really, really, tough to take. At the same time, though, I do understand it. Kenny Miller and Kris Boyd were being looked at to being brought in by the gaffer and he didn’t have the budget to keep everyone. When you are going to be replaced, you can accept it slightly when you know it is by two legends of the club.”
Little then moved down south after signing for Preston North End.
“It was unique for me – I hadn’t had to look for a club before. I had been with Rangers for 8 years and settled where I was. If I’m honest, I took the advice of my agent – and another obvious point was I went where the money was. There is a lot more money in England – I was getting offers from Scottish Premiership clubs but the wages being offered were around half of what I was getting if I went to England, so, for me – and I ain’t going to beat around the bush about it – I went there due to the better offer financially. Also, though, Preston were pushing to get out of League One and in the end we did, we got promoted to the Championship that season and I viewed it as a good move for me. My agent, Colin Murdock, who had played with Hibs had also played with Preston as well, so he knew they had a good chance of getting promoted that season. I went there to try and test myself out down in England; I went there for money and I went there to try and get promoted as well.”
Part Two will be released tomorrow.