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Defence to be bedrock of Albion's next attack; Michael Ward finds Brian Little ready, willing and able for his massive re-building task.

Brian Little is either a brave man, or else he needs the pounds 250,000-a-year salary more than you might expect of a former player and much-travelled manager who should now be financially secure for life.

The money was not a consideration, in fact. The buzz of football still attracts him like a magnet, even if the challenge of managing West Bromwich Albion has seen a string of predecessors ruthlessly discarded in recent years. Others, tempted by other clubs, couldn't get out fast enough.

Call The Hawthorns pitch a graveyard of managers? Dig beneath the undersoil heating, and you find a large scattering of bones. Failure to win promotion to the promised land of top flight football has taken a terrible toll and Little will be well aware of the politics leading up to his appointment as Denis Smith's successor on Tuesday.

It hardly augurs well for a happy start to the new season, with Norwich City the first team up at The Hawthorns on Saturday. Three directors have resigned in the space of four months. Paul Thompson, the biggest shareholder with a 28 per cent stake in the club, signalled the start of his battle to oust chairman Tony Hale by quitting the board last February.

Barry Hurst and Clive Stapleton followed in rapid succession, placing their allegiance full-square behind Thompson. Hale, helped by the large block vote of Jersey-based majority shareholder Graham Waldron, triumphed over the rebels at a stormy EGM in July. But it was a pyrrhic victory in the sense that Hale, a decent and honest man with Albion close to his heart, had seen the club brought almost to its knees.

It is now Little's task to lift the team, a bemused bunch of players who have made no sense of the internal wrangling which reached its climax with another round of managerial blood-letting - the sacking of manager Denis Smith last week.

Little is determined to see his players rise above all this. "As professionals, what happens off the pitch is no concern of ours," he said. Neither is the former Aston Villa striker and manager daunted by the task of motivating players who are now financially massively better off compared with the days when he was entrancing the Holte End as a player two decades ago.

"The first task is to assemble a team capable of winning matches in the First Division," he said. "Motivation shouldn't be a problem. Every player at this level should want to play in the Premiership. There's no greater incentive than that."

Ambitious though it sounds, Little is quietly confident promotion can be achieved in the span of his initial two-year contract. "I feel I've taken on a job that gives me a genuine chance of achieving that," he said.

"But I now how difficult it's going to be. This is an extremely hard league to get out of. As we gear ourselves up for the new season, 75 per cent of the First Division clubs will be thinking they can make the play-offs.

"It isn't going to happen for all of them. But given the seIf-belief, we can make it happen for us. I hope when I go home each weekend, it will be with a feeling that I can't wait to be back at work the next morning. That will mean we're making progress towards our ultimate goal."

A major plus for Little is to have taken up his appointment in the knowledge that Lee Hughes, scorer of 32 goals last season, has signed a new contract. "Lee will be a key part of my strategy," the Albion manager said. "With him on form and firing, you've always got a chance of winning matches."

When he arrived just three months after resigning from Stoke City, Little needed no briefing on his immediate priority in the coming season. "To make us a much harder team to beat," he said. "There's something seriously wrong when a side can score 69 goals in a season, and concede 76. It's obvious the defence needs tightening up.

"But the positive aspect is the team have players capable of scoring goals. But we need the base of a much stronger defence. We must first and foremost be a team that give very little away, but that is given every incentive to attack."

For all the faith Little has in key players like Hughes and Albion's talented Republic of Ireland winger Kevin Kilbane, others are on very short trial. Albion's rearguard, the First Division's laughing stock last season, is certain to undergo a serious overhaul. "The whole challenge is one that really appeals to me," Little said. "I know there's money to spend, but it has to be spent wisely. I have to be certain that any player I bring in will be to improve the squad."

Little believes he and the club who beckoned him from the briefest of exiles last week were made for each other. The Albion fans have yet to warm to the new manager, but three points at home to Norwich City on Saturday will at least break the ice.

ALBION SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Alan Miller, Phil Whitehead, Chris Adamson, Elliott Morris

Defenders: Daryl Burgess, Paul Raven, Matt Carbon, Jason Van Blerk, Paul Mardon, Andy McDermott, Daniel Gabbidon, James Chambers, Graham Potter, Paul Holmes

Midfielders: Sean Flynn, Richard Sneekes, Kevin Kilbane, Enzo Maresca, Adam Oliver, Adam Chambers, James Quinn, Mark Angel, Michael Garrity, Max Iezzi

Forwards: Lee Hughes, Michael Evans, Fabian De Freitas, Justin Richards, Brian Quailey

SUMMER TRANSFERS

In: Max Iezzi (AS Roma) free

Out: Shaun Murphy (released) Mario Bortolazzi (released)

ONE TO WATCH - LEE HUGHES

Any player who can score 32 goals in a season is worth watching. Gifted players like Kevin Kilbane caught the eye in patches, but Lee Hughes consistently offered the most compulsive viewing.

The fact that Albion's former Kidderminster Harriers striker scored almost 50 per cent of their First Division goals tally last season speaks volumes for itself. His pace, alertness and lethal finishing left many a defence in tatters.

When Hughes is on song, the whole Albion team can be a symphony.

If Brian Little can sort the defence out this season, Hughes will happily orchestrate the promotion challenge.
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Title Annotation:National
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 5, 1999
Words:1036
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