Sheffield United: New performance chief reveals his footballing horror stories

“The worst one,” Tom Little says, describing some of the bizarre pre-match meal choices he has seen during more than two decades in football, “Was probably tinned ravioli. The lad in question just sat there, guzzling it straight down. He’d come through the ranks at one of the country’s top sides and has gone on to do really good things now. But that definitely isn’t down to what he was eating. So we had to get that sorted out.”
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Little, fitness guru, conditioning expert and now a published author following the release of his new book ‘The Colour Fit Method’, has seen it all throughout a career which has been dedicated to squeezing every last drop of talent out of elite level athletes. Recently appointed as Sheffield United’s head of performance, a role manager Paul Heckingbottom created in order to improve his squad’s promotion credentials, Little has been pleasantly surprised by how Bramall Lane’s players and backroom staff are willing to embrace his methods. But others, particularly before science became accepted and even fashionable, have proven more resistant. They include Jon Parkin, the gigantic centre-forward he encountered during a spell with Huddersfield Town. Famous for his quadruple XL shirts and fast food diet, ‘The Beast’, Little admits, was impervious to change.

“I quickly realised it wasn’t even worth trying,” he says, now laughing at the memory despite conceding it was “bloody frustrating” at the time. “Bacon butties, crisps, chocolate wrappers all over the inside of his car, Jon made it pretty clear from the off that he was going to carry on doing what he always did. It didn’t matter what anybody told him, that was the way it was going to be.

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“To be fair, it obviously worked for him because he achieved plenty. But I wouldn’t recommend it because Jon was a one-off. A really great guy but also a one off. Totally. Let’s just say that was my biggest challenge.”

The CV

Recruited earlier this summer, Little’s arrival from Preston North End went largely unnoticed when it was announced in a brief statement by United’s media department. More focused on the next defender or centre-forward to pitch up at Bramall Lane, supporters and journalists alike kept their sights fixed on the club’s manoeuvres in the transfer market. But, having become one of Little’s disciples during their stint together at Barnsley, Heckingbottom is convinced the former Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and Burnley employee could turn out to be the most important signing of the close season. At Turf Moor, Little’s presence coincided with Brian Laws’ side collecting the lowest number of injuries in the Premier League. Other notable entries on his impressive CV include the best wage to points ratio for three consecutive seasons (Sheffield Wednesday), two academy titles (Forest) and five promotions. One of those came at Oakwell which, Little reflects, was the most fulfilling moment of his career so far.

Sheffield United's head of performance Tom Little moved to Bramall Lane from Prestin North EndSheffield United's head of performance Tom Little moved to Bramall Lane from Prestin North End
Sheffield United's head of performance Tom Little moved to Bramall Lane from Prestin North End

“It was because there was only three of us - Andy Ritchie, Rick Holden who was his assistant and physio, and me. We did pretty much everything between us and it felt like three renegades roaming across the country.”

Little made a big impression on Heckingbottom at Barnsley. But Heckingbottom, it transpires, also left his mark on Little.

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“He won’t thank me for saying so but I always remember him getting sent-off during a match against Sheffield Wednesday. We’d just gone up and Paul had played for them so he was desperate to do well and then, the next minute he was off. I can mention that now, though, because I’ve signed my contract.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and Jack Lester have worked with Tom Little before: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and Jack Lester have worked with Tom Little before: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and Jack Lester have worked with Tom Little before: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

“Joking aside though, the thing I always remember about Paul, other than the fact he was a really good and dedicated professional, was how polite he was as well. Just a really great guy. He was as kind to the cleaners as he was the chief executive. We used to have lots of get-togethers - players, staff and families - and he was always the one who was happy to keep the kids entertained when everyone else was busy drinking.

“Paul always had such high-standards. I came across Jack Lester who’s on board here too, when I was at Forest. He’s a really intelligent guy.”

The first steps

United are about to discover just how high during Heckingbottom’s first pre-season in sole charge, which begins in earnest when they travel to Portugal for warm-weather training and a friendly against Casa Pia this week.

Sheffield United's first team squad will benefit from Tom Little's ideas: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United's first team squad will benefit from Tom Little's ideas: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United's first team squad will benefit from Tom Little's ideas: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
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“This year, Paul wants to have individual development plans,”says Little, who holds bachelors and masters degrees as well as a Phd. “So that’s a big project I’m going to be involved in. But I’ve got a really warm glow already about this place, because we’ve got so much great experience on the staff in lots of different fields.

“If you asked me to describe my role, I’d say it’s all things to do with performance - fitness, nutrition, data management and such like. There’s a great team here already. One that’s already got a promotion to the Premier League under its belt a few years ago, so no emergency. A great academy too.

“It’s all about clarity and direction, being office and pitch based. The great thing is, we can all do the different spheres as well as focusing on particular specialisms.”

Little’s responsibility is to tie all of those strands together and ensure United are the best they can possibly be.

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“Everyone always wants to improve and those tiny little percentages, they can make a big difference, particularly at the top end of the table which is where we aim to be. The great thing is, I can tell already there’s a real togetherness here and a desire to reflect the qualities of this city, which are hard work, commitment and real determination allied with genuine ability.”