Brian Little: When I took Goodison to Tranmere, he had the worst training session I’ve ever seen

The man who brought Ian Goodison to Prenton Park was in one of the dugouts on Saturday. Brian Little knew the defender from his time in charge at Hull and was quick to sign him once he got the Tranmere job during the 2003/04 season.

After that, the rest is history. He made a further 409 appearances after his debut in a 1-1 draw at Oldham in February 2004 and became one of the most important and talented players to pull on the white shirt over the last two decades.

Under Little’s guidance, he not only helped Rovers reach the play-offs in his second campaign with the club, but appeared in an FA Cup quarter-final against Millwall just a month after joining.

“I first met Ian when I became the manager of Hull, which was around about 1999, so it’s a long time ago now! Both he and Theodore Whitmore were already there.He was playing as a holding midfield player in those days, and he was slightly quieter than Theo, so he was more difficult to get to known. But there was something about him.

When I went to Tranmere, Ian was searching for a club. I’d actually taken him down to Bristol City. He’d had a bad injury which had kept him out, and I actually rang Danny Wilson and said ‘will you have a look at this lad, he played for me at Hull and I think he’s ideal for you.’

As it turned out, Danny said he’d done well, but ‘we’re just not looking for that type of player.’ So I’d made some contact with Ian prior to me going to Tranmere. When I went there, immediately I thought I’d get him in and see how he does. He’d been recovering from an injury so I needed to look at him. I contacted him, he came straight over and he probably had the worst training session I’ve ever seen in my life, to the point that John McMahon and myself looked at him and even I admitted he hadn’t done well.

I’m not sure if he remembers that training session, but he was terrible. He had an absolute nightmare. But I decided – the others were looking at me and saying ‘are you sure’ – I’ve got to have a look at him. I couldn’t believe injuries would have knocked him back so much. So it’ll be interesting to know if he remembers that first training session. I’ve never really spoken to him about it. But we quite easily could have sent him home. Thankfully we didn’t. He settled down and pretty much the rest is history.

He often dropped me in trouble at Tranmere, because people were wondering where he was in pre-season. He was supposed to be back! He was pretty hard to get hold of. When he went home, he used to like to go home. But when he came back he went to work. You always felt that he would push you to the limit from time to time and I always backed him. I felt he knew what he was doing and I put his performances on the field away from the fact that every now and again he needed to go home.

He spent a lot of time away from home and his family, so I suppose that little bit of family time he had at the end of the season was very important to him. I always backed him to come back in good shape. I knew he could come back and play football straight away. I guess he was strong enough to occasionally do what he wanted to do, which wasn’t always to everyone’s liking.

The thing with Ian was, he was always at his best doing his own thing. If you watch him when he was in the gym, he was always in there for longer than anyone else after training had finished. He worked hard at his physique; he kept his body in good shape. He was probably more dedicated than a lot of people will ever imagine. There are all kinds of characters in football. Sometimes you have to look at the character and if you get to know him reasonably well, you’ll understand him.

Because I’ve managed in the Premier League, Championship, Division One and Two and the Conference and Conference North, I have such a wide variation of people that you have to deal with.

I signed Gareth Southgate for over £2million and he probably turned out to be one of my best signings. But then there were clubs where I had to sign free transfers. Ian is in amongst that crop of players who I’d say ‘he didn’t cost me penny, never gave me a day’s problem.’ I got on well with him and pound for pound, penny for penny, you can’t beat those type of signings. So he ranks very highly. He’s right up there.

Over the years there would have had a few managers who would have said ‘hang on, I’m not having this’, because he wasn’t overly enthusiastic about too many things. But in his own way, he’s very serious about it. So you just have to get to know that side of him. I can imagine a few people might have turned their nose up at him in some way though.

Ian was a fit lad. You wouldn’t want to tackle him. People who’ve seen pictures of him would say he’s a big lad. But he had some physique and fitness and unbelievable body strength. I was surprised! He was very good and looked after himself far better than people may imagine.

Because he’s so laid back and he doesn’t say much, people wouldn’t really get to know him overly well. I think I’m lucky that I do and he goes out of his way to speak to me. He’s a great character and he looked after himself a lot better than people think.

I never had any hard times with Ian Goodison. It’s always great to see him, because whenever I do, he calls me dad. Everyone looks around at us strangely! He always has a little present for me or something like that, so my memories of him are more of a personal thing than anything else.”

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