by Richard DJJ Bowdery.
Today, a £1m transfer seems like chicken feed and barely causes a ripple among football commentators and fans alike. After all, some Premier League stars earn that amount in a matter of weeks. But back in 1979 when Trevor Francis left Birmingham City for Nottingham Forest, a transfer fee of £1,150,000 caused the media to go into overdrive.
Yet this seismic event very nearly didn’t happen because Francis was on the verge of joining Coventry City. However, once Forest boss Brian Clough got wind of the impending deal there was only one likely winner.
So instead of journeying to Highfield Road, Francis took a detour to the City Ground. Armed only with his pension advisor – no agents or middle men – and a list of questions, he found himself seated in Clough’s office, waiting to be interviewed by the great man. The pair waited, and they waited, and they waited. Eventually in bowled Clough carrying a racket, and explained his lateness by saying he’d been playing squash.
Despite the delay, an excited Francis agreed to join Forest and the two men shook hands on the deal. Presumably there was no hitch with the pension. Oddly enough a contract wasn’t signed until later. Compared with today’s transfer dealings it was, perhaps, a transaction carried out in an age of innocence. It was most certainly an age of simplicity.
His playing career
Trevor Francis made his debut for Birmingham City in 1970, aged just 16. He went on to play nearly 300 times for the Midland’s club, scoring 119 goals. While at City he helped the club regain top-flight status when they were promoted back into the old First Division, in 1972.
When he joined Forest in February 1979 things didn’t start at all well. In his first game for his new club, away to Ipswich Town, he was heckled by the home supporters who had one or two things to say about the price tag that hung heavily around Francis’ neck. In an effort to lift the monkey on his back he punched the ball into the Ipswich net. The ‘goal’ was disallowed. Later in the dressing room Clough gave him a right royal rollicking. “Don’t ever do that again while you are playing for this football club!”
But all the pressure of being the £1m man was forgotten when Francis stooped to meet John Robertson’s low cross to head Forest’s winning goal in that year’s European Cup Final against Malmo of Sweden. The following year he helped Forest reach their second successive European Cup Final: this time against German side Hamburg. But injury prevented him from taking part and he could only watch as his teammates claimed their second European crown.
In 1981 he was sold to Manchester City for £1m and Forest recouped their initial outlay. From there he moved to Italy where he was part of the successful Sampdoria side. Former England manager Fabio Capello noted that Francis was the best Englishman to have played in Italy. Fans of the legendary John Charles might disagree.
On leaving Sampdoria he went to play for another Italian side Atalanta Bergamasca Calcio, before heading to Scotland to join Glasgow Rangers. After one season he moved south to Queens Park Rangers, where he was soon promoted to player-manager. Soon Sheffield Wednesday came calling and he was appointed player/manager. Under his management the Owls reached the League Cup and FA Cup Finals in 1993, just failing to get over the line in both caps against their nemesis, Arsenal.
When he hung up his boots, in 1994 at the age of 39 he had played over 600 games, scoring 235 goals.
Francis represented his country from the mid-70s to 1986 winning 52 caps and scoring 12 goals. He made his England debut in a friendly against Holland in 1977 but the highlight came when he represented England at the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain. He scored twice in England’s three group stage matches, but once again the Three Lions failed to make a significant impact on the world’s greatest footballing stage.
In the Trevor Francis era most players waited until retirement before publishing their memoirs. No so the £1m man. In June 1980 World’s Works published Trevor Francis: Anatomy of a £1 Million Player. It was co-written with Rob Hughes. Then in November 1982 Sidgwick & Jackson brought out World to Play For, again co-authored, this time with David Miller. Not bad for a footballer only halfway through his playing career.
Birmingham City has always been Trevor Francis’ first love. So it was no surprise to see him back at St. Andrews in 1996: this time as manager. He continued in that role for a few years, taking them to the League Cup Final in 2001. When Francis left the dugout in October of that year he said at his farewell press conference, in true Schwarzenegger style, I’ll be back – and as the Blues are always in his heart I don’t doubt that one day, he will.
Following his time with the Blues he took charge at south London club Crystal Palace for couple of seasons until 2003.
Since he stepped away from the soccer limelight the £1m man has carved out a successful career as a media pundit and commentator, working for a number of high profile broadcasters. He is also in demand as an after-dinner speaker and as a guest at corporate functions.
Serious health scare
Despite all the money, fame and adulation Francis had garnered throughout his glittering career, it meant nothing when on 13 April 2012, aged 57 he suffered a heart attack which went undiagnosed for 11 hours. At any point during that time he could have died. But following surgery to have a stent fitted and with the help and care of the medical staff at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, he pulled through. He later said: “Some would say I was a little fortunate [to survive] and they would not be too far wrong.”
Honoured in Birmingham
In 2014 Trevor Francis was presented with Birmingham City’s biggest civic honour when he was ‘inducted’ into the Broad Street Walk of Stars. The Stars Selection Committee chairman, the comedian Jasper Carrott, said: “You mention Birmingham City’s most famous players and Trevor Francis is right up there. The award is for people who have done a lot for the area and he’s certainly done that.” Francis spoke at the time of how proud and excited he was to receive this honour.
That ‘£1m man’ tag
Back in 1979 many considered the transfer fee paid for by Nottingham Forest for Trevor Francis to be a world record. In reality Italian forwards Paolo Rossi and Giuseppe Savoldi each cost in excess of two billion lire. The exchange rate at the time put each fee well above £1m. But wherever he goes, even 36 years after that ground-breaking transfer, he is still introduced as the £1m man. Gareth Bale eat your heart out.