Given the sad news that Trevor Francis has passed away today aged 69, we thought we’d run a couple of old pieces to pay tribute to a true gent. In this piece, originally published back in August 2019, we remember when Francis was being linked to the biggest job of all…
In the latest of my occasional series looking at men who could have become England manager at one point or another, I take a look at the managerial career of Trevor Francis.
Amazing though it seems now, the one-time Brummie ‘super kid’ looked to be amongst the favourites to land the Big Job of England Manager back in 1993 when Graham Taylor was floundering, and qualification for the 1994 USA World Cup was looking doubtful (as it was to ultimately prove).
Trevor Francis burst onto the scene as a player with his hometown club, Birmingham City, as a precarious sixteen-year-old in 1970. He spent nine years in the first team, scoring more than one hundred and forty goals in over three hundred appearances before becoming Britain’s “first one million pound player” in a February 1979 move to the league champions, Nottingham Forest.
Francis scored the winning goal for Forest in that year’s European Cup final, but notwithstanding this feat was not, in fact, a particular success at Forest. He was unlucky with a lengthy injury, and Brian Clough, for reasons known only to Cloughie himself, played Francis out of position on the right wing rather than at centre forward, as the player preferred.
Francis never really seemed to take to Cloughie and his methods, and it could even be said that the feeling was mutual. They never really seemed to click and Francis was one of the few players brave enough to air some of his grievances publicly, stating on more than one occasion that he didn’t particularly appreciate being publicly criticized by Clough.
Whatever the ins and outs of the situation, Francis didn’t stay that long at Forest, leaving for Manchester City just two and a half years and less than a hundred appearances later.
Further transfers occurred, and Francis went on to enjoy a long playing career for Sampdoria and Atalanta in Italy, Glasgow Rangers in Scotland, and Queens Park Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday back in England, before playing his final game as player-manager at Wednesday just short of his fortieth birthday, not far short of a quarter of a century after his debut for Birmingham City.
He embarked on his managerial career while still a player at QPR in November 1988. It was at a time when the player-manager was the ‘in thing’ in British football. The successes in the role of Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool and Graeme Souness at Glasgow Rangers had opened up the idea to big-name players coming directly off the playing field into high-profile managerial positions and many clubs, at this time, saw this as the way forward. So, when Jim Smith left QPR to take over at Newcastle, the Rangers board turned to the 34-year-old Francis.
Upon hearing his former charge had gone into management Brian Clough is reported to have commented, “He won’t make a manager. He’s too nice.”
Francis, once again, publicly disagreed with Clough and then seemed to go out of his way to prove him wrong. To say Francis wasn’t a popular manager with the players at QPR is an understatement. There was resentment from the beginning in some quarters at the way Francis had been appointed, with some players reportedly urging the board to appoint the first-team coach Peter Shreeves instead, and it was alleged that Francis himself had given his backing to such an appointment only to then apply for the post himself.
Upon taking up the reigns, things didn’t improve. Francis was seen as being an autocratic boss who had no compunction about criticising players in public and complaining about players ‘lack of loyalty’. This seemed a bit rich at the time from a guy who’d had, at the time, no less than seven clubs in his playing career, and hadn’t been seen to be exactly loyal to Peter Shreeves.
Another incident that is said to have led to disharmony at the club allegedly happened during a reserve team game in which Francis was playing. A young Rangers player, seemingly frustrated with what he perceived to be the forward line’s lack of mobility, is said to have urged ‘a bit more movement up there,’ only to be promptly told by Francis, ‘If you ever speak to me like that again you will be out of this club’.
However, what possibly brought the players’ dislike out into the open was the Martin Allen affair and how it was handled by Francis. Martin Allen was a regular in the team and was one of the mainstays of the side under Francis. However, even at that stage he was a bit of a handful and was beginning to develop the character and personality that would eventually lead him to be labelled ‘Mad Dog Allen.
Martin Allen’s wife was expecting the birth of their child, and Allen requested permission to be by her side. Francis refused and said that Allen had to travel with the team overnight to an away fixture at Newcastle. In the night, Allen’s wife went into labour, and Allen, upon hearing the news, left the team hotel without Francis’s permission to be with her. Francis, understandably, was not amused and fined the player, and there the matter could and should have ended.
However, the media got hold of the story and for a while, it became a matter of fierce debate both inside and out of the football world. How dare a manager stop a player from being with his wife at such a time, argued one side, while the other countered with, how dare a player be so unprofessional and openly defy his manager?
The debate dragged on much longer than it should have done and was not handled well by either side. Francis, while not mentioning Allen by name, was to talk openly about there being a lack of professionalism amongst players at the club, and to go as far as to label some players (again anonymously) as ‘cheats’. Not a wise move.
What happened next is a matter of conjuncture. It has been said that a deputation of senior players, including some Francis himself had signed, went to the board and demanded his dismissal, saying that they couldn’t respect him or work with him. That version of events has always been denied by all parties, but the fact remains that Francis was shown the door shortly afterwards.
There is an interesting footnote to this story. In March 2009 Martin Allen gave an interview to the QPR website in which he discussed events of the time. He finished the interview with this anecdote. “Several years later, I played for West Ham away to Sheffield Wednesday – when Trevor Francis was the manager at Hillsborough. I got badly injured in the game and had to go to the hospital. Later that night there was a phone call to my ward and the nurse came over and said ‘Trevor Francis from Sheffield Wednesday just rang. He enquired how you are and if you are healthy.’ Well, at that point, I had to pinch myself because it was the first time Trevor had communicated with me since I left the QPR team hotel at Newcastle!”
Trevor Francis then went to Sheffield Wednesday, initially as a player, before taking over from Ron Atkinson as player-manager in 1991 when ‘Big Ron’ somewhat controversially took over at Aston Villa.
The first two seasons were pretty much-unqualified successes, and so put Francis right in the running to take over from Taylor once England’s non-qualification for the 1994 USA World Cup became official. In 1991-92, Francis’s Wednesday team finished a close third behind Manchester United and Leeds, the last winners of the old First Division before the onset of the Premier League. 1992-92 saw Wednesday reach the final of both domestic cups, only to see them fall 2-1 each time to the same opponents, Arsenal.
Notwithstanding the cup final disappointments, Francis’s star had risen so far as to make him a serious contender for the position when it became vacant in the dark days of the winter of 1993-94.
So, why wasn’t he appointed? The FA weren’t going to be rushed into a decision and so wisely enlisted the help of one of football’s elder statesmen, Jimmy Armfield, to do some leg-work in sounding out potential candidates and canvassing senior players and other important figures in the game, before bringing his recommendations back to the powers that be at FA HQ.
Trevor Francis’s name was certainly on Armfield’s list of possibles (as was Trevor’s namesake Gerry) but his relative youth (he was not quite forty at the time), as well as the slight lingering of distaste over his time at QPR, probably counted against him.
Francis himself was said to be flattered at the interest shown in him, but never seriously considered himself a real contender at that point.
It was generally agreed that it was probably too early for Francis in 1994, but he was marked down as a real contender for the future. As things turned out, this early managerial promise wasn’t lived up to and he never came close to being considered again.
He stayed at Sheffield Wednesday until 1995 when he was somewhat harshly dismissed on account of the club finishing mid-table in the Premiership. A year later he took over as manager of First Division Birmingham City in an emotional return to the club he had started his career at as a teenage boy-wonder, and in six years at the helm he consistently took City to the play-offs without managing to take the next step up to the Premiership, although he did take them to a League Cup final which they unluckily lost to Liverpool on penalties.
A short-lived and not especially successful spell as manager of Crystal Palace followed the sack at Birmingham, since when Francis has concentrated on punditry and outside business interests.