Trevor Francis: Britain’s first million pound footballer dies

Trevor Francis Forest

In the same week a club has offered £259m for Mbappe, it seems incredible players were once worth less than £1m. Trevor Francis changed all that.

Want to know how famous Trevor Francis was? Listen to the theme tune to Britain’s Best Loved Comedy – Only Fools and Horses;

“…and Trevor Francis tracksuits from a mush in Shepherd’s Bush”

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The football world was shocked to hear the news Francis had died from a heart attack at the age of 69. He fit throughout his playing and management career he was never one to party or join in with the boozing culture so prevalent in the 70s and 80s.

His family released a statement saying;

“Trevor Francis has died at the age of 69. He had a heart attack at his apartment in Spain this morning. On behalf of the family, this has come as a huge shock to everybody. We are all very upset. He was a legendary footballer but he was also an extremely nice person.”

This was his second heart attack. Medical evidence will tell you it’s not necessarily the first one which kills. His first one was in 2012.

In 2017 he suffered the death of Helen, his wife of 43 years after she lost her battle with breast cancer. It was clear this had a huge effect on him as he told the Daily Mail in 2019;

“In the same way, I didn’t think Helen and I would ever stop. She was my best friend and I couldn’t have done any of what I did without her. We were married 43 years. You know, every day is difficult. I do get quite lonely. But I am trying to adapt. I have to.”

Now they’re both at peace.

Francis was Britain’s first million-pound footballer. At 16 he was a wonderkid, a bit like Jude Bellingham. It was Bellingham who eventually beat Francis’ record as the youngest to play for Birmingham City. In the late 70’s probably the two most famous footballers in the country were Kevin Keegan and Trevor Francis.

Beginning his career at St. Andrews there were some who believed he could go on to become the best player in Europe. It’s debatable whether he really quite achieved that. A combination of injuries and management largely curtailed his ability to truly fulfil the promise he’d shown in those early days.

Francis was one of those players who needed his manager to believe in him. He had an awkward relationship with Brian Clough, the man who paid £1m for him in 1979. Clough did better with players who believed more in him than themselves. Perhaps the two had more in common than they’d ever admit?

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After Nottingham Forest, he moved to Manchester City under John Bond. Bond was one of those managers who liked players to get on with it. Yet Francis could probably have done with more direction than he received from either. Francis was also unlucky in moving to a club that couldn’t afford him.

There’s also the possibility he was never truly appreciated in England. In 1982 he moved to Italy and Sampdoria. Playing alongside the likes of Graeme Souness, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini he finally received the recognition he deserved.

Born in Plymouth in April 1954, he made his debut for Birmingham City in 1970. Then a Second Division club he soon made the headlines when he scored four against Bolton Wanderers.

In his second season with the club, his 12 goals helped them gain promotion to the First Division, and he was soon picked out as one to watch.

He scored over 100 goals in nine years with the Blues, finishing as the club’s top scorer in each of his last three seasons. He spent the 1978 summer in the States turning out for Detroit Express in the NASL. 22 goals in 19 matches was enough to see him voted into the NASL All Stars XI along with the likes of Carlos Alberto, Franz Beckenbauer, Rodney Marsh and Giorgio Chinaglia. He returned a year later to score another 14 goals in as many games, which again saw him in the All Stars XI.

Nottingham Forest manager, Brian Clough identified him as an ideal asset to his league championship-winning side. He doubled the British transfer record signing him for £1m. Clough actually agreed a figure of £999,999 as he didn’t want the £1m tag to “go to his head”, or put it another way he didn’t want the pressure of the fee to weigh on the player.

In typically eccentric style Clough turned up to the press conference in a tracksuit and waving a squash racket around. This took a lot of the focus away from Francis, which was possibly another tactic to take the pressure off the player.

As he signed during the season he wasn’t available for any of their European Cup matches until the Final. Handy then they reached that stage coming up against Swedish champions, Malmö in Munich.

As if someone had been writing his scripts, Francis made a telling contribution. As a goalless first half came towards an end, John Robertson got passed his marker down the left for virtually the first time. His cross to the far post was met with perfect timing by Trevor’s head and Forest were in the lead. At the time the Olympic Stadium had a concrete circle behind the goal where the shot put competition had taken place five years before. With a unique sense of occasion, Francis’ momentum as he lunged for the ball took him onto the concrete as he tumbled before getting up to celebrate.

Typically, Clough was unmoved on the touchline. He never celebrated goals, claiming “Why would I celebrate when that’s what I was expecting to see?”

Clough mainly employed him on the right. Francis possessed a great turn of speed and he was very good crossing at pace. He battled with Birtles and Woodcock for attacking space in his first season. Woodcock then went off to West Germany with Cologne, so Francis was a much more prominent feature the following year.

He played an important part in the club’s run to retain their European Cup crown the year after. They lost the home leg of their Quarter-Final tie against Dynamo Berlin 0-1. But Francis scored a crucial goal 15 minutes into the away leg to cancel that out. He added a second 10 minutes before the break as Forest won 3-1 to earn their place in the Semis.

Then when Ajax visited the City Ground for the first leg of the Semi-Final, Francis scored the opening goal.

He missed the Final after a recurrence of an Achilles tendon injury.  He gave an interview from his hospital complaining his manager hadn’t spoken to him, which may have further singled him out to his boss as someone who wanted too much attention.

By then he was an England player. Don Revie gave him his first cap in a friendly against Netherlands in 1977 at Wembley. He lined up against Cruyff, Krol, Neeskens, Rep and Rensenbrink.

Revie was impressed enough to keep him in the team for the visit of Luxembourg a month later. Needing goals, Francis did himself no harm by getting on the scoresheet in a 5-0 win.

After four caps under Revie, England had a new manager when Revie scuttled off to Saudi Arabia. New boss Ron Greenwood thought enough of the young lad to pick him for his first match when Switzerland visited Wembley at the start of the 1977-78 season.

He had to wait until his 12th cap before he scored his second goal in an England shirt, when World Cup qualifiers, Hungary, were put to the sword at Wembley, 4-1.

The injury that kept him out of the 1980 European Cup Final also kept him out of the European Championships in Italy that summer too.

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But when the 1982 World Cup came around he was a crucial part of Greenwood’s squad. Keegan’s injury elevated Francis to ‘vital’ status as he scored in the group stage wins against Czechoslovakia and Kuwait.

Unfortunately, the absence of goals in the Second Phase against West Germany and Spain meant England were out, despite going through the tournament unbeaten.

By then his club career had seen another change. He was sold to Manchester City in September 1981 for £1.2m. He only lasted a year at Maine Road as the club was still reeling financially from Malcolm Allison’s free-spending tenure.

Eventually, the club decided they couldn’t afford him and he was on the move again. This time he was off to foreign climes. He joined the British invasion to Italy. Serie A was a magnet for the best talent from around the world and many British players sampled the delights of the Mediterranean.

At Sampdoria, he helped the club lift their first Coppa Italia. After three years he spent a disappointing season at Atalanta before rejoining Souness at Glasgow Rangers.

Again he spent just a season at Rangers before moving south to another Rangers, Queen’s Park Rangers. He was initially a player but eight months later he became player-manager when Jim Smith left.

He ended his career with four years at Sheffield Wednesday, including a League Cup Final win over Manchester United. Again, employed as a player-manager where he guided them to a third-place finish in 1992.

A year later Wednesday reached both the League Cup and FA Cup Finals, losing both to Arsenal. This endeared him to the supporters as a favourite. But a year later he was sacked after a mid-table finish.

His international career had ended back in 1986. After the 1982 World Cup, Bobby Robson replaced Greenwood as boss. As Greenwood had done, Robson had enough faith in Francis to pick him in his first squad. He scored twice in a 2-2 in Copenhagen. This was a European Championships qualifier but the team’s failure to qualify denied him a second major championships appearance.

In total he earned 52 caps. His 50th came in a pre-1986 tournament in Mexico in a 1-2 defeat to Italy at the Azteca. His final turnout for the national team came in a 2-1 win at Wembley against Scotland two months before the World Cup kicked off. He didn’t make Robson’s squad and that was it for his service to his country.

After his Wednesday spell, he returned like the prodigal son, to St. Andrews to take over the Blues. His time at Birmingham City saw another League Cup Final outing when they lost on penalties to Liverpool.

This didn’t give him enough kudos with the board as he was sacked a few months later.

His last managerial position was at Crystal Palace. Failure to get them out of the Championship after two years got him the sack again.

Just under 800 appearances gave him a club career to be proud of to go along with the 52 caps for England.

In addition to his Only Fools and Horses fame he was also privileged to be a cover star on Roy of the Rovers and Tiger magazine.

Former editor, Barry Tomlinson has been filling his Twitter profile with many pictures and stories of his time with the great man. Such was the effect Francis had on those who knew him.

Amongst the many tributes which poured in came from Jude Bellingham;

“A very sad day for BCFC and all of football. Beyond legendary, a trailblazer, a great and an icon of the game. The only thing that could exceed his quality and accolades on the pitch was his class off it. Thank you for all the guidance and the benchmarks you set. Rest in peace, King Trevor!”

Terry Butcher, a teammate of Trevor’s at Rangers said on Radio 5 Live;

“He was sophisticated, elegant. Modern football would have suited him down to the ground.

“He was just class, he really was. He was smooth, he was silky, scored some great goals, a phenomenal player and a very, very nice guy, as everybody says.”

Former Crystal Palace striker Mark Bright, who played under Francis’ management at Wednesday, added;

“The club experienced some great times in the early 1990s, both Trev his wife Helen, were very kind in helping me to settle in at the club, I greatly appreciated it then and now. Love to sons Matthew and James.”

Martin O’Neill, a teammate at Forest also tweeted his tribute;

“Really devastated to hear the tragic news that Trevor Francis has passed away. A phenomenal player, superb teammate and a great friend. Football has lost a true gent of the game.”

Former USA international, Alexi Lalas tweeted;

“In 1979 I was 9 years old and I saw Trevor Francis play in the Pontiac Silverdome for my Detroit Express. He was the first soccer star I’d ever seen….and he wore white shoes. Years later in 1994 I wore white shoes for a #USMNT game in the Seattle Kingdome…because of him. RIP”

The clubs he played for were equally saddened at the news of his passing.

Nottingham Forest said they were “deeply saddened” and Francis was “a true Forest legend who will never be forgotten”. Birmingham City said Francis will “forever be revered as a giant of the club” and he was “the player everyone wanted to see”.

Sheffield Wednesday said they were also “deeply saddened by the passing of Francis” and said their “thoughts are with Trevor’s family and friends at this incredibly difficult time”.

Sampdoria posted a simple “Rest in peace, Trevor Francis” while Rangers said they were “saddened to hear of his passing”.


2 x European Cup
1 x European Super Cup
1 x League Cup
1 x Scottish League Cup
1 x Coppa Italia
England, 52 caps, 12 goals