Trevor Francis: Beloved former Sheffield Wednesday manager so much more than the £1m man
When the sad news filtered through on Monday afternoon that Francis had died at the age of 69, it was the first thing associated with him, as it had been ever since the day in 1979 that Nottingham Forest’s larger-than-life manager Brian Clough paid that landmark sum of money for his services from Birmingham City.
The label became a prefix on Francis’s life.
“I played professional football for 23 years until I was 39,” Francis had said in an interview with The Guardian in 2019.
“I won European Cups with Nottingham Forest, I played 52 times over nine years for England, but whenever I go to a sporting occasion I’m always introduced as the first £1million footballer, as if that’s the only thing I achieved in my career.
“But do I feel proud of being the first £1million player? Absolutely.”
Depending on how one measures whether a player was worth the money, the fact he barely lasted two years under Clough at Forest would suggest he was not. The two did not exactly hit it off. Clough was gregarious and outspoken, Francis was softly-spoken, and let his football do the talking, until injury cut him down.
But landmark figures back then and even today - as Kylian Mbappe is linked with a staggering £259m move to Saudi Arabia - are paid for players who deliver on the biggest stages, and no one can contest that Francis did not justify the price tag when just a few months into his Forest career, he stooped to head home John Robertson’s cross in the European Cup final against Malmo.
Not many footballers cost landmark figures, but not many score the winning goal in a European Cup final either.
As well as that and the 52 caps for England, plus a spell in Italy followed by moves to Glasgow Rangers and Queens Park Rangers, Francis is fondly remembered in these parts for his five and half years with Sheffield Wednesday.
He joined in the relegation season of 1990 and played only a cameo role in what is still recalled to this day by Wednesdayites as a magical following year that ended in promotion back to the then-First Division and victory in the Rumbelows Cup final against Manchester United.
Francis was in his late 30s so could only manage 20 minutes here and there, but his quality on the ball shone through.
When manager Ron Atkinson left that summer, Francis was the natural successor.
He spent four years as Wednesday manager, at first building on the success of Atkinson by guiding the Owls to a third-place finish in their first season back at the top table, and then to two cup finals in one season in 1993, losing both to Arsenal.
After successive finishes of seventh, the Owls dropped to 13th in 1994/95 and he was sacked on FA Cup final day, the decline had set in and Francis knew the writing was on the wall.
He is remembered for bringing world class players like Chris Waddle to Hillsborough, but famously for missing out on Eric Cantona when he wanted the mercurial Frenchman to spend an extra week on trial.
Cantona refused and went on to win titles for Leeds United and Manchester United. A sliding doors moment in Sheffield Wednesday’s history? Perhaps. But Francis is responsible for a lot of positive memories at Hillsborough.
Players from that era led the tributes to Francis, a hugely admired figure in football.
Waddle tweeted: “So sorry to hear the sad news that Trevor Francis has passed away, he was a lovely man and such great player and thank you so much for bringing me to SWFC..RIP legend.”
Mark Bright, another member of that Wednesday side, added: “RIP, Trevor Francis. Trev signed me when he was player/manager at SWFC. The club experienced some great times in the early 90’s, both Trev his wife Helen were very kind in helping me to settle in at the club. I greatly appreciated it then & now. Love to sons Matthew & James.”
Peter Shilton, the former Forest and England goalkeeper, tweeted: “I’m absolutely devastated to hear about my old team-mate Trevor Francis. Such a wonderful gentleman a friend and a terrible loss.”
Former England striker turned TV presenter Gary Lineker wrote of a fellow ex-pro who made a success of a career in TV punditry: “Deeply saddened to hear that Trevor Francis has died.
“A wonderful footballer and lovely man. Was a pleasure to work alongside him both on the pitch and on the telly. RIP Trevor.”
Note how none of them mention the ‘million pound’ label, suggesting Trevor Francis was so much more than the milestone that would come to define him.