Pop songs in Italy and the glitterati in Detroit: the wonderful Trevor Francis’ international adventures

Pop songs in Italy and the glitterati in Detroit: the wonderful Trevor Francis’ international adventures

It’s difficult to articulate just how titanic a status Trevor Francis holds in the B9 area of Birmingham. Talk to any Birmingham City fan about the greatest players to ever play for the club and they will give you names like Gil Merrick, Joe Bradford, Alex Govan, Kenny Burns or Le God himself, Christophe Dugarry. But, for many, nobody else comes close to Francis. After all, he began his career as a youngster plucked from Plymouth, able to announce himself with a sensational four-goal haul against Bolton while only 16.

Even at such a young age, he was pulling in crowds of 30,000 to a stadium experiencing tired and weary football. He would go on to score 119 goals in 280 games, playing his part in in a sensational and equally frustrating frontline for Birmingham, all the while cementing himself as an eternal fan favourite. 

So, it is curious for many of the St Andrews’ faithful to see that Francis isn’t as fondly remembered at many of the other clubs he represented throughout what is a surprisingly illustrious career. A contributing factor to this may be that he has since become the perennial pub quiz answer: the first million-pound man in British football, a nametag he has spent the rest of his life trying to escape.

“I played professional football for 23 years until I was 39, 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 £1m footballer,” he once said, “as if that’s the only thing I achieved in my career.”

Another possible, and maybe more significant, reason for this is that he spent so much of his career playing abroad during what many consider to be a footballer’s peak years, giving credence to the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ adage.

Francis’ first sojourn away from British football came with the ill-fated Detroit Express. He became their Wizard. Leading the scoring charts with 22 goals in 19 games, and leading the charge for the Express’ NASL title in their first season of existence, he enjoyed his time there so much that he returned for a second spell, a year later, boasting a similarly impressive scoring record of 14 in 14.

In his autobiography, Trevor Francis spoke of the perks that came with living in America: driving around Detroit in a white Cadillac with his beloved wife Helen, travelling all over the States, socialising with the biggest (or perhaps just his favourite) bands of the time including Foreigner, Journey, and Jeff Lynne’s – incidentally, a massive Bluenose himself – ELO.

But Detroit Express was deemed as a vanity project by the infamous/famous (you choose) Jimmy Hill, and remains one of the more curious stories in world football. They didn’t last. The Express only participated in three seasons of the NASL, mostly due to Hill’s failure to understand the USA as a different country to Britain, and part due to Francis’ departure.

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

Instead, Francis was to make history as the first million pound man in British football, a sum that would haunt him for the rest of his career, and within 12 months he would go on to score the all-important goal in Munich as Forest became European champions for the first time, completing the latest chapter in the fairy-tale.

He had his moments, but Francis’ time at Forest was unfortunately disrupted by injury. There was the wonderful effort against Dynamo Berlin in the quarter-finals of the 1980 European Cup, a fan favourite for many Forest fans, but an Achilles injury meant he only played 22 times for Forest in two seasons. 

After leaving Birmingham, Francis still had yet to display what it was he could really do as a player. His career away from St Andrews included trophies and cup-winning goals, yes, but he still wasn’t the star of a top-tier-team worthy of his abilities. That would all change when, after a solitary season at cash strapped Manchester City, an intriguing proposition came from Italy. 

Paolo Montavani had been chairman of Sampdoria for a few years by the time the 1982/83 season came around. He had played his part rescuing the Genoese club from the wilderness of Serie B. This was to be their first season back in the top flight of Italian football since relegation in 1977 and Il Doria were determined to make an impact. The next phase of his grand plan involved recruiting talent from Britain. 

First came Liam Brady, with his wonderful left foot, joining from Juventus where he had won two Serie A titles on the bounce. Next, he needed a mercurial forward, able to partner an emerging talent in the future Samp legend Roberto Mancini. And so, Francis embarked on an Italian adventure, joining Sampdoria for a cut-price £700,000. He didn’t take long to settle.

After defeating the reigning champions Juventus in the first game of the season, Francis announced his arrival in Italy in spectacular fashion in only his second game for the club. Wearing the number 9 shirt, he powered forward into the Bianconeri half, using the pace he had always been blessed with, and exchanged passes with wunderkind Mancini, who returned the ball to him on the edge of the box. Though Francis was off balance and seemingly falling over – a regular occurrence when you watch his YouTube highlights – he managed to fire a strong effort into the bottom corner. 

Sampdoria won the game 2-1 and sent shockwaves throughout Italy. Just promoted and already a force to be reckoned with, Il Doria would go on to have a mightily impressive season, only dropping off in the second half when Francis’ old tendency to succumb to injuries would surface again. 

Genoa was a far cry from the astroturf pitches of Detroit and a cool 936 miles from Birmingham, where he made his name. But maybe it’s not surprising Sampdoria is where he felt most comfortable as a player. Just like the Second City side, Samp were the second team and the working-class club of the city, never experiencing tangible success before Mantovani took charge. Not exactly Small Heath but, in Liguria, Francis and Helen found a home in a village called Nervi, just on the Ligurian Coast, and a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea – an idyllic setting that made it easy for Francis to settle.

It was made even easier still when, in the 1984/85 season, Graeme Souness became the latest British import to join the Samp revolution, with him and Francis becoming firm friends for life. The pair made quite the yin-yang partnership in footballing terms. One: the dainty, pacey inside-forward who never scored a normal goal. The other: a horrible bastard, hard-tackling Glaswegian who refused to be told what to do.

That season was to be the beginning of a new era for Sampdoria. Mantovani had always aimed for silverware and, thanks to Francis, and his ability for the one-step penalty, there were nine goals in 11 games in the Coppa Italia, which soon came home to roost in the Ligurian countryside. Francis became the first Englishman to finish top scorer of any Italian competition, another first for the underrated record-breaker. 

Francis enjoyed his time in Italy so much he would play five seasons in Serie A, including a season with Atalanta, before joining his friend Souness at Rangers. So revered for being part of the team that won Sampdoria’s first-ever major honour, he was invited back as a guest of honour to the 2012 Derby della Lanterna to celebrate his achievements as a major part of Sampdoria’s history.

He might be remembered for his one-time price tag and the funny-slash-sad story of his dismissal from Palace when manager – he assures it’s false, but the rumour still circulates – yet he was a supremely talented player with an envious turn of pace. Often, when he dropped a shoulder, the defender was done for.

Capable of scoring some jaw-dropping goals, and with the most glorious crop of 80s hair that should not go unmentioned, it was probably his persistent injuries or involvement in the damp squib of a 1982 World Cup that prevents him being remembered as fondly as he deserves.

But there is a reason why he is remembered as a hero in Birmingham and Genoa, not least because of his run to the Worthington Cup final as Birmingham manager, but for his playing abilities in the working-class areas of the aforementioned cities. He was a supremely gifted footballer of incredible technical ability, out of place in the proletariat areas he played in. 

And thus, Francis remains an oddity in the pantheon of English players. Not exactly a trailblazer when it came to playing outside of Britain, he showed a confidence and fearlessness that has perhaps been missing from British football until very recently. There was no second-guessing, no second thoughts, just an excitement to be living and experiencing a different culture while doing what he did, and most certainly loved, best of all: playing football.  

There really is only one person who can have the final say when it comes to Trevor – over to you: Sampdoria fan and 1980s Italian pop singer Carlo Celi, who loved Francis so much he immortalised him in a song: ‘Trevor! Francis! Stay here with us, now in Sampdoria you are … a flag of the south!’

By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan

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