'Boy Wonder' craves a return to realism

COUNTDOWN TO THE NATIONWIDE LEAGUE: Trevor Francis is back at the place where his illustrious career started, aiming to put Birmingham City back among the elite. Phil Shaw talked to him and, below, considers the prospects for each division

There are three people with whom Trevor Francis will inevitably be compared in his new incarnation as manager of Birmingham City. One is his predecessor, Barry Fry. Another is Brian Little, his counterpart at neighbouring Aston Villa. The third? Trevor Francis.

Birmingham supporters over 30 go misty-eyed at the memory of the 16-year- old Francis, locks flapping on his shoulders, dispatching his fourth goal past the Bolton keeper. The "Boy Wonder" went on to amass 133 and represent England before leaving for Nottingham Forest. His brilliance burned ever more brightly in Blues folklore during the ensuing dark decade.

After an odyssey that also took him to Manchester, Genoa, Glasgow and beyond, Francis has finally come home. The hair is thinner and greying, befitting a man approaching 43, and he hung up his boots after playing at the highest level until his 40th year. For many of the faithful, however, the appointment heralded a return to the days when he ran fast and free.

St Andrew's, which he recalls heaving with 52,000 people, is largely unrecognisable from the grim, graffiti-spattered fortress he left in 1979. The Small Heath skyline is now dominated by a stadium resembling a scaled- down Old Trafford in blue and white.

To perform in this shrine of the times, Francis, the game's original pounds 1m man, recently lavished Birmingham's first seven-figure sum on Chelsea's Paul Furlong. Bankrolling the long-overdue rebirth of the Blues is David Sullivan, the Essex-based entrepreneur who bought the ailing club three and a half years ago.

Throw in the arrival of Steve Bruce, Barry Horne, Gary Ablett and Mike Newell and it adds up to a feverish sense of anticipation as Birmingham prepare for their opening First Division fixture, at home to Crystal Palace on Sunday. But is it reasonable to expect Francis to recreate the impact he made as a player?

"No, it isn't," he said, plain-speaking as planes roared over the training ground like a full house at the Maracana. "What I would say is that when I was last here I helped the club up from the then Second Division. That's my aim again now."

There were invitations, in the pre-Sullivan era, to come back as player- manager. Francis preferred not to risk being remembered as "a has-been". Yet after a year out of the game, during which he proved himself a perceptive analyst with Sky, the opportunity he wanted came in May when Fry was hoist by his own PR.

The previous incumbent had a fetish for mid-price forwards. Many of those who passed through the revolving door shared his Barnet background. Francis prefers Premiership pedigree. He intends to prune, but said: "I'm all for using squads - you have to nowadays - but certainly you need a bit more stability."

His first plunge landed the defender who led Manchester United to three championships. "When you sign Steve Bruce you don't just get a footballer but the best captain in the country. How can you put a price on his leadership qualities? It also helped to get other players in."

For all the owner's fan-like impatience, Francis plays down suggestions that he has two years to deliver promotion. "No target's been set," he said. "We're like Wolves in that there's great expectancy, but let's be realistic. We came 15th last season so there's a lot of work needed to make the top three."

It is safe, though, to assume that consolidation is not on the agenda. The assessment of personnel, tactics and formations by Francis and his assistant, Mick Mills, has been condensed even by pre-season standards: "One thing you've never got in management is time - you're always fighting it."

The pressure on him has been intensified, if only in the media's eyes, by Little's success at Villa. They once faced each other in a Youth Cup derby that drew 40,000 to two games. Today, talk of friendly rivalry draws a wry smile from Francis.

"It used to be Barry Fry and Ron Atkinson in the city," he mused. "Now you've got complete opposites in Brian and myself; quiet, private people. He's a friend and he's done an unbelievable job. But we can be as big as them. Villa will always have the tradition, and they've got more support outside the city.

"Within Birmingham we're at least their equals. When the club were almost finished a few years ago, the potential never changed. The crowds were there if the product was right."

As Blues lurched between the middle divisions, Francis was cutting his managerial teeth in controversial fashion. At Queen's Park Rangers, he fined Martin Allen for attending the birth of his first child rather than play in a match.

"I was accused of being too tough. The week before I was supposed to be too soft. I just did my own thing and tried not to pay too much attention to what people said. A big problem is that people don't know me because I'm a private person. So they start inventing and assuming things.

"I look back on the Martin Allen episode as very unfortunate. Whatever I do in my managerial career, people will always bring that up." In the interests of balance, it should be stressed that Francis' record at Sheffield Wednesday bodes better for Birmingham: third place in the top flight, two Wembley finals and two seventh places before a slump and the parting of ways.

One wag at a Fans' Forum asked how he would react if Sullivan's managing director, Karren Brady, went into labour. Would her husband, Paul Peschisolido, be excused? Francis saw the joke, but intriguingly the Canadian striker was soon sold.

Cynics saw his exit as Francis laying down the boundaries over which Brady, with whom he enjoys "an excellent relationship", must not stray. Likewise his insistence on reversing the closure of Birmingham's youth scheme, and the restoration of basic press facilities. But the real power struggle, starting this weekend, is for a place in the Premiership.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: KS2 Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is a two form entry primary schoo...

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee