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'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.