Football: County set sights on target man and promotion: A 'donkey' is planning to make an ass out of the opposition in the Second Division play-off final. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
PAT CRERAND couches his opinions on the radio in much the gentle way he made his tackles when he played for Manchester United in the Sixties and Seventies. Robust is a kindly expression for them, although Stockport County supporters have very few of those reserved for him.

When Crerand described the club's top scorer Kevin Francis as 'crap' on Greater Manchester Radio recently the station was inundated with angry callers. The County set were seething.

'Goal-scoring is about being in the right place at the right time, skill and strength,' one supporter wrote to the local paper. 'Kevin has all of these. Paddy, he will ram your pathetic, ignorant comment right back down your throat.'

In Crerand's mitigation, he apologised immediately but the episode was a neat microcosm of the emotions the 6ft 7in striker provokes. Nobody sits on the fence about Francis. He is definitely the central figure in Stockport's appearance in the Second Division play- off final against Burnley on Sunday; whether he is a good player remains open to considerable, and occasionally heated, debate.

His chairman, Brendan Elwood, puts his value at pounds 2m - 'and then there would be a lot of haggling after that' - yet no one, Tony Adams apart, gets more eeh-aw noises aimed in his direction by opposition supporters.

Francis's height would make him stand out in any company other than a basketball team and his command in the air ensures the club's primary tactic is Route One. Stockport set their sights six inches higher than anyone else with their crosses and then swarm forward in the expectation of profiting from the resulting mayhem.

Against that, Francis frequently looks ungainly. He is capable of subtlety - one wing-to-wing pass in the play-off semi-final against York was worthy of Hoddle - but he inevitably appears cumbersome when a five-foot-something pest starts buzzing round him.

'Kev is unique,' Danny Bergara, the Stockport manager, said, 'and he'll get criticised from now until domesday. Everywhere we go he gets called a donkey but, if that's the case, he's the most valuable donkey in the world.

'When I signed him I told him I hadn't bought another Pele. What I did tell him was to go out and be his own man.'

Indeed, few transfers have yielded such value for money as the pounds 45,000 Bergara paid to take Francis from the Baseball Ground in February, 1991. A total of 104 goals have come, including a club post-war record of 39 last year. In Stockport they compare him with Jock Connor (132 goals in 206 League apearances), which may not cut much ice at nearby Old Trafford but at Edgeley Park gives him a near legendary status.

A further 34 this season have ushered Stockport into their fourth appearance at Wembley in three seasons while inflating his transfer value. Wimbledon are rumoured to be interested in Francis as a possible replacement for John Fashanu, while Leeds and other Premiership clubs have monitored his progress.

Francis plays the 'flattered but all I'm interested in is getting Stockport promotion' card when asked about the prospect of joining a big club. But he also speaks of higher ambitions that will be a cause of frustration and possible unrest if County fail to get through the play-offs, as they have in the last two seasons.

'We've been agonisingly close a couple of times,' he said, 'and we were supremely confident we'd get up automatically this year. That wasn't to be. We had a lot of postponements earlier on and it was the number of games that were compressed into a short time at the end of the season that drained us of stamina. We've had time to recharge our batteries now, however, which should make all the difference.'

It will need a different ending for Stockport, who have lost three times at Wembley (twice in the Autoglass Trophy, once in the play-offs) in two years. 'Kevin epitomised the spirit in the club when he stayed on the field against York last week despite a groin strain,' Bergara said. 'He went through the pain barrier for us. He's a very important part of the Stockport side.'

Burnley and the rest of the Second Division need no convincing. Others, Crerand included, may take a little longer.