Football: Francis wary of first hurdle on pathway to Premiership

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SHORTLY AFTER returning to Birmingham City as manager, Trevor Francis found Steve Bruce at his office door. The captain, newly signed from Manchester United, wanted to discuss promotion prospects, or rather the lack of them. "Didn't you say it was going to take three years?" he asked. "You'll need six at least."

That was in the late summer of 1996. Bruce has since moved into management himself, but if Francis did set a target of three seasons, then the first leg of Birmingham's First Division play-off semi-final away to Watford tomorrow could take him tantalisingly close to arriving on schedule. As he put it yesterday: "We're only four and a half hours from the Premiership."

Francis realises that the 270 minutes playing time, the minimum the eventual winners will have to be in action, forms only part of a fortnight of frazzled nerves that finishes with the Wembley final. But he is optimistic that the restructuring he undertook after the roller-coaster reign of Barry Fry can deliver top-flight football to St Andrew's, now also rebuilt virtually beyond recognition.

The rebirth of the Blues began, at least in terms of redeveloping the rotting, rusting ground, when the Daily Sport publisher David Sullivan bought the ailing club six years ago. Sullivan, who boldly installed Karren Brady as managing director, also funded a massive overhaul of the squad. The task was entrusted to the larger-than-life Fry, who signed 53 players in two and a half years.

One relegation and promotion later, Fry left Birmingham more or less where he found them. The fact that only three of his myriad recruits remain tells its own story. The 45-year-old Francis, no sloth himself in the transfer market, has brought in 34 players, including loan signings, while moving 47 out, all at a net cost of pounds 7.43m.

This time, however, the money has bought a better class of player. Bruce spearheaded the first wave. Then came the likes of Peter Ndlovu and Jon McCarthy. Among this season's intake was Gary Rowett, a defender from Derby, recently voted into the divisional select XI by his fellow professionals.

Birmingham duly finished fourth, one place above Watford, and are now in with a fighting chance of regaining the status relinquished by a team containing David Seaman and Julian Dicks 13 years ago. And although crowds may not match the levels of 1972, when a side featuring the teenaged Francis averaged 32,000 per game en-route to promotion, this season's figure of 21,000 is the best in two decades.

The fans have certainly come down with a serious case of play-off fever. Some 2,000 in tents and sleeping bags braved a cold night outside the ticket office to make sure of seeing tomorrow's game. A further 10,000 will watch the event live on a giant screen erected on the pitch, double the number who came to Birmingham's Third Division matches in the early 1990s.

"When I see the people camping out for tickets it gives me an even greater incentive to try and do it for them," the normally phlegmatic Francis enthused. "But there couldn't be a bigger desire for promotion than I've got already. That's the reason I'm here.

"We've improved considerably year by year, and even since this time last May. To be seven points up on our return of 12 months ago shows real progress. Wolves are always regarded as promotion favourites because they're a big club and it is the same here, but it is only in the past year that we've made it a realistic possibility."

With the moneybags of Blackburn Rovers and Fulham joining the First Division in August, now would seem a particularly apposite time to escape it. Watford rose from the Second only last spring, yet Francis warns, notwithstanding Bradford's elevation, that they are currently the second-best side in the section after Sunderland.

His feeling that Watford start as "slight favourites" owes more to a record of seven wins and a draw in the final eight fixtures than to kidology. "I'm confident but I'd rather be playing Ipswich or Bolton," said the former England striker. "Our supporters may think they're the best opponents we could have had; I think they're the most difficult.

"I saw them on Easter Saturday at home to Tranmere and they were rather fortunate to get the win. Then they came to St Andrew's on the Monday and won 2-1. Every time I've seen them since then they've got better and better.

"They're different to most of the teams we've met. They play 4-3-3 (Birmingham favour 4-4-2), with three fantastically hard-working six-footers up front. They're direct, physical and organised, as you'd expect from a Graham Taylor team. It's up to me find a system to nullify them."

Francis is encouraged by Birmingham's consistency (they slipped briefly out of the top six just three times in nine months) and durability on their travels (a haul of 38 points equalled the runners-up, Bradford). While none of their 11 away wins came against promotion challengers, seven points from the visits of Sunderland, Bradford and Ipswich proves their ability to rise to the occasion.

"There haven't been many occasions when we haven't played under pressure," said Francis. "When you're a big club you expect that and have to learn to cope with it. The last few games, at home to Ipswich and up at Sunderland, have been in front of full houses. That's terrific preparation for what lies ahead."

What dramas are in store Francis can only surmise, never having been involved in or attended the play-offs. "If I relate it to my experience I expect it will be like the League Cup semi-final when I was manager at Sheffield Wednesday and we beat Blackburn with Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford in charge. Or like the two-leg semi-finals I played in Italy. Apart from the wording `play-off', it is nothing new."

The real novelty, for the generation of Birmingham followers who never witnessed Francis in his hirsute heyday, would be to see the elite clubs, not least Aston Villa, performing fortnightly at St Andrew's. Four and a half hours and counting...