Although they raised the roof there last month to acclaim the biggest semi-final win in 72 years, Stoke City's followers can be excused for gazing around Wembley again next Saturday and wondering whether their club really are in their first FA Cup final. Gerry Francis, first-team coach and former England captain, may also reflect on how on earth he ended up there.
Francis, 59, stopped worrying about matters such as how to prevent the pampered princes of Manchester City claiming a long-overdue trophy when he forsook management in 2001. It was a calling in which he had enjoyed success,making both QPR and Tottenham the highest-placed London club in the Premier League.
Events, however, had conspired to make him put family before football, a decision he was determined to stand by even when the Stoke manager, Tony Pulis, tried to lure him back as they struggled early in their first Premier League season.
"When I left QPR the second time we'd had a very bad run of deaths within the family," Francis recalled on Friday after the 140-mile drive from his Surrey home to the Potteries for training. "My father-in-law and my nan were both in intensive care and I needed to be free every day to go to see them. Sadly they both died. And my sister lost her 16-year-old son, who was very close to my children. He suffered a cardiac arrest like the one that killed Terry Yorath's boy. It all brought home the importance of family. When you're in football you don't see much of your wife and kids. Christmas, New Year, Easter:you're just not around. I was always wishing them 'happy birthday' over the phone."
Francis regularly rebuffed offers. Being able to watch sons Mark and Adam take the first steps along the road that led to their current places in the QPR academy and Under-18s set-up respectively won out whenever he weighed it up against a tension-wracked 90 minutes in the technical area. So when he returned from a family holiday to find an answerphone message from Pulis, he was sure what his response would be.
"I knew him but not well. We had lunch in Marlow and I said no. I did not want to change. I was still doing my Sky programme and working part-time with the England Under-19s for a few games a year. That suited me. But Tony can be very persuasive."
Pulis invited him "to see what they were doing", and the relationship blossomed. Stoke were second bottom and favourites for relegation. Yet in Francis' first game they beat Tottenham, where he had served under Alan Sugar's chairmanship, and soon he spurned an approach to join Joe Kinnear at Newcastle. "I'd shaken hands with Tone and wanted to honour it," he explained. "But I said 'This is it, just one season'. Here I am, three years and 150,000 miles later!"
Coincidentally, the match that made him appreciate the special bond between the team and fans came against Manchester City. "Rory Delap got sent off after 35 minutes at 0-0 but James Beattie scored before half-time. The crowd pulled us through to win it like they so often do at the Britannia. Then we bought Matt Etherington, which was a turning point."
Francis tends to sit among Stoke's supporters, his high vantage point enabling him to "see things faster and better" than near the "forest of legs" at ground level, and communicates by phone with coach Mark O'Connor.Half-time finds him heading down the stairs, mane flapping behind him like a superhero's cape, en route to Pulis' pep talk. "I've had some long half-time runs at away grounds. I've lost a few pounds dashing between the stand and dressing-room. But for the final I'll be in the dug-out like I was when we beat Bolton 5-0 [in the semi-final]. I sat there at West Brom and Blackburn, and we won both, so maybe I'm getting superstitious."
Is he convinced, like many in the silverware-starved Six Towns, that Stoke's triumph is pre-ordained? "I don't believe in a team's name being on the Cup. Everyone said that in 1995 when I took Spurs to the last four after we were originally banned from the competition. Everton did us 4-1 at Elland Road and went on to win it."
Yet Francis' realism should not be mistaken for pessimism. "What you have to say is that if Manchester City's players approach it in the right way, we're the underdogs. But we usually are. And anyone can be beaten. They can buy anybody they want so there's no doubt they're going to be one of the game's dominant forces. Yes, you have to get them playing as a team, though they're not doing too badly, are they? But that spending power means there's more pressure on them, and that [may] work in our favour."
Francis never lost at the old Wembley as a player, scoring twice there when he led England's 5-1 deflowering of Scotland in 1975, and hopes the new stadium will again be "kind" to Stoke. Whatever happens, he sees their presence in the final as vindication of the vision of Pulis and the chairman, Peter Coates. "They've done an incredible job here. They're an old-fashioned partnership. Clubs come up saying 'We're going to play open football', but the important thing is to stay there. We've put down the foundations to establish Stoke in the Premier League. Each year you stay up makes it more financially viable.
"We may never be a Man City, a United or Chelsea but we can join the group beneath them. We've built the infrastructure, with a new training ground and bringing in better technical players. Now we're in the FA Cup final. It's been a brilliant journey," said the 150,000-mile man.Reuse content