Bruce in demand as Francis departs

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The Independent Football

Steve Bruce, whose Crystal Palace side could move up to second place in the First Division tonight, is the man Birmingham City have targeted to take over as manager following the departure of Trevor Francis "by mutual consent" yesterday.

Francis, having led Birmingham to the play-offs for a Premiership place in each of the past three seasons, had been expected to be relieved of his duties if they lost at Barnsley on Saturday. A 3-1 victory was their first in seven games. But, on returning to work, Francis's position was critically undermined when the board refused to sanction the £1m deal he had agreed with the Danish club Odense for Lars Jacobsen, an Under-21 international right-back.

David Gold, the Birmingham chairman, admitted that boardroom unease about the transfer had been "one of the factors" in the parting with Francis, "a dear and close friend". Gold added: "It was a case of 'should we spend that kind of money on someone so young and inexperienced?'. When a contract can cost £10m over five years, everybody has to be in agreement."

Bruce, whose three years in management had already seen him leave Sheffield United, Huddersfield and Wigan before arriving at Selhurst Park during the summer, made a strong impression on the Birmingham hierarchy during a season-long stint as Francis's captain after leaving Manchester United. He is understood to have a clause in his contract at Palace allowing him to leave for a payment of £100,000.

Other candidates are likely to include Gary Megson of West Bromwich Albion, Peter Taylor and Joe Royle. Jim Smith, who sold Francis to Nottingham Forest in 1979 when the striker was a St Andrew's terrace hero, left Derby last week but ruled himself out of contention yesterday, saying: "It is very difficult to go back sometimes."

Mick Mills and Jim Barron, the senior members of Francis' staff, will take charge of the team for tomorrow's visit to Forest. Mills, a former England captain, has managerial experience with Colchester and Stoke.

Francis, 47, first joined Birmingham as an apprentice in 1969, going on to become an England international and Britain's first £1m player. After spells as manager of Queen's Park Rangers and Sheffield Wednesday, he came "home" in May 1996 as the replacement for Barry Fry.

The tantalising nature of Birmingham's near-misses on the promotion trail, along with an honourable defeat on penalties by Liverpool in last season's Worthington Cup final, persuaded the club to keep faith with Francis ­ despite a net deficit of £11.3m on transfers and his reportedly fractious relationship with the managing director, Karren Brady.

This season, six successive victories were followed by six matches without a win. After the latter sequence, a statement from the directors ominously expressed "dissatisfaction with results". Yet, even after a 6-0 mauling at Manchester City last week, Francis maintained he had been given "until the end of the season" to achieve promotion.

Despite their poor run, Birmingham stand two points off the play-off zone and five away from the automatic promotion places. Francis will give his version of events at a press conference today.

Tommy Taylor, who became manager of Leyton Orient six months after Francis's appointment and also endured play-off failures, has resigned from his role at the Third Division club. His replacement is a fellow former West Ham United defender, Paul Brush, whose first match is tonight's LDV Trophy derby at Dagenham & Redbridge. Taylor took a parting shot at his players, saying: "A few of them can't hack it when things are going wrong. Most are either too young, too small or not giving 100 per cent."

Macclesfield Town, seeking a successor to Gil Prescott, want Neil Baker, Dario Gradio's deputy at Crewe, to take charge.

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