Fourth-time lucky a must for Francis

Another City slip-up could be the last, discovers Ronald Atkin
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The Independent Football

If, as Dave Sexton once said when he was in charge at Manchester United, the yardstick of football success is pictures on the wall, Trevor Francis has been a big hit at Birmingham City. The St Andrews reception foyer is replete with group photos and action shots and Francis features in most of them. He played 327 games for the Blues, scoring 133 goals, and is embarking on his sixth season as manager.

Birmingham without Trevor Francis would be unthinkable. Or would it? At a big-city club where expectations are never lower than sky-high, the home programme gets under way this afternoon against Millwall with the manager aiming to go one better, after three straight years of knock-backs in the play-offs, by finally getting into the Premiership.

"We are capable of getting to the play-offs again," stressed Francis, at ease in his barely-furnished office after a practice session on the newly-laid pitch. "But the owners would like to miss out on the play-offs this season and get automatic promotion. That has been interpreted by some people that, because my contract expires at the end of the season, it will be the end for me if I don't do it. That isn't what they have said, but I'm also not stupid enough to think that after six seasons they might not want to have a little change. I might want to have a little change as well.

"Because I am in the last year of my contract it becomes a constant topic of conversation. I would like to go one better this time but I am always realistic. My mandate from the owners over the last three years has been to get into the play-offs and I have succeeded in everything they asked. In fact last season I got them something they never anticipated, a cup final.

"I still want to take this club into the Premiership and we are not a million miles away from it. If I saw no future, then it would be pointless overstaying my welcome. I am one of the longest-serving managers in the division so they have obviously been pleased with the work I have done. Now it's going to be another long 10 months.

"The owners are fiercely ambitious. I get judged on what I do on a Saturday afternoon but I certainly do a lot more than trying to collect three points every week. When I came here six years ago we didn't have a training ground, we didn't have any kit and my office was my car boot. We are a polished outfit now, good organisation. There is a lot more to what I have done here than just getting to the play-offs the last three years. But I want to get into the Premiership and ultimately it rests on my shoulders."

Those shoulders sagged after penalty shoot-outs cost Birmingham the Worthington Cup final against Liverpool and brought a play-off loss at Preston. An indication of the pressures on this even-tempered man was that he was in tears after the first and so enraged at the second that he faces a personal hearing at the Football Association, accused of bringing the game into disrepute. Unwilling to elaborate, on the record, Francis concedes it was his worst moment with the club, more depressing than the freak goal by Fulham, 12 seconds from the end of a semi-final replay, which cost Birmingham a place in the 1975 FA Cup final.

But Francis managed a smile. "My pal Jasper Carrott said the club gets a lot of luck but it's always bad. Being a Birmingham supporter I have to agree. This club is not only steeped in history but steeped in bad luck. Of all the defeats, that one at Preston was the hardest to get over. It was a good job that was the end of the season because I needed a long break to get myself together."

Francis has been content with only two summer signings, goalkeeper Nico Vaesen from Huddersfield and striker Tommy Mooney on a free from Watford. "When you have a squad that has done the course on numerous occasions it is important to keep it together," he said. "Nobody from the first-team squad has left, which is important for continuity. I wouldn't say we are any stronger, but we're certainly not any weaker."

At a club where the owners, David Sullivan and David Gold, and the managing director, Karren Brady, are quotable and frequently quoted, Francis considers it his top priority to keep the players free of pressures associated with publicity. "It is a damn sight easier if you are playing for Grimsby or Stockport. Here, the pressure is on before you even kick a ball. We are always talked about as promotion candidates.

"At the moment I am happy here but it depends on whether the club is going forward. I came here to try and get them into the Premiership and if there comes a time during the season, or even at the end of the season, when I feel we are not making sufficient progress, leaving Birmingham would be a consideration. I am not going to stick around here if I can't see a chance of getting promotion." Far better for Birmingham, and Trevor Francis, to have another happy picture on the wall by next summer.