Francis is surprise England candidate

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Gerry Francis, the former Tottenham Hotspur and Queen's Park Rangers manager, has emerged as a dark-horse contender to succeed Sven Goran Eriksson as England coach.

Francis, who captained England as a player, confirmed yesterday that the Football Association had contacted him to ask if he was interested in being part of the coaching structure after the World Cup. This has been interpreted as meaning a back-up role, or one working with a junior age-group side.

However, The Independent understands he was also sounded out regarding the top job and expressed an interest. His selection would be, on the face of it, a shock.

Francis has not managed since resigning from Bristol Rovers four seasons ago because two close family members were in intensive care. He has not managed in the Premiership since November 1997 when he stepped down at White Hart Lane. Yet his top-flight management record is superior to those of Alan Curbishley, Sam Allardyce and Stuart Pearce, the leading English contenders for the soon-to-be vacant post. Only Pearce, still to complete a year as a manager, has a superior international playing record.

Francis also played and managed in European competition and is the only man to have guided different teams to the status of top-placed London club. Age is not a problem: at 54 he is four years younger than Eriksson and just three and six years older than Allardyce and Curbishley.

His recent spell out of the game, during which he has kept in touch as a pundit, gives him the advantage of neutrality and mental freshness. Given that he is also happily married, and has never even featured in off-the-record gossip about "bungs", it is not, perhaps, such an improbable choice.

The "three wise men" selection panel - Brian Barwick, the FA's chief executive, David Richards, the FA Premier League's chairman, and Noel White, the chairman of the FA's international committee - will present a shortlist of names to the FA board on 27 February. They will begin the interview process soon after.

Richards and White are both known to favour an English candidate. Richards said last week that there was "no distinction" between the new coach being "British" or "English", which signalled support for the Northern Irishman Martin O'Neill, 54 next month and out of the game nursing his ill wife.

Francis was reluctant to discuss yesterday whether he would be on the shortlist, restricting himself to a brief statement. "If the Football Association would like to speak with me regarding the international set-up I'd be delighted to help in any way I can," he said.

Francis certainly has support within Soho Square, having twice previously been approached regarding the England job, as a successor to Graham Taylor, then Terry Venables. Each time he rejected the opportunity to be interviewed. In 1994 he felt that he had insufficient experience. In 1996 he wanted to concentrate on day-to-day club management and to build on his successful first season at Spurs, in which they reached the FA Cup semi-finals and came seventh in the Premiership - their last such placing.

Since leaving Bristol Rovers he has spent time with his young family, turning down approaches from Portsmouth and QPR among others. The relatives whose illnesses had prompted his break from football - his father-in-law and grandmother - both died and, he said recently, "the bereavements made me realise football was not the be-all and end-all of life".

"Time spent with family is so precious," Francis said. "My eldest son [Adam] reached a national athletics final and I was able to watch him run at Birmingham. I'd never have gone before, I'd have been ringing up from somewhere to hear how he got on. The school must have thought my wife was a single parent. I never made parents' evenings."

Further family tragedies have underlined this but the England post, with its less time-consuming commitments, would suit the Surrey-based Londoner.

He became a manager, at Exeter City, at the age of 32, injury having forced him out of the top flight. Back injury had curtailed an international career in which he was made England captain at23. As a manager he led Bristol Rovers to the Third Division title (now League One) before taking over at QPR in 1991. Under him they finished fifth in the Premier League's first season. He later took Tottenham to finishes of seventh, eighth and 10th, bringing through Sol Campbell and working with Jürgen Klinsmann, now Germany's coach.

The Francis File: Former captain's credentials to be England manager

* THE PLAYER: The son of George Francis, who played 313 League games at centre-forward, primarily for Brentford, the Chiswick-born Gerry Francis joined his local team, Queen's Park Rangers, as a teenager. He spent nine years at Loftus Road, in part because the club rejected offers from both Manchester clubs, captaining Dave Sexton's free-flowing 1975-76 team to the League runners-up spot. After a spell at Crystal Palace under Terry Venables he returned to QPR before spells at Coventry City, Exeter as player-manager, Cardiff, Swansea, Portsmouth and Bristol Rovers, again as player-manager. Despite being dogged by injuries he made nearly 500 League appearances.

* THE MANAGER: Francis's first foray into management, at Exeter in 1983, was a disaster. But four years later he took Bristol Rovers to Wembley and promotion. Four successful years at Loftus Road followed, Queen's Park Rangers finishing fifth in the Premiership in 1993. In his first season at Tottenham, Spurs reached the FA Cup semi-final and came seventh in the Premiership, but success proved elusive and he stepped down in November 1997. Returning to QPR, he was unable to halt the financially troubled club's decline, then had a frustrating period at Bristol Rovers.

* THE INTERNATIONAL: Francis, at 22 years old, made his debut in Don Revie's first match as England manager in October 1974. He completed a promising first international season with two goals in the 5-1 demolition of Scotland. During the following campaign Revie made Francis, still aged only 23, captain in place of Alan Ball. But within a year - after just 12 caps, eight as captain - a back injury put Francis out of the game for two years and finished his England career.

* THE MAN: Francis always maintained interests outside the game, running antiques, promotions and property companies as a 21-year-old. The antiques have gone but the other businesses remain, supplemented by punditry, for The Independent and Sky TV, and a career in film and theatre. This is primarily as a producer but he has had an acting role - as a Los Angeles postman. He is also a pigeon-fancier with an extensive loft. He combined both worlds to advise on the last year's animated Disney film Valiant, about the RAF's Homing Pigeon Service. Married to Julie with three school-age children.