Out of the top flight and into the pigeon loft: Yes, there is life after football

Gerry Francis left management to put his family first. Now he mixes business with pleasure in a different theatre of dreams and has never been happier
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The Independent Online

Christmas is coming and the coaches are getting stressed. Combining football management with real life is a complicated juggling act at any time but the festive season, with its crush of matches, and emphasis on families, is often fraught.

So, while Gerry Francis, former manager of Tottenham, Queen's Park Rangers, Bristol Rovers and Exeter City, will feel a pang of envy when Martin Jol occupies the dug-out which was once his kingdom, the mood will soon pass. After 33 years in football the former England captain is content to be off the merry-go-round. Indeed, he has such a full and successful life post-management the League Managers' Association has asked him to give a lecture to unemployed members about life after football.

Francis, 54, remains involved in the game analysing matches for Sky television and this newspaper but punditry is not his main occupation or income source. He is also a property developer, theatre impresario, film producer and pigeon fancier. And, especially, a family man.

It was the latter which prompted him to step away from the game four years ago this month. He was managing Bristol Rovers when both his father-in-law and grandmother went into hospital with serious conditions. Rovers gave him a month-long leave of absence but when that was up they were still in intensive care. Francis decided he could not go back into management.

Sadly, both his father-in-law and grandmother died. Their deaths, and the enforced break, led Francis to re-evaluate his priorities. He had married late and had a young family with three children then under eight. They had been neglected while he was managing. "The school must have thought my wife, Julie, was a single parent," he said, "I never made parents' evenings.

"The bereavements made me realise football was not the be-all and end-all of life. I'd always talked about retiring early but I don't know if I would have actually done so if circumstances hadn't forced me into it. Time spent with family is so precious, you can't put a price on it. 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 see how he got on. This is the time of year you really appreciate it. New Year and Christmas always depended on results. I'd come home and the kids [Adam, now 12, Chloe, 10, and Jake, 8] would keep away because we'd lost. If results were bad, Christmas was terrible."

"Things people take for granted I'd never done. Like watching Adam play football, seeing him score a goal and turn and smile at me. Being there at night. Three kids are a handful and I'm not earning so much but I look after the family in other ways."

There have been a dozen offers to return, including from Premiership clubs. Chairmen recall Francis taking QPR to fifth in the Premiership, Spurs to seventh, and Rovers to promotion. He admits he has been tempted. "People say, 'I can't believe you don't go back in, it's such a waste of your talent'. Well, I'd like to do both but you can't. I wouldn't say never again because it is something I am good at, and something I can do, but I wouldn't do any job at half-measures. And I've been out three years now. The longer you are out, the less likely you are to get back in. People stop asking."

Francis has concentrated instead on more family-friendly pursuits, developing business interests which he began when he was making his way as a player at QPR. "I had three companies at 21: antiques, promotions and property. You needed to, they were different days. There was no freedom of contract. I nearly joined Manchester United and Manchester City but QPR's chairman, Jim Gregory, blocked it. Even when you could leave at the end of a contract the club got a fee. Rangers received £500,000 when I went to Crystal Palace. These days the player gets that.

"I felt then that, though you must concentrate on your football, you should get a nest egg. You get a lot of time as a player and I thought if I went into business early it wouldn't be a problem if I made mistakes because I would still have football money to bail me out." The antiques have gone but the promotions [punditry, football schools] and property development companies remain. Indeed, he has just returned from northern Cyprus which Francis expects to 'take off' in the near future as the Turkish-occupied territory is opened up to tourists.

Then there are the film and theatre interests. Football's ubiquity may be at a peak but it was also fashionable back in the Seventies. As England captain, Francis mixed with the entertainment world (Cliff Richard sang at his at wedding) and made long-term friends. As a result of these connections he is part-owner of Theatre Partners Ltd, which owns the world rights to musicals Buddy, which will begin a UK tour next year, and 125th Street. He is also involved with Magic Movies, whose short film Road to Damascus was a Bafta contender. It also featured a role for Francis as a Los Angeles postman, complete with LA accent.

Francis also advised on Valiant, the animated Disney film released earlier this year about the RAF's Homing Pigeon Service which dodged German falcons during the Second World War. Francis was consulted as he is a keen pigeon fancier with an impressive, and very expensive, loft in his Surrey home, albeit one under constant threat from the rising hawk population.

Francis is something of a spokesman for pigeons who, he points out, won more than half the Dickins medals awarded to animals for heroism. He helped raise money for the memorial to animals and birds killed in wartime which now sits in Park Lane. "It's a classless sport. Fanciers have included Yul Brynner, Mike Tyson, Marshal Tito, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. I've seen people with pigeons in the back of a Rolls-Royce. Top birds can cost £100,000." While Francis is showing me around the loft his father, George, arrives. George was also a professional footballer, and a pigeon-fancier. "You could say my life had been mapped out for me," said Francis Jnr.

The one ambition he did not achieve is managing England, though he was sounded out when both Graham Taylor and Terry Venables left. So he is tempted to get back in, but then he thinks of Terry Mould. When Francis was 23 years old, and England captain, he suffered a back injury that put him out of the game for two years. Mould was the osteopath who cured him. Earlier this year he died of a heart attack. "Something like that makes you think," said Francis. "I might have a few years with the kids and be happy for a bit rather than rely on a football match to determine my mood all weekend."

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