Francis flourishing in complete control

FA CUP: Spurs are back in the Cup, their hopes boosted by a manager mak ing a difference. Glenn Moore spoke to him
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There may be a moment at White Hart Lane today when Gerry Francis briefly curses Dave Bassett for not leaving him alone 10 years ago. It is more likely, though, that Francis will again give thanks for the Sheffield United manager's faith in him.

For, if it was not for Bassett, Francis could have been doing the paperwork for his property business today, maybe keeping an ear out for the QPR result and pondering what might have been. Instead, he will be watching his Tottenham side play Altrincham in the FA Cup third round and trying to avoid banging his head on the dug-out roof.

Bassett is the man who kept Francis from walking away from football management 10 years ago, after what he describes as "eight months of hell" as player-manager of Exeter. "Never again," Francis said. "No, I think you've got something - come and work forme," Bassett said.

"At the time I felt going to Exeter was the worst mistake I had ever made," Francis said this week. "I was still playing well at the time and captaining Coventry City in the First Division. But I had an arthritic knee which was causing a lot of concern and was being advised to pack it in. Then Dave Sexton [the then Coventry manager] left, which disappointed me, and Southend and Exeter asked me if I wanted to become player-manager.

"I had already been player-coach at Coventry, Crystal Palace and Wimbledon, and I felt I had a talent for coaching and I would go to Exeter and it would come easy. What I did not realise is that when you have played at the highest level for so long, you don't know what it is like in the lower divisions.

"The standard of players was a shock and so was the money they were on - you could not even sign non-League players: they were so much better paid you could not touch them. I went down there with all these preconceived ideas about playing football, and it was very difficult to put them into practice given the limitations of the players.

"I also went without looking at balance sheets. I took promises about money on trust, when they were so much in debt. When I got there, I had to sell two of the best players I had before we even started, and could not use that money to replace them. Theyhad only just stayed up the previous year and it was eight months of hell."

Exeter won just six matches, finished 10 points adrift at the bottom of the old Third Division, 16 points short of safety, and were knocked out of the FA Cup by then non-League Maidstone. After he was sacked, Francis said he felt "I would never, ever, gointo management again. I went back to playing - Cardiff, Swansea and then to Portsmouth under Alan Ball.

"Then at the end of that year [1984-85], Dave Bassett asked me to come over and do some coaching at Wimbledon. They were having a very successful time - they had won promotion from the Third Division the season I was at Exeter - and I had done a couple of things against them, a little system, which worked well and Dave said, `I'd like you to do that thing with our back four'.

"I thought he was just talking about the reserves and I said, `I'm not really interested', and he said, `I mean our first team back four'. I told him, `I'll need your back eight', and that got me back into it. He got me back into it."

A decade on, that ability to organise defences is still evident. Tottenham's defence, which had gained a reputation for security to match that being acquired by the prison service, go out this afternoon seeking their sixth successive clean sheet.

It is a record that seemed inconceivable only a month ago. Francis's first match, a 4-3 home defeat to Aston Villa, made it 37 goals conceded in 16 matches this season. After that game, the Spurs players were, for the first time in more than a season, presented with the evidence of their errors on video.

Suddenly it was not just Gary Mabbutt and Colin Calderwood, the central defenders, at fault, it was the midfielders who let players run at them. Players were told where they should be, the point made that if the full-back attacks someone has to cover forhim. David Howells, a tenacious, tackling midfielder, was introduced to shield a central defence not blessed with pace. The midfield was told to stop holding on to the ball so long, and get it forward to Jurgen Klinsmann and Teddy Sheringham earlier. And the players were told to get fitter.

Success has brought confidence in a system, which has in turn aided further success, and led to a rare quality for Spurs teams, consistency. Manchester United waited 26 years for a title; Spurs are now 33 years and counting. Ten cups have been won in that time, but no championships. It is the potential that has attracted Francis. He may not have any money to spend at present but, for the first time in his management career, anything he raises through sales he can spend.

"There are two demands in football," Francis said. "Success and financial stability. I have had my share of dealing with the latter for a long time."

So much so that, at a time when managers are being accused of taking money from transfers, Francis, uniquely, had to pay for them himself when at Bristol Rovers. The opportunity to manage Rovers came up in 1987 while he was still coaching Wimbledon. Under Bassett, they had been promoted to the First Division and come sixth. All this time Francis had combined coaching the Dons defence with playing for Bristol Rovers, then managed by Bobby Gould.

Then Watford asked Bassett to be their manager, and Francis agreed to go with him until the musical chairs started. Wimbledon asked Gould to replace Bassett; Rovers asked Francis to take over from Gould. "I said to Dave, `it's the same as Exeter only worse - they could go bust any minute'. They had already had to sell John Scales for £70,000 just to pay the summer bills, they had come 19th in the Third Division, had no ground and changed in Portakabins. It was absolutely frightening.

"But I still wanted to play, and Dave said, `give it a go', so I took it. That was when the Exeter experience paid off, as the mistakes I made there I remembered. The team I built that year cost £10,000 and that was my own money with which I bought Ian Holloway. I wheeled and dealed with free transfers, and found a goalkeeper in Cornwall called Nigel Martyn, who I persuaded to join by offering him a £10 a week rise - to £110.

"We came eighth; the following year we lost in the play-off final. In the next we were top, and then they sold Gary Penrice to Watford for £500,000 and Martyn to Palace for a million in a week. Of that I received £70,000 to spend.

"We had a right row about it. I do appreciate financially it was perhaps the only thing they could do, but I was looking at what I'd done and how I'd worked at making these players better, and then had them taken away. It was frustrating - I did at leastget my £10,000 back then, but no interest."

Rovers still won the championship and went to Wembley for the Leyland DAF Cup. They came 13th the following year but, Francis said, "then the application for a new stadium, the third since I had been there, was turned down".

It was the final straw - "I just did not see that we could go any further," Francis added. In the past, despite being on a succession of yearly contracts, he had turned down approaches from West Ham, Aston Villa and Swindon. This time he left.

A series of offers followed before QPR, the team he supported as a boy and spent 12 years with, came in. It was the same story but on a bigger scale, as Paul Parker, Andy Sinton, Roy Wegerle, Darren Peacock and others were sold. In just under four years,Francis made £8m profit on the transfer market and took Rangers to fifth in 1993, despite spending only £150,000 that season.

Eventually, following the machinations in November involving Rodney Marsh and the Thompson family, the owners of QPR, he regretfully left Loftus Road and joined Spurs within a matter of days. Again there is no long contract, just a month-to-month agreement. Francis likes being in charge of his future.

"I served a long apprenticeship and I learned how different managing was to playing. I would pack it in tomorrow if I could play again," he said.

He was, incidentally, quite a player. A driving midfielder, he captained England in his fifth match aged 23, only for a back injury to cut short his international career after 12 caps. Terry Venables, who played alongside Francis at Rangers, and twice signed him, provides a glowing testimony: "He was quick, with a devastating change of pace, strong and skilful, a good passer and finisher and a powerful tackler - he had the lot."

Yet he never won any medals, partly because of his loyalty to a QPR side whose high point was a glorious failure in 1976. With Francis linking superbly with Stan Bowles and Don Givens, they missed the title by a point to Liverpool.

Francis's FA Cup record is especially poor. While Tottenham have won it a record eight times, he only made it into the quarter-finals once as player or manager - and that was 21 years ago.

Away from the game he was more successful, so much so that the strength of his property business gives him the security to work without a contract. Those outside interests - together with recent bereavements and a worrying illness to his 19-month-old son, Adam, - reinforced his belief that football is not everything.

At present, however, it is almost all-consuming. The morning had been spent in the freezing cold outside at Tottenham's rented Mill Hill training ground - the highlight being Ian Walker's goal in the end-of-session match. Then there were almost three hours of interviews with radio, television, the press and Clubcall. The rest of the afternoon would be spent analysing several pages of reports on Altrincham. They may be non-League, but Francis had had them watched four times.

"As a manager you work 24 hours a day," Francis added. "You hardly have any time at home. You have pressure week-in week-out to get results, but you don't play so you have the pressure of sitting in the dug-out hoping they are going to perform on the day. I don't enjoy that, banging your head on the dug-out, the ups and downs of a game.

"What I do enjoy is making players better, making teams better. I do enjoy looking at the video on a Monday, knowing we've won and looking at all the things we have worked on in training and seeing them work."