Gerry and the pacemakers

The manager with the Midas touch is trying to fulfil great expectations . Simon O'Hagan talks to a master strategist
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The Independent Online
THERE is a widely held belief in football that Gerry Francis is one of those managers with the special gift of turning ordinary players into good players and good players into very good players. That seems to be the case with the resurgent Tottenham Hotspur team he takes to Aston Villa today, but it hasn't always been so.

In an otherwise impeccable CV - outstanding midfielder for Queen's Park Rangers and England in the Seventies, captain of his country at 22, managerial success at Bristol Rovers, QPR and now Spurs - the entry "Exeter City, 1983-84" tells a very different story. Francis was 32, his career blighted by injury, when he joined the club, then in the old Third Division, as player-manager. It was the first time he had been in charge of a team.

"You have to remember I'd already been coach at three First Division clubs," he said last week. "At Crystal Palace with Malcolm Allison, Coventry with Dave Sexton and QPR with Terry Venables. After that I think I thought it was easy. I remember saying something silly like we'd be in the First Division in a few years' time. Well I got them out of the Third Division, anyway. We were relegated.

"The problem was I'd never played at a lower level. I knew nothing about it - the players, the wages, working with the directors. We had done all this tactical stuff at QPR and I tried to get them to do it at Exeter but the players weren't good enough. I should have realised that you can only work with what you've got."

Of course, this episode says as much for Francis as it does against him. Strategy has always been his strength, but in seeking to implement it he requires a lot of his players in terms of both physical fitness and mental awareness. The lesson that emerges from Francis - whose insistence on working without a contract is perhaps the best example of how he can disconcert people - is that if you are prepared to go some of the way towards him, he will come a lot further in return.

What has happened since he left QPR 14 months ago to take over at Spurs is ample evidence of that. The club was in disarray. Banned from the FA Cup, facing a six-point penalty in the Premiership because of earlier wrongdoing, dependent on selling players to buy them, their suicidal all- out attacking approach under Ossie Ardiles was doing little to calm the atmosphere of gloom at White Hart Lane. But from lying 16th in the table when Francis arrived, Spurs finished the season in seventh place and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

Since the start of this season Francis has overcome a series of setbacks - the departure of Jurgen Klinsmann, Nicky Barmby and Gica Popescu, and a long-term injury to Darren Anderton - to create a team in which he has succeeded in balancing the flair that is at the heart of club's tradition with more pragmatic considerations.

A run of only two defeats in 20 Premiership games represents a level of consistency almost unknown at the club, and it has all come about, Francis believes, as a result of playing to a system which has been honed so well that it has survived the loss of numerous men through injury. It sounds ridiculous when Francis says that his most important defenders are Teddy Sheringham and Chris Armstrong and his most important attacker Ian Walker, but it reflects the totality of his vision.

"I believe 100 per cent in tactical coaching," Francis said. "What I feel you can do is give someone of 23 or 24 the knowledge you had when you were 34. I've got a system of coaching programmes and I know they work. But you also have to be able to adapt. I've probably won more games at half-time than any other manager."

The players like Francis because, although he works them hard, he wants them to think. And, he said: "I treat them the way I would like to be treated myself. It's never 'boss', always 'Gerry'. Your relationship with your players is the most important thing."

Geoff Twentyman played as a defender under Francis at Bristol Rovers. "Gerry had this remarkable ability to improve players irrespective of where they played," he said. "He noticed everything. It was as if he had a video camera running in his head, and he could freeze-frame incidents after the match, things you might not even have remembered yourself. He's just got a brilliant footballing brain."

And if something needed demonstrating, Francis could always do it. "We might be on a muddy training ground practising free kicks," Twentyman said. "Gerry was always a great one for set-pieces. He'd say he wanted the ball delivered to a particular spot in the area and there might be someone not quite managing it. He'd put the ball down, go back two paces - just in his training shoes, no studs - and clip the ball off the top of the mud. It would go exactly where he wanted it to, whoever was on the end of it would head it in, and Gerry would turn round and say: 'That's what I want you to do'."

Francis left Rovers for QPR in 1991, where Clive Wilson was under him for three seasons. The defender has subsequently joined him at Spurs. "He's very tactically aware," he said. "If things were going wrong he knew how to put it right without ranting and raving." And the famed Francis method of defending? It's all to do with the positions taken up in relation to the ball, according to Wilson. "The idea is to make it harder for the opposition to penetrate," he said. "To make them play at least one ball out before playing another ball in, instead of them being able to take the entire defence with one pass."

Francis, understandably, does not like to go into detail about such matters, and the essentially guarded nature of his personality, particularly in public situations, is something Twentyman noticed. Francis's post-match press conferences are unusual affairs. Whereas most managers wait to be asked questions, he kicks his off with an often quite lengthy resume of the 90 minutes, gaze averted from his audience. "He's very much his own man," Twentyman said.

Making predictions is not for Francis. Asked whether he thinks Spurs are capable of winning the Premiership, he said: "Who knows? If I knew they were capable I could go on holiday. But the expectation here is fantastic, and when you go into competitions you do so to try to win them. Tottenham are a big club and they should be able to compete at the highest level."

And his future at Spurs? Might he just up and leave and live off the businesses that have long since given him financial independence? "I think if you look at my record it's one of loyalty all the way through," he said. Stick with Francis, seems to be the message, and he'll stick with you.

Five players who owe a debt to Francis

Nigel Martyn Cornish goalkeeper who began his League career at Bristol Rovers at the same time as Francis took over. Became country's first pounds 1m keeper when he joined Crystal Palace.

Les Ferdinand Had made only 33 League appearances in seven seasons at QPR, scoring 10 goals, when Francis arrived in 1991. Over next four seasons scored 70 goals in 123 League appearances. Sold to Newcastle in summer for pounds 6m.

Andy Sinton Busy left-winger whose improvement at QPR got him into the England team. Won 10 caps at Loftus Road, but only two more after being sold to Sheffield Wednesday. Last week rejoined Francis at Spurs.

Darren Peacock Defender who went to Newcastle in 1994 for pounds 2.7m, another nice profit for QPR, who had bought him from Hereford for pounds 200,000 in 1990.

Chris Armstrong Not the finished article when Francis paid Crystal Palace pounds 4.5m for the 24-year-old last summer. A shaky start, but has blossomed, scoring 13 goals.

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