Francis' Protege: Bart-Williams Death Adds Woe To One Of Wednesday's Darkest Days

Trevor Francis and Chris Bart-Williams had both been key to the Owls' 90s successes
13:40, 25 Jul 2023

Two in a day. Two great Premier League names. Two former Nottingham Forest players. Two legends of a Sheffield Wednesday side which is held up as probably the proud Yorkshire club’s greatest iteration since their last league title in 1930.

The gravity of the losses of Trevor Francis and Chris Bart-Williams cannot be measured. The news of ‘The Bartman’s death, which emerged on Monday night, came as a second gut punch in less than 12 hours. At the age of 49, he had so much more to give.

Bart-Williams had been a child star, making his Leyton Orient debut at the age of just 16. He was quickly identified as being ready for the very top of the sport. When Orient came up against Wednesday in a League Cup tie, the midfielder impressed Owls boss Francis so much that within a couple of months he’d spent £275,000 – a huge fee for Orient’s coffers at the time – to bring Bart-Williams to Hillsborough and throw him straight into the side for a huge league fixture against Arsenal.

In S6, Francis helped to develop the wonderkid into a rounded footballer, taking from his own experiences as a teenage superstar with Birmingham City in the 1970s to help Bart-Williams to grow as a top-flight player.

It is no coincidence that the feeling of loss at Francis’ death on Monday at the age of 69 has been so great in the west Midlands, where his early exploits – also as a 16-year-old – formed the basis for his extraordinary playing career. And Trevor knew he had something to offer Bart-Williams in the way of guidance as a result.

“Trevor had a lot to do with my development as a player and a person, obviously him being such a young success in his career,” Bart-Williams told Premier League TV in 2019. “And he allowed me to be myself.” Bartman being himself was an infectious concept.

He was the quick-stepping soul of Wednesday’s squad, forever singing, dancing and generally being the young, vibrant presence in an otherwise largely veteran side. Fun-loving old pros like Viv Anderson, Nigel Pearson and Chris Waddle were energised by his presence. Bart-Williams just loved the journey.

Even when he was a late omission from Wednesday’s massive FA Cup semi-final derby clash with Sheffield United in 1993, with the rest of the entire city on the edge of its seat whether present at Wembley or at home in front of the TV, Bart-Williams spent much of the game sat one row behind Francis on the bench, bopping his head along merrily to whatever was playing on his oversized headphones under his hooded top. On the most fraught of occasions, he was as cool as possible.

He played a massive part in that season as Wednesday reached two cup finals, often out of position. With Mark Bright and David Hirst injured for a long spell during the second half of the campaign, it was midfielder Bart-Williams and Paul Warhurst, a centre-back, who relieved them as the front two to marvellous effect, firing the side to both Wembley finales.

Bart-Williams’ career at Wednesday mirrored that of Francis’ in many ways. He became an increasingly important part of the side over the course of the next two seasons, but when Francis was fired in 1995, Bartman was in the middle of deciding that he needed a fresh start. He wanted to be starting every week as a midfielder, and while new manager David Pleat insisted that was the vision he had for him, the experience of having had his versatility exploited had left the player desiring something new.

That’s what he got at Forest. He might have now been a part of a club struggling to find its way in the post-Brian Clough era but he still had all the moxy to take on the challenge with that big, broad smile and fearless nature. After six years at the City Ground bouncing between the top two divisions he went on to play for Charlton Athletic and Ipswich Town before heading to Cyprus and Malta to end his career.

After his playing days he became a very successful youth coach in the United States, himself applying some of the core values Trevor Francis had taught him to enrich the lives of young American soccer players. It was a burgeoning career which has been so cruelly curtailed.

For football fans, Monday was a terrible day. But think about the Forest supporters who have lost key members of two generations. And of the Wednesdayites whose greatest memories all stem from the side of the early 1990s. The years 1991 to 1995 mark the absolute peak of Wednesday fandom, and that side’s manager and youngest star have both been taken in a 24-hour period. 

When Wednesday called it “one of the darkest days in our long history” they were not overstating the impact.

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