From 'Superboy' To £1m European Champion: Trevor Francis Was A British Superstar

The former England star has died at the age of 69
14:32, 24 Jul 2023

He was known as ‘Superboy’ at Birmingham City as a sensational 16-year-old and would go on to become the first £1 million footballer in British history. A two-time European champion at Nottingham Forest, a successful export to the global game, a World Cup star with England. A promising young manager making Sheffield Wednesday dream big and a highly-respected pundit.

Trevor Francis covered just about everything in his epic and varied football career, and news of his death on Monday at the age of 69 will stun anybody who had even the slightest affiliation with him.

Francis was destined for superstardom from the moment he made his Birmingham debut in 1970, dazzling the St Andrew’s crowd with magnificent attacking play and some fantastic goals. He hit the headlines when bagging four goals on his 17th birthday, and while he stayed loyal to the club for more than eight years it was clear he was destined for bigger and better things. Many Birmingham fans continue to believe Francis to have been the greatest player ever to pull on the royal blue shirt.

It was in February 1979 that he made history when Nottingham Forest’s legendary manager Brian Clough agreed to pay over £1m for his services. While it might not sound a lot in modern parlance, no British player had ever been sold for more than £516,000 before that point.

Francis had an almost immediate effect. Having been cup-tied for Forest’s European Cup until the semi-final stage, it was his stooping header at the far post from a brilliant John Robertson cross which won the final for the ‘Tricky Trees’ against Malmo in Munich. A club which had been in the second tier of English football just two years earlier were kings of Europe, and the claims from terraces around the country that Francis had been a ‘waste of money’ had quickly been put to bed.

He'd win another European title with Forest the following year, and while he didn’t hit the heights many had expected over a longer period at the City Ground he went on to have an incredibly impactful four-year spell with Sampdoria in Italy off the back of an unbeaten World Cup run with England in Spain in 1982.

Having already tasted foreign climes as an off-season success with Detroit Express in the Northern American Soccer League, the mark of his achievements in Serie A didn’t necessarily come in his sole Coppa Italia win in 1985 but more in the way he was received by Samp fans in later life. He was a true rarity, an English player embracing the culture to the point where the locals treated him as one of their own.

There would be other stops along the journey, including a short spell with Rangers after a call from his former Sampdoria team-mate Graeme Souness, who by then was the manager at Ibrox. But after a stint with Queens Park Rangers he headed to Sheffield Wednesday for the final leg of his playing career.

After being a regular squad member in the Owls’ promotion season in 1990-91 he was asked to succeed Ron Atkinson as manager, and having learned a lot from a very speedy exit from his first coaching job at QPR, he took Wednesday to a third-place finish in the top flight in his first season in charge. One year on, he took them to both cup finals and would threaten to repeat that trick in 1993-94 only for a string of injuries to hamper his squad. Along the way he attracted stars such as Chris Waddle, Des Walker, Chris Woods and Mark Bright to the club, underlining the respect and belief he had garnered within the game.

He went on to manage his first club Birmingham City, taking them to the 2001 League Cup final as a Championship outfit, and later had a stint with Crystal Palace, and would find a niche as a pundit and commentator beyond his managerial days.

Francis suffered a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 57 but then spoke openly of his struggle to cope with the devastating effect of the death of his wife Helen in 2017. But to his dying day any conversation among fans of his former clubs would continue to have him ranked as one of the most talented players supporters had ever seen.

His death is an unspeakable loss to every club he represented.

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