Trevor Francis obituary

Trevor Francis, who has died aged 69 of a heart attack, was one of the golden boys of English football during the 1970s and 80s, a forward of outstanding skill and agility who won back-to-back European Cups with Nottingham Forest after joining them as Britain’s first £1m player.

Later he tasted success with Sampdoria in Italy and Rangers in Scotland, and had a fruitful time managing Sheffield Wednesday in the early 90s, taking the club to two cup finals and a third place in the final season of the old First Division. He also played 52 times for England, including at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Fame and fortune came to Francis at an unusually young age, but it did not spoil him. A universally popular figure, he was admired for his easygoing nature and humble approachability. As a player he oozed class: far more than just a striker, he preferred to use his pace to run at defences, and he had great passing ability as well as the knack of crossing balls at speed. Although he scored in excess of 230 goals during his career, occasionally he felt more like an attacking midfielder than anything else.

Trevor Francis, left, and Brian Clough on the day Francis signed for Nottingham Forest. Clough, the manager, arrived wearing a tracksuit and carrying a squash racket in order to appear nonchalant about the £1m price tag.

Trevor Francis, left, and Brian Clough on the day Francis signed for Nottingham Forest. Clough, the manager, arrived wearing a tracksuit and carrying a squash racket in order to appear nonchalant about the £1m price tag. Photograph: PA

At Nottingham Forest, the manager Brian Clough quite often used Francis in a deeper position on the right, which was from where he was able to score the goal that gave Forest their first European Cup, in a 1-0 victory over Malmö in Munich in 1979. On that occasion he revealed the extent of his lithe athleticism by heading the ball into the net from a tight angle at the far post from a byline cross by John Robertson.

It turned out to be an almost immediate payback for Forest, the first British club to pay a seven-digit sum for a player when they signed him just a few months before.

Born in Plymouth, Devon, Trevor was the oldest of the three children of Roy Francis, a gas board foreman and semi-pro footballer, and his wife, Phyllis (nee Standlick), a part-time seamstress. At Plymouth public secondary school for boys he was a footballing prodigy, rattling in more than 800 goals for various Devon representative XIs before earning himself an apprenticeship with Birmingham City at the age of 15.

He made his debut in the Second Division in 1970, at the age of 16 years and 139 days – the youngest player to appear for the club until Jude Bellingham beat the record almost 50 years later. Before he turned 17, Francis made the national headlines by scoring four goals against Bolton Wanderers, an achievement he later regarded as greater even than his winner in the European Cup final.

In his second season, Francis’s 12 goals helped Birmingham to promotion to the First Division, and, although the team did little to stir the imagination in that new setting, top flight football proved to be the new boy’s natural stage. He was given his first England cap in 1977 by Don Revie, a 2-0 home defeat against the Netherlands at Wembley, and, after he was top scorer for Birmingham over three consecutive seasons from 1975-76 onwards, Forest came in for him as the first “£1m man”, almost doubling the previous highest transfer deal in the UK.

Clough, possibly trying to take some pressure off the young player, turned up at the press conference in a tracksuit and with a squash racket in hand, as if to suggest the signing had been a small interruption in an otherwise normal day. The new player, more formally attired in suit and kipper tie, was obliged to take the issue rather more seriously, but showed a characteristic calmness under the spotlight.

Thanks to the mid-season date of his transfer deal, Francis found himself ineligible to play in any of Forest’s European Cup games that season – until the final, when he scored the decisive goal. His more extended contribution to the club’s second European Cup win in 1980 was less dramatic but perhaps equally important. Even though he missed the final, as a result of an achilles tendon injury, he scored two goals against the Berlin side BFC Dynamo in the second leg of the quarter-final and the opening goal against Ajax in the first leg of the semi-final.

The injury that kept Francis out of the final also led to his absence from England’s 1980 European Championship campaign and contributed to a rather disappointing following season before Clough sold him to Manchester City for £1.2m in 1981.

It was while Francis was in Manchester that he played in the 1982 World Cup, scoring against Czechoslovakia and Kuwait before England were eliminated in the second group stage.

But after he had spent only one season at Maine Road, financial considerations prompted the club to sell him to Sampdoria, where he appeared in the same team as Graeme Souness, Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Mancini. He stayed for four seasons at the Genoese club, with whom he won the Italian Cup in 1985, then spent a year with Atalanta in Bergamo before returning to the UK to sign in 1987 for Rangers, where Souness had become manager.

In late 1988, at the age of 34, he took on the role of player-manager at Queens Park Rangers, but returned after a year to being solely a player at Sheffield Wednesday, featuring as a substitute in their 1-0 League Cup final win against Manchester United in 1991.

When the Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson left shortly afterwards, Francis was appointed player-manager, taking the side to third place in the First Division in 1992 and, the following season, to the League and FA Cup finals, both of which were lost to Arsenal. He finished as a player in 1994, aged 39, having made just under 800 appearances for his various clubs across almost a quarter of a century.

Concentrating solely on management, Francis was sacked by Wednesday in 1995 and the following year moved to Second Division Birmingham, missing out narrowly on taking them to the Premier League for three years in succession and losing on penalties to Liverpool in the 2001 League Cup final.

He quit not long afterwards to become manager of Second Division Crystal Palace, but was sacked in 2003 after failing to get them to the top flight.

Afterwards he concentrated on working as a television expert and co-commentator, but also ran Francis Homes, a housebuilding company in the Midlands. Latterly he divided his time between homes in England and in Marbella, Spain.

His wife, Helen (nee Allcard), whom he married in 1974, died in 2017; they had two sons, Matthew and James.

• Trevor John Francis, footballer, born 19 April 1954; died 24 July 2023

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