Trevor Francis – hopes and dreams embodied
Posted on July 24, 2023
(If you’ve come for a dose of political comment, this blog’s different, a one-off. I’m making no excuses for it.)
I’m on holiday. I’ve closed down my email and am working hard to look at my phone as infrequently as possible. But it’s buzzing and squeaking with irritating frequency, so I check, hoping that it’s not bad news. Unfortunately, it is.
Trevor has died, unexpectedly, at the age of 69. For the avoidance of doubt, I’ve never met Trevor and I’ve never spoken to him. By way of further explanation, I greet almost all ‘celebrity’ deaths with varying degrees of equanimity. I don’t do pilgrimages, lay flowers or post tributes. And yet, as you’ll have picked up, I’m referring to this bloke by his forename as if we were close acquaintances. And that’s because, in an intangible, indefinable way, we were.
Trevor Francis was the best player ever to play for Birmingham City. My club. The club I have bequeathed to my son. The club from my city which has been responsible for the shattering of dreams and the dashing of hopes for, in my case, seven decades. When life and happenstance find your unglamorous football club for you in that way, you cling to any glimpse of a rainbow, any shimmer at the cloud’s edge, any hint of a jewel gleaming from the dung pit. Trevor Francis was that glow in the firmament.
When I was in the second year of my A-Levels, Trevor scored four goals in a game for Birmingham City. People talk about turning points in their lives; his achievement on that dull February afternoon in 1971 was mine. This 16-year-old kid was younger than me. Until that point, all players were men; proper men. Look at the team photos from the era and you’ll see what I mean. And now here was someone, playing for my beloved team who would have been in the year below me at school. And he was brilliant.
Even as I type, others will be listing his manifold attributes: the zipped speed over five yards, the whiplash turn, the powered drive with no back-lift. All of these are seared into the memory, some of it is on Youtube. As it happens, Trevor played in a Birmingham side that, almost uniquely in the club’s history, demonstrated flair and a flourish – although, typically, none of this manifested itself in success or silverware. But the important thing was that there, in the middle of this action, was this boy, our boy (albeit not Brummie bred), shining and glowing like the star he was.
Off he went to be the first million-pound player, to win the European Cup and to play for England on more than 50 occasions. Around the world to other clubs of varying degrees of glamour and football pedigree and then back to England as a manager. As Birmingham City played out a variation on their usual theme of alternating between the first and second tiers of English football by doing so between the second and third, a faint dream was born. Surely, Trevor would come back to manage us. His real team.
Which he duly did. In true Birmingham City style, he flirted with triumph – a League Cup final and three appearances in the play-offs – before succumbing to inevitable disaster. Five years without success as a manager seems positively archaic, but it was Trevor, we’d tolerate it. Because it was Trevor.
I’m sure some of my fellow supporters/sufferers might argue that, for a very brief spell, Christophe Dugarry looked what he was, a world class thoroughbred among the shire horses. Or that Jude Bellingham – a much more local product than Trevor – will make a greater impact on the global stage. But neither of them have come close to Trevor’s near 300 appearances and although Jude may yet do so (note first-name terms again), he’s still got a way to go.
So, let the stories flow. Apparently, Trevor was ever determined, even as a manager, to show himself the best player in training. He was never coy about the photos and memorabilia of his playing success. He was a world-class sportsman and they don’t come in cosy, convenient packages. But whoever met him (unlike me) spoke of the courteous, considerate individual hinted at by his persona as a pundit.
But with him goes a part of life for so many Birmingham supporters of a certain age. A touch of hope, a dash of glamour, a gasp from the stand, a head shaken at spontaneity and brilliance on the field of play. RIP, Trevor. Keep Right On.
My book, Hugging Strangers, about supporting Birmingham City (or, just about supporting a club, actually) is available from all booksellers.