Interview: Trevor Francis reveals his key role in Rangers’ Souness revolution

European Cup final match-winner, first player to break the £1 million barrier and one of the finest English strikers of his generation. His place in history is already firmly established.

Trevor Francis is welcomed to Rangers by Ibrox by chairman David Holmes and player/manager Graeme Souness. Picture: Gareth R Reid
Trevor Francis is welcomed to Rangers by Ibrox by chairman David Holmes and player/manager Graeme Souness. Picture: Gareth R Reid

But while Trevor Francis has known for a long time that he’ll always be introduced as the original £1m man regardless of what else he achieved in the game, he has kept to himself something else that merits 
distinction.

Who was the architect of the Graeme Souness revolution at Rangers? Ibrox chairman David Holmes deserves the acclaim but it is possible Francis deserves greater kudos for the influx of internationals at Ibrox than he’s hitherto been given, if he’s been permitted any credit at all. Francis himself was eventually included among these stellar incomers of course, joining his great pal Souness at Ibrox for a sojourn that he’s quick to admit did not work out as he had hoped.

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The pair were inseparable in Italy, where they played together for Sampdoria. “He was probably as close as I have ever been to any player throughout my career,” Francis, who turned 65 yesterday, says now.

They lived in Nervi on the Ligurian coast near Portofino in a big villa converted into five apartments. They had ground floor flats opposite each other in the complex. For two years they roomed together at both home and away matches – the team would head to a hotel in Genoa on the eve of games when playing at their own Stadio Luigi 
Ferraris.

It was therefore not a surprise when Francis eventually walked up the same marble staircase as those he had already played a part in getting to Glasgow. But he never quite managed to insert himself in the club annals in the manner of Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and others.

A stylish forward who could play anywhere across the front-line and once scored four times in a game as a 16-year-old for Birmingham City, Francis did not find the net at all while at Ibrox. It’s easy to attempt an explanation: he was 33 by then and was signed for European know-how rather than to muddy his boots on domestic duty – he appeared four times, starting twice, in Rangers’ run to the European Cup last eight in 1987-88 but made only eight league starts. There was also the small matter of competition for places; Davie Cooper, Ally McCoist, Mark Falco, Robert Fleck and later Mark Walters were all vying for berths.

However, the impression he was a player winding up his career is not supported by what happened when Souness allowed the slightly disillusioned Francis to return to England to sign for Queens Park Rangers. He scored freely again, including one top flight hat-trick at Aston Villa of all places at the age of 35. There were even calls for him to be picked again by England. He went on playing until he was 39, latterly as player-manager at Sheffield Wednesday.

“At times I am a little embarrassed at the way in which I am held and received by Rangers fans when I am about,” he says. “They come up to me and say things like: ‘you were great’. Well, I was not great because I hardly played. But then I went to England and was scoring again regularly for QPR in the top league and the English press were pushing for a recall to the English team. It emphasised the point I was making to Graeme – if I was good enough to possibly come back to play for England, I was certainly good enough to play for 
Rangers.”

Francis might not have scored a goal for Rangers but he converted a penalty with notable aplomb in a penalty shootout to decide an epic Skol Cup final against Aberdeen after a 3-3 draw. In comparison to Jim Bett, who started his run up outside the box, Francis placed the ball and quickly lashed it past Jim Leighton, having barely retreated from the spot. He earned the nickname Trevor Two Step for this and his reaction to scoring perhaps says it all about his time at Ibrox; there’s barely a flicker of emotion across his face as he walks back to the halfway line having delivered a message to Souness: this is what I can do.

It wasn’t as if the player-manager did not already know. They’d played together for two years and indeed it was Francis who got Souness to Sampdoria in the first place. The Italian club were originally after Bryan Robson, the Manchester United captain. But he was proving too expensive and Francis advised the president to head to Rome where Souness was skippering Liverpool in the European Cup final v AS Roma in 1984. “I think you might like what you see,” said Francis.

They lived the high life together in Italy but Francis very quickly learned something about his new friend: he was not a student of the game. This might come as a surprise to the many who will now know Souness purely as a sharply-dressed pundit with often trenchant views about football. According to Francis, he barely took notice of a game if he wasn’t playing in it, hence him having to rely on his team-mate for player recommendations when he was preparing to take over at Ibrox.

During our conversation on Thursday, Francis depicts an episode arguably as crucial as any in the club’s history since four gallant pioneers gathered in a park in the west end of Glasgow to discuss setting up a football team. It was 18 April – two days before Sampdoria’s penultimate league game of the 1985/86 season against Napoli. Souness had already been unveiled at Ibrox to great excitement but had returned to complete the league season for the Italian club.

The scene is a hotel room in Naples and strewn on the table between the beds of two international footballers with over 100 caps between them are napkins on which have been scrawled names like “Butcher” and “Woods”. On another one was written “Shilton” but this was required to be scored out once Francis put a call in to his old European Cup-winning Nottingham Forest team-mate Peter, by then at Southampton.

“We were in a hotel room resting on a Friday afternoon in preparation for the forthcoming game on the Sunday. We had flown down from Genoa, had had lunch and were in our room for a few hours,” recalls Francis. “It was like back when you were in the school in the playground picking players to make up teams – ‘I will have him, him and him’.

“It was the era of Maradona’s Napoli. I never mentioned getting him though! Graeme would liked to have got Peter Shilton but he was not available. We got Chris Woods and then Terry Butcher, one or two others.”

“Graeme did not watch a lot of football so was therefore not up to speed with a lot of the players. When he got the chance to come to Rangers he sent one of the old scouts at Liverpool to have a look. He came back and said they needed nine new 
players!”

“We got to work down in Naples one afternoon about who he could bring in. Listen, I am not getting into what he had at his own disposal to strengthen the team, but he seemed to have a bit of a free hand – he certainly could invest in players. I just named some players who I felt could do a job and helped with some phone calls. So yes, I was there at the beginning of it [the Souness revolution]. It gave me something to do – it might have been the start of me thinking about management.”

Francis soon joined Souness at Rangers but remains disappointed at how things panned out. He reveals a poignant moment when the pair were sitting in the sauna at Ibrox. Souness, aware Francis was feeling miffed about his lack of match action, turned to him and said: “I am never going to sign a friend again”.

“But he did sign a Catholic!” adds Francis. It’s easy to tell Francis, who grew up in Plymouth, was taken aback by what he describes, in his new book One In A Million, “the sectarian mentality”. He recalls being asked to sign an autograph outside Ibrox by a boy whose father scolded him for giving Francis a pen with green ink. He also mentions the snooker tables inside Ibrox where the traditional green baize had been replaced by Rangers blue. “Amazing!” he exclaims.

One of his rare league starts came against Celtic in October 1987, a game now recalled for the “Goldilocks and The Three Bears” episode. Francis was one of the farthest players from the rammy in the Rangers penalty area that led to criminal convictions for Butcher and Woods while Graham Roberts and Frank McAvennie – Goldilocks – were cleared of breach of the peace. A lot of space, possibly too much, is devoted to the ramifications of the incident in Francis’ book to further strengthen the impression he found it all utterly incomprehensible.

His latest autobiography follows The Anatomy Of A Million Pound Player (1980) and World To Play For (1982). Francis agreed – after some gentle persuasion from his ghost writer – that his story was probably due an update, since he had neither covered his Rangers chapter nor the multitude of other things that have happened to him in the last 37 years, including clearing up the misconception he let Eric Cantona sign for Leeds United from under his nose (Francis was letting the Frenchman train at Sheffield Wednesday as a favour to Dennis Roach, the agent who handled his own transfer to Sampdoria).

Then there’s the time he attended Sandy Lyle’s pre-Masters party in 1989 – the Scot was defending champion. The pair were both living in Wentworth at the time. But the main topic of conversation was not how Lyle had become the first Briton to win at Augusta. Rather, it was the then recent controversy where Francis, recently installed as QPR player-manager, fined Martin Allen for leaving the team hotel during the night before a game at Newcastle to attend the birth of his son.

“There were conflicting views – Sandy’s was if it was the last round of the Masters and you were going for a green jacket you can’t suddenly say: ‘that’s me off home now, I am leaving the golf course’. It was something I now wish had not happened, being a family man myself.”

In this respect, there’s also been recent and profound heartbreak. Helen, his wife of 43 years, passed away two years ago from cancer and Francis, who has two sons, is trying to put his life back together. He’s had enormous help from the football community, with Souness not letting him down. Francis relates another poignant moment involving the supposed hard man, who embraced him at the funeral and said: “Every man in that church would like to have had Helen as his wife”.

Also acting as a pillar has been another Scot, one who Francis might once have described as his greatest enemy in the game. He and Kenny Burns hated each other at Birmingham City, where they were team-mates. “He used to try and snap me in half at Birmingham in training,” says Francis. “He was a thug! He did a book and admitted we came from different backgrounds. He was one who would hang out in pubs and I would always go to a wine bar. Basically he said he was envious of me!”

When they later met up again in the Nottingham Forest dressing-room, Burns was a changed man in every respect. Re-deployed at centre-half by Brian Clough, he was also more accepting of Francis. “I recognised it was a different Kenny Burns,” he says. “He had not been professional in terms of his whole outlook on football at Birmingham. It was knocked into him by Brian Clough.

“He converted him from a very good centre forward at Birmingham to a central defender. He played for Scotland as a central defender and won the football writers’ player of the year award; that’s some turnaround.” They are now firm friends.

“He rang last week,” says Francis. “I stood up at a Forest function, which Kenny was also at. I said to everyone how Kenny and me had not got along. That all changed at Forest. I have to thank him for the way he has always been on the phone and is constantly enquiring whether I need anything. I told him that in public. He got quite emotional.”

Francis’ life seems littered with enduring and significant relationships with Scots, no more so than in the case of John Robertson, who he describes as the best player in Europe at the time of Forest’s successive European Cup victories, and who set up the winner for Francis in the first of these against Malmo 40 years ago next month. If he was English, he would have got more credit,” he says. “We all recognised at Forest he was our best and most important player and a match winner, not just on odd occasions, but often.”

I tell Francis I won’t be allowed back into the office if we don’t discuss the reason two of his three books to date have the word “Million” in the title. It’s old news now in that many will find it hard to fathom how a move from Birmingham City to Forest in February 1979 for what in this day and age seems such a measly fee could have shocked world football and dominated the headlines.

Clough tried his best to play it all down, claiming the fee was actually “only” £999,999, turning up late for the press conference with a squash racket in hand having squeezed in a lunchtime game and then handing Francis his debut in a third-team fixture against Notts County in front of about 20 people.

“I never realised just what an effect it would have on everyone throughout life,” says Francis. “It was big news then. People had enormous interest in it. There was something magical about the figure. I don’t even know what the current record is these days – it has lost a bit of the magic.

“I think I’ve always been referred to as 
the first £1m footballer 40 years on – I 
guarantee you if I go to a sporting function today, regardless of what I have achieved in my career, I would be announced as the first £1m player, that will never go away. And you know what? To be honest I am quite proud of it.”