Trevor Francis Dies – A Look Back at the Career of Football’s First £1m Player

Trevor Francis

On the 24th of July 2023, it was announced that Trevor Francis had died at the age of 69. Many younger football fans may not have even heard of him, whilst others, especially fans of Nottingham Forest, will remember him as a sensational striker and a hero of two European Cup successes. For many lovers of the beautiful game, however, who lie somewhere in the middle of those extremes, Francis may be best known for being the first £1m player, and also for his time as a manager. In this article, we will provide a summary of his playing career and also his time as a manager and pundit.

Trevor Francis Playing Career

Francis was born in Plymouth in 1954 and moved to Birmingham City as a youth player in 1969. He made is first team debut for the cub the following year at the age of just 16 and would hold the record as their youngest player and youngest goalscorer until a certain Jude Bellingham broke both records when he broke onto the scene.

Francis stayed with the Blues for almost a decade, netting 118 league goals in 280 games.
He gained his first England cap whilst with the club, during the short and ill-fated Three Lions spell of Don Revie. That was in 1977 and two years later he would make the move for which he is now so famous.

£1m Move to Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest LogoForest, managed by the brilliant Brian Clough, won the league and the League Cup in 1977/78 but Clough still felt there was something missing. He persuaded his chairman to sanction a bid of £1m for Francis at a time when the British transfer record stood at £516,000. In fact, the total bid was £1,150,000 as there was a 15% fee paid to the Football League.

Whilst Clough joked he had paid £999,999 for the forward, this was the first seven-figure transfer between British clubs. The deal was completed in February 1979 and Francis’s place in history was assured. Far fewer people remember the name Steve Daley, who was signed for almost £1.5m by Man City just seven months later!

The former Birmingham star shone at Forest, scoring an iconic goal in the 1979 European Cup final. It was the winner, a fine header, and has been shown in much of the reporting of the star’s death. He helped Forest defend their European Cup 12 months later, though he missed the final, and in total scored just 37 times for Forest. Though he scored that famous goal against Malmo to land the game’s biggest prize, injuries and Clough’s preference for playing him as a right winger limited Francis’s impact at Forest and he played fewer than 100 games for the club.

Nomadic Career Follows

Clough had a second loan spell with Detroit Express in the North American Soccer League having previously gone to the States whilst with Birmingham. He then moved permanently to Man City, a fee of £1.2m securing his services in 1981. Next he went to Italy, first with Sampdoria, then Atalanta, before moving to Rangers in 1987.

At the end of the decade, he moved to QPR, working as player-manager for a time, going on loan to Wollongong City in Australia before signing for Sheffield Wednesday in February 1990. He stayed with the Owls until he retired in 1994 and was a popular player-manager for part of the time, helping them to a promotion (after a previous relegation) and a League Cup success.

Aside from Birmingham, his total of 76 league outings with the Owls was the most he made for any club. Ultimately, despite earning more than 50 England caps (and scoring 12 goals), many may argue Francis never quite fulfilled the potential of the UK’s first £1m man. But then what do you know about Steve Daley?

Trevor Francis’s Managerial Career

Sheffield Wednesday Sign at Hillsborough
Daniel Bagshaw (Dan1980), CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Francis always looked cut out for management and his nous may have been part of what attracted Clough to him in the first place. He managed QPR for almost a year but his first real job as a full-time manager was with Sheffield Wednesday, though he began there combining roles both on and off the pitch. The South Yorkshire outfit appointed him player-manager in 1991, and his time on the pitch dropped.

He played 20 times in the league in 1991/92 but just five the following season, the first of the Premier League era. In 1993/94 he made his last appearance as a player, his only appearance that season in fact.

Around a year later, such is football, he was dismissed as Wednesday boss, ending with a win percentage of 41.2% from 216 games in charge (including as player-manager). He was out of work for less than a year and in May 1996 was made the boss of another former club, Birmingham City. As with his playing career, the Blues was the club where he stayed longest, taking charge for nearly 300 games.

He also enjoyed the most success with Birmingham, winning almost 48% of the games he took charge for. However, his time in the dugout was very much a case of so near and yet so far. They lost a League Cup final to Liverpool (on penalties, despite being in the second tier). In addition, they missed out on the play-offs on goal difference in 1997/98. They made the play-offs in each of the next three seasons but couldn’t quite do enough to earn promotion to the Premier League.

In October 2001 he was sacked and Birmingham would go on to replicate their fifth-place finish of the previous two seasons. However, this time, with Francis gone, they navigated the play-offs and made it back to the top flight. As for their former boss, he would move to Crystal Palace in November 2001 but was dismissed in April 2003. Again his “crime” was failing to secure promotion to the PL.

He didn’t work in a major role in football again, doing the odd bit of media work. In 2012 he had a heart attack, from which he thankfully recovered after a spell in hospital. He retired to Marbella and sadly died of another heart attack at the age of 69.

He will, of course, always be remembered as the first £1m man. Perhaps he never achieved what he could have in the game but as some leading obituaries have said, we should remember him for what he achieved, rather than what he didn’t. And two European Cups, plus further silverware in three countries, and 52 England caps is not bad at all.