Greyer shade of blue

Having been a hero to the Birmingham City fans in the 1970s, John Tandy finds out if he stills holds the same affection as manager in the 1990s

It’s the early eighties. Birmingham City are well into the downward spiral that will shortly see them drop into the Third Division. Trevor Francis is at Sampdoria. The song rings out: “My Trevor lies over the ocean, My Trevor lies over the sea… Oh bring back my Trevor to me…”

Fast forward to 1996 and the dream comes true. With all the bunting and tickertape you would expect for a Homecoming Queen, Francis let himself be talked out of retirement (ie Sky TV) and into the manager’s chair. It wasn’t all unbridled joy. There where those who worried that anything less than walking on water would only serve to tarnish the memory of our Greatest Player Ever. There were those who pointed to his less-than-inspirational management career at QPR and Sheffield Wednesday. There were even those who (perish the thought) suggested his contributions to Monday Night Football demonstrated less than razor-sharp wit and tactical awareness.

Three years down the line and we find a tangle of contradictions that Anthony Clare would die for. It’s hard to reconcile the style of the player with the tactics of a manager striving for that elusive 1-8-1 formation that will one day change the face of football. Catenaccio-esque, I guess you’d call it. On a good day. Francis is distant to the point of supercilious with staff, yet prizes team spirit above all (he ended Christopher Wreh’s loan spell early for a lack of it at a time when he was the only fit striker at the club).

You have a man who demands unswerving loyalty while making it clear he doesn’t need the job and has tried to walk out several times. You have a man who demands the flexibility of a squad system, yet whose own stubbornness would see him lose Ian Bennett, our finest goalkeeper since the Fifties, rather than back down in a squabble over a few quid.

His team selections appear to owe more to favouritism than to strategy: if you’re in, you’re in for ever (Martin Grainger, Jon McCarthy, Paul “half-a-season”Furlong), if you’re out, you’re on your bike (Paul Devlin, Nicky Forster and Paul Tait all sold for peanuts, while Eddie “massive-fee-from-Chelsea” Newton took a matter of days to earn himself a permanent place in the reserves). You have a man whose public persona is bland to the point of non-existence yet who somehow communicates a single-minded determination and commitment.

So where does this leave the average consumer? To find out I undertook an objective, verifiable, triangulated research project. I asked a load of Blues fans. The results weren’t far short of unanimous. Trevor Francis apparently still is God. Walking on water is now taken as read and we are eagerly awaiting progression to the more challenging miracles: healing the lame, reaching the play-offs, that sort of thing.

We have the strongest squad we have had for 20 years – your heart hardly ever sinks these days when they read out the team list. We are playing the best football many of the fans have ever seen (a sizeable chunk of the supporting demographic have never seen Francis play, he’s just a piece of living history, like Neil Armstrong or Les Paul, so they don’t have any of the “icon” hang-ups). We may may be bland, but at least people don’t laugh any more. There is the conviction that Francis has taken the club to heart (“you can see how much it hurts him when we lose” is a frequent comment). The stubbornness is seen as single-minded, the walkouts a challenge to an unsupportive board.

There is even the feeling that our place in the table (11th and sliding at the time of writing) is a credit to Francis, given an injury crisis that makes Titus Andronicus look like a Boyzone gig. Against West Ham in November we had our second-choice full-backs on either wing with a centre back and an on-loan winger up front. Tackling has been banned in training and even then one player dislocated his thumb when it tangled in someone else’s shirt, and another fell downstairs at home. Like Titus Andronicus it would be funny if there wasn’t so much blood.

When we lost to Watford in the play-offs last season Francis spoke of the pain of losing with a passion we’d never heard before. In some ways that seems to have been a defining moment. It’s hard to judge how long the feelgood factor will last, but it has certainly survived a lot of things that would normally have caused rumblings of discontent by now.

Whether he gets us anywhere or not, one thing’s for sure. Trevor Francis somehow manages to irritate the hell out of Villa fans, like a burst of eczema that’s been festering since the Seventies. For that, if for nothing else, he will always be sure of a place in our hearts.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month