The first ever footballer in the UK, and almost in the world, worth a million pounds came from Plymouth.
In 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister; a 25 year old Trevor Francis joined Nottingham Forrest for a record one million pound transfer fee plus fifteen percent due to the Football League.
On the day it was announced Francis posed for the press photo in suit and tie, while the manager who decided to offer this unheard of sum swaggered in a red leather jacket, playing down the deal by claiming he was just off to a gruelling duel on the squash courts. It was the start of the great economic shifts of the 1980s, unleashing the power of money.
Now the value millions of people gave to football could be turned into cash, and a talented young player with experience in the first division was a key asset the top clubs competed for with increasingly extravagant prices, counting on making even more money from people’s desire to see their club win.
Francis was born in Plymouth in 1954, and attended Plymouth Public Secondary School for boys on Coburg Street, in a building now part of the university. Playing locally in the junior league he showed such promise he was selected to join Birmingham City as an apprentice in 1969 aged only fifteen.
Two years later, he is said to have drawn ten thousand extra spectators to see him play with Birmingham against Bolton Wanderers. They were not disappointed. Only sixteen minutes into the match he scored his first goal, another mid-game, a third twelve minutes before the end, and an amazing fourth goal seven minutes after, injuring himself in the process. He limped off the field to a standing ovation. This was an extraordinary feat to have accomplished before his seventeenth birthday.
He went on to help Birmingham move up into the first division in 1972, and played in FA cup semi finals in the same year and in 1975. Always the fans’ darling, he was considered a maverick genius; fast thinking – his deft footwork famous for making goals out of nothing.
During the year before the record breaking transfer fee Francis had become an international player, beating Luxembourg in a qualifier for the World Cup and going on tour with the England team to South Africa. Unsurprisingly the top clubs in the UK now wanted him on side and would pay whatever needed.
Playing with Nottingham until 1981, he went on to Manchester City, Queens Park Rangers and finally Sheffield Wednesday. He retired from professional football in 1994, but continued as a manager and worked for twenty-one years commentating on Sky TV.
Trevor Francis is remembered most in football for that magic figure. The average house in 1979 cost just £18,000 – property speculation was to come later. He links Plymouth permanently with a landmark event in sporting history.
Written by Rosemary Babichev.