My Debut

Trevor Francis
(v Stoke 1981)

There are City debuts and then there is Trevor Francis’ City debut...

It came away to Stoke in September 1981, just a couple of days after City had paid £1.2m to bring the former Birmingham, Forest, and England forward to the Club.

The announcement that Francis – a genuine thoroughbred of a striker who was fast, scored goals and had wonderful technique – caused something close to fever pitch among the City faithful.

For a game we would perhaps have taken 4,000 to under normal circumstances, clamour to be at Francis’ debut overwhelmed to the City ticket office and after a request was made to Stoke, the Staffordshire club agreed to open additional terracing and seating for the away supporters.

It is estimated City took somewhere between 10 and 12,000 to the Victoria Ground to witness what many believed to be one of the Club’s biggest signings ever.

Francis could have walked into any team in the world and had scored the winning goal in the European Cup final just two years before and at 27, was at the peak of his powers.

But after travelling to Maine Road on Thursday to sign for John Bond’s side, he returned to Nottingham to plan to move to Manchester and train with Forest one last time on the Friday before his debut.

He was blissfully unaware of the Blue Army’s plans to greet him at the Victoria Ground.

“I think it’s fair to say my performance on my debut was much better than my preparation!” said Francis.

“I was living in Nottingham and I drove to Stoke on the morning of the game an met up with my new team-mates and the manager John Bond at the Victoria Ground.

“I officially signed on the Thursday before – as memory serves – and on the Friday morning, I trained for the last time with the Forest lads, even though I was now a City player.

“I wanted to do a bit of shooting practice afterwards and Peter Shilton wanted to a bit extra, too, so we stayed out on the training pitch to sharpen up for my City debut the next day.

“Brian Clough then appeared after about 10 minutes and said, “Oi! Francis - go and get your own goalkeeper, you’re not using mine!’

“That was the end of my shooting practice!”

Bond felt Francis could help turn his City side from nearly me to really men.

The flamboyant City boss, less than a year into his job, had guided City from relegation certainties to a League Cup semi-final, the FA Cup final and tenth in the table in 1980/81.

Now he wanted to kick on, and Francis represented the sort of marquee signing he had demanded.

“I’d started the season at Forest and played in the opening couple of games and I remember Bond coming to the City Ground for a reserve game to try and finalise a deal with Clough,” recalled Francis.

“I was told to wait at the ground while the discussions went on and one of the Forest directors came in and asked me what was happening – I told him I they were thrashing out my transfer and he said, ‘If you don’t want to go, you can stay here.’

“It was good of him to say, but at Nottingham Forest, Brian Clough ran the football club from top to bottom and what he said was what happened.

“He’d made it clear he wanted to sell me and I was more than happy that City had come in for me.

“Clough never said he was getting rid of me or sat me down and said he didn’t want me at the club, he would never do that – but he’d made his mind up and that was that.

"I know it was a big, big surprise to Forest fans who have told me in years since they were gutted I left, but that was where I was at and knew I needed to move on.

“Clough had almost agreed a deal with Manchester United a week before, with me and Shilton going to Old Trafford and Gary Bailey and Gary Birtles going to Forest in return, as well as United playing a substantial fee.

“They were managed by Ron Atkinson at the time and had an attacking side and it got quite far down the road before collapsing for whatever reason and that was the end of it because City made their move soon after.”

The Manchester Evening News had picked up on the City fans’ 40-mile exodus down the M6 and made the back page headlines, further fuelling demand.

The Potters had won their first two games of the new season, but just 13,914 fans had turned up for their previous home game against Coventry – with a couple of thousand of those away supporters.

The official attendance at a sun-drenched Victoria Ground for Francis’ debut was 25,256 and almost half the ground was made up of travelling City fans.

It would easily be Stoke’s biggest gate of the season, eclipsing the 19,662 against Manchester United a few months later by almost 6,000.

“It probably took an hour and 20 minutes to get to Stoke and was looking forward to starting my career as a City player,” said Francis who was meeting his new team-mates for the first time in the dressing room before the game.

“I had no idea of the interest my signing had caused among City fans – not a clue!

“I knew City were a big club but when I ran out at the Victorian Ground and saw one end packed with maybe 10,000 to 12,000 travelling City fans, I was completely taken aback – I’d never seen anything like it.

“To have that kind of following – I’m not saying they were all there just to see me – was such an adrenaline rush for me.”

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And Francis didn’t disappoint.

He scored in front of his adoring army of new fans to put City 1-0 up before Lee Chapman levelled before the break for the hosts.

Then, he set up Phil Boyer just after the hour-mark to make it 2-1 before scoring his second of the game in the 89th minute to wrap up a 3-1 victory.

It was a dream debut.

His home debut against Southampton the following weekend attracted more than 42,000 – again probably 6,000 above the expected gate at Maine Road.

And the Francis effect saw City go into the New Year as leaders of Division One… but Francis would suffer from numerous muscle injuries in the second part of the campaign and eventually the Blues ended tenth.

Finances at City were dire at the time and during the summer of 1982, chairman Peter Swales agreed a deal that sold Francis to Sampdoria recouping much of the original transfer fee in the process.

Francis had been looking forward to returning to City after the 1982 World Cup and was surprised to hear the Club were willing to move him on.

It was a business decision and nothing more, but without Francis and, early in the New Year of 1983, without Bond who quit, the Blues went into freefall and were relegated.

“I never wanted to leave,” said Francis. “I loved my time at City, I loved playing at Maine Road and the fans were unbelievable towards me, but it wasn’t to be.

“As a footnote, the only thing I do remember connected with my debut at Stoke was when I was in London near Marylebone in 2015 and this guy came running over to me to say hello and shake my hand.

“It was Noel Gallagher. He said he’d been at Stoke that day and how much he enjoyed that day. He would have been 14 at the time. It made me smile that it meant so much to him and, from what I can gather, thousands of other City fans.

“It means a lot to me, too.”