Mention Gerry Francis to football fans of a certain vintage and they will tell you of two spectacular goals – in England’s famous 5-1 humbling of Scotland in May ’75, and his Goal of the Season for QPR against Liverpool a few weeks later.
These days Gerry Francis is better known for his appearances on Sky’s Soccer Saturday, for his lifelong adherence to the mullet and, among pigeon fanciers, for his ownership of Thornlea Lucky Stumpy, one of the stars of his Elimar stable.
Few people though, could give you chapter and verse on the former England captain’s managerial career, and fewer still on his brief, highly successful spell at the helm of Bristol Rovers.
But in south Gloucestershire and north Bristol, Francis’ name conjours other images; of a Rovers team he managed winning the old third division, of a Wembley appearance in the Leyland Daf final of 1990 and of an unforgettable, championship-sealing triumph over Bristol City in Rovers’ lodgings at Twerton Park. Francis’ achievements were even more impressive given the Gasheads’ penury and enforced exile in Bath, with the manager investing £20,000 of his own money to keep the club running
Bath City’s Twerton Park was worlds away from the stage occupied by Gerry Francis the player. Captained by QPR at just 23, and Don Revie’s first England skipper, Francis was the outstanding midfielder of his day – without the fanfare of his successor Bryan Robson – a mere 12 caps betraying terrible luck with injuries. But his swift rise was evidence of a determination and strong personality that would serve him well through some difficult times.
Francis left QPR in 1979 to join former boss Terry Venables’ newly-promoted ‘Team of the Eighties’ at Crystal Palace, but two fitful years at Selhurst Park brought just 59 appearances. A season at Coventry followed before the Chiswick-born midfielder opted for the dugout, becoming player-manager of Exeter. It was not an easy start in management for the 32-year-old, who was dismissed as the Grecians finished bottom of division three in 1983-84 amid on-pitch struggles and boardroom unrest.
Undeterred, Francis turned out briefly for Cardiff, Swansea and Portsmouth before alighting in the blue half of Bristol in 1985. He played 32 times for Rovers, before replacing Wimbledon-bound Bobby Gould as manager in July 1987, after third division Rovers had finished Gould’s last season just two places off relegation, Francis arrived at just the right time, to galvanise a club floundering in a sea of troubles.
A rent dispute with the Bristol Stadium company, and a reduced capacity of 12,500, had seen Rovers leave Eastville – their home since 1897 – just a year before; its quirkiness and charm, with the greyhound track and flower beds forming a rustic backdrop, no defence against the club’s shaky finances and insecure tenancy.
With the ground issue unresolved, Rovers moved ten miles out of town, to Bath’s Twerton Park; an unwanted upheaval, but with Gloucestershire in natural Rovers territory, a logical one. The Gasheads had played five home games at Bristol City’s Ashton Gate in 1980 after a fire at Eastville. But the bitter cross-city rivalry – of which the later torching of Twerton Park’s offices by City fans was just one example – ruled out a long-term deal, so making Twerton the only plausible destination.
Against the odds, the team prospered in its strange surroundings, with Francis turning in a profit of £142,000 on transfers after taking over from Bobby Gould, thanks largely to the sale of Gary Penrice to Watford for £500,000 in late 1989. Francis’ major signings – Nigel Martyn, Ian Holloway and Devon White – picked up for next to nothing, were a statement of intent, and of the new manager’s confidence in himself.
Some unorthadox scouting helped boost the squad, as future England ‘keeper Martyn, then at St Blazey, “Cornwall’s premier football club”, was spotted by the Rovers’ tea lady during her holiday fortnight. Cult midfielder Ian Holloway meanwhile, whose Rovers and QPR connections mirror those of his former boss, returned to the club after two years away and was key to their success, missing just five games in the next four seasons.
Likewise, striker Devon White, a free transfer from Grantham in August 1987 made over 200 appearances in his five years at Rovers, scoring 53 goals, including two in the title-decider against Bristol City; an endorsement of Francis’ skill in developing unsung players. With the added presence of top scorer Dave Mehew, Rovers were a potent attacking force.
A solid eighth place in Francis’ first season was followed by a playoff defeat to Port Vale in 1989, before the title was clinched with a famous 3-0 trouncing of Bristol City before a capacity 9,813 on May 2nd 1990. Help arrived from an unexpected source, as a threatening phonecall to Ian Holloway from some Bristol City fans the night before the match proved all the motivation Rovers needed.
A Wembley defeat by Tranmere in the Leyland Daf Final denied Rovers the lower division double, but could not detract from a run of one defeat in 22 games that brought the title, with one of the wins, ironically, a 2-1 success at Prenton Park. Rovers finished the 1989-90 season unbeaten at home; the first and so far only, time this has happened.
Francis stayed another season, guiding Rovers to 13th in division two, before heading for Loftus Road in June 1991, to inject life into the club that had given him a start. By the time he left, Rovers were a revitalised club, making light of their difficulties, with a solid base to build on, though instability and frequent changes of manager frustrated any progress.
Rangers finished fifth in division one in his first season as boss with a squad including one Ian Holloway, while Rovers stayed up for three seasons before relegation in 1993. A yo-yo existence saw them swap Leagues One and Two regularly before last year’s demotion.
Francis returned to Rovers, by now based at the Memorial Stadium, in 2001, for a less successful second spell as boss, and the managerial reins were held by John Ward, until relegation to the Conference cost him his job. The timing was terrible, as permission has been granted for a new £40m stadium at Stoke Gifford. Holding 21,700 and due for completion in 2016, the new ground would have been a little out of place in the Conference.
Thankfully, Lee Mansell’s winning penalty in the playoff shootout with Grimsby restored League status and lifted the yoke from Rovers’ shoulders. Current manager (ex-Salisbury boss Darryll Clarke) will need some of Francis’ qualities, and the Spirit of ’75, to make the investment pay.