Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trevor Francis: The first £100 million footballer cannot be far away

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The first million-pound player when he signed for Nottingham Forest in 1979 knows that fee is now viewed as small change.

by Paul Hayward - The Guardian

Thirty-two years ago this week Trevor Francis became Britain's first million-pound footballer. Francis was a striker, like Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll, but for him there was no chopper ride from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest and no adulatory welcome from Brian Clough, his new manager, who was allergic to superstardom.

"I signed on the Friday morning, during a spell when a lot of games were being called off. So on that Saturday, the following day, the Forest game was postponed and Cloughie decided I was short of match practice," Francis starts out. "So he played me in a parks game he had organised between the Forest and Notts County third teams. I'm drawing parallels now with Torres playing in front of 40,000 against Liverpool [today]. I played in front of 20 people and two dogs.

"I got my first bollocking off him, at half-time, for not wearing shin pads. You didn't have to wear them in those days. I felt more comfortable without them but Cloughie said: 'If you play for Nottingham Forest, you have to wear pads.' The following week I played for the first team and it suddenly dawned on me, at Portman Road, when the supporters sang 'What a waste of money' throughout the game. That's when I started to realise how daunting it was to live up to this pressure."

Neither Torres (£50m, from Liverpool to Chelsea) nor Carroll (£35m, Newcastle to Liverpool) looked especially encumbered by "pressure" at their unveilings this week. Luis Suárez, a £22.8m buy from Ajax, shook off the dust from a seven-game suspension for biting an opponent to score within 16 minutes of his arrival on the Anfield pitch. Strikers, always highly valued, are the new must-have deities of the transfer market, eclipsing artistic midfielders and impenetrable centre-backs. The inflationary boom caused by Torres, Carroll, Suárez Edin Dzeko and Darren Bent reflects their exceptionally profitable goals-to-games ratios and therefore a comparative absence of risk.

The manic pursuit of goalscorers started with Bent's move from Sunderland to Aston Villa for £18m-£24m, then shifted up another level with Dzeko's transfer to Manchester City for £27m. Before the January transfer window closed with the biggest day's trading in the sport's history, Manchester United had rewritten their wage structure in the autumn to keep Wayne Rooney and City had talked Carlos Tevez out of fleeing into the night.

In this context, the £85m spent on Torres and Carroll expressed more than the Premier League's enduring capacity for extravagance in defiance of a recession. The spark here was Roman Abramovich's urge to protect his original £750m investment by torching another £77m on Torres and Benfica's David Luiz. But the scale of the splurge on forwards suggests club owners have come into the possession of new software that proves the indispensability of goal-getters: even ones with 19 appearances and 11 goals at Premier League level.

"I wonder in my lifetime whether I'll ever see a £100m footballer," Francis asks. "If I do, maybe it's Lionel Messi. He's the only one. But where would he go?"

Torres's move to Chelsea shredded the record for transfers between British clubs but would have been more spectacular last season, according to Rafael Beniítez, his former manager at Liverpool. "I think last year we were talking about £70m," Benítez told the BBC's Football Focus, thus placing Chelsea and Manchester City in the frame.

Francis calls his own ground-breaking move to Forest "the equivalent of a free transfer these days." He says: "If I was introduced as the first million-pound transfer it would mean absolutely nothing to kids these days. In those days it was quite something. The record transfer had been £500,000."

The fee surpassed by Francis's was that of Middlesbrough's David Mills, who moved to West Brom for £516,000. In subsequent years the strikers Andy Gray, Andy Cole, Stan Collymore and Alan Shearer all broke the record for deals between British clubs. Shearer, a proven international luminary, returned to Newcastle for £15m 15 years ago. Now Carroll fetches £35m after 72 minutes in an England shirt. Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's greatest player, who bought him, was worth £440,000 to Celtic when he moved to Anfield in 1977.

"The market is getting crazy," says Juan Pablo Angel, who was Aston Villa's record signing, in 2001, at £9.5m, and is now with Los Angeles Galaxy. "I don't know how far the game can go with it because there are only certain teams in the world that can do it. They put the market on a completely different level."

"The value of strikers has shot up in the last three weeks. The Carroll one was a shock," Francis says. "What happened on 31 January was something no one anticipated. I've got to be careful here, because I don't want to sound big-headed, but I still feel the impact created on 9 February, 1979 [the date of his own move to Forest] was quite something.

"I don't think £50m today – huge a figure as it is – will have the same impact. Today the public just accept that. A guy goes from £100,000 a week to £150,000 a week and it's: 'Oh, OK, so what?'

"In the negotiations I asked whether it would be possible to insert into the contract that, if Cloughie was ever to leave the football club, I could go as well. Clough said: 'Sorry, young man, Peter Shilton's already asked that, and the league won't allow it.' I don't think that would happen today, would it? Imagine a player saying today: 'If you were to go, I want to go as well.'"

The Francis fee had been exceeded twice, in Italy, by Giuseppe Savoldi and Paolo Rossi, and the £50m for Torres is £30m less than Real Madrid paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo. But these remain two notable bookends. For Francis to be right about Messi, an English club – Chelsea or Manchester City – would be the most likely buyer. But for now we marvel at the capacity of Premier League heavy hitters to trade financial blows among themselves.

Clough, who turned up to Francis's unveiling in gym gear and holding a squash racket, redeployed his record breaker on the right with orders to knife inside. Francis, now 56 and working for Al Jazeera, scored 28 times in 70 appearances for Forest and authored the famous diving header that brought Clough the first of his two European Cup wins, in 1979, against Malmo.

"Martin O'Neill will never, ever forget that I took his place in that final," Francis says. "He had played in every game leading up to the final. I hadn't played in Europe at all. I signed in February and couldn't play in the quarter- or semi-finals but I was told on the morning of the game I was going to play in the final and Martin still reminds me every time I see him." Francis missed the 1980 win with injury. O'Neill regained his place.

As Abramovich's £50m was "recycled" around the English game, to quote Richard Scudamore, the Premier League chief executive, Liverpool took the biggest single gamble in the human trade between football clubs, using £35m of the Torres money to acquire an accomplice for Suárez.

"It's amazing. He [Carroll] has played once for his country, in a friendly," says Francis, who earned 52 caps and scored 12 times. "In 1977, before I made my debut, you had to play well for a long period to get an England cap. The manager could have chosen any two from around 15 strikers. If you said: 'These are the two who will play for England,' there wouldn't have been too many arguments, because there was such a selection."

While Carroll worked on his injured thigh, Torres arrived at Chelsea's Cobham training ground with the aristocratic mien of one merely taking another lucrative career step, without regret or pressure. The British record transfer fee hangs lightly on him, but he still may want to lose it before he retires. Francis says: "I started at 16 and played till I was 39. I did lots of things – but whenever I go to lunches or dinners I'm always introduced as the first million-pound footballer – as if it was the only thing I did in 23 years."

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