The last time I was in Nottingham, we picked a table in one of the cafes facing the Brian Clough statue and reminisced, as usual, about that goal from Trevor Francis, superstar.
Tony Woodcock was back in his old city. The following night, there was the premiere of Local Heroes, a film telling the story about three boys, all from the area, who had won the European Cup with Nottingham Forest.
Woodcock was one, Viv Anderson another and Garry Birtles, a former carpet-fitter signed from non-League neighbours Long Eaton United for £2,000 the third. All three played on that night in Munich when Francis ran in at the far post to head in the decisive goal in the 1979 European Cup final against Malmo and confirm what, in football terms, has to be considered a real-life miracle.
To put it into context, Forest had been 13th in the old Second Division (today’s Championship) when Hurricane Clough swept in for its first day on January 6, 1975.
Without uttering a word, the new manager had taken off his jacket and flung it towards a peg in the dressing room.
Clough being Clough, it landed plum on the hook. But don’t think everything was so straightforward before Francis signed up to adventures that involved Forest winning promotion in 1977, then the top-flight title a year later and back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980, while also reaching three successive League Cup finals, as well as knocking Liverpool off their perch long before some Manchester United manager tried to patent the quote.
In March 1976, Clough took his team to York City for a second-tier game at Bootham Crescent. His team that day included seven of the players who would make an unfashionable, unheralded team into the kings of Europe just over three years later: John Robertson, John McGovern, Ian Bowyer, Martin O’Neill, Frank Clark, Colin Barrett and John O’Hare. Full-time score: York City 3-2 Nottingham Forest.
All of which probably explains why Forest’s double European Cup winners have become known as the Miracle Men and why the club announced a few years back that, when they redevelop their City Ground stadium, there will be the Miracle Gates at the entrance.
And now, the awful, jarring reality that one of Forest’s genuine legends — the one whose goal confirmed the miracle — will not be there to see that happen.
So many players from the great Liverpool sides of that era have passed away in recent years. Leeds United, too, have been hit hard. Until now, every key player from Forest’s glory years was still alive.
Francis has become the first to leave us, at the age of 69. And it feels immeasurably sad and disconcerting to be reminded that these guys, our heroes, aren’t immortal, after all.
Because Francis was special.
He joined Forest from fellow top-flight side and Midlands neighbours Birmingham City in February 1979 and will always be known as the first £1million footballer. And boy, that price tag weighed him down at the beginning. Francis felt under so much pressure to get off to a flier that, on his debut away to Ipswich Town, he punched the ball into the net from one cross and, for his troubles, got a rollicking from his new manager.
Francis had already come to realise Clough liked everything to be done the right way when the then-Birmingham forward won the local TV station’s Midlands-area player of the year award in 1977 and Clough, presenting the trophy, rebuked him for walking onto the stage with a hand in his pocket.
He delivered the line in the way of a Victorian schoolmaster ticking off an errant pupil. “Yes, sir,” Francis replied meekly, as if to illustrate the point.
Clough must have liked him, though, even if he and his assistant Peter Taylor could be particularly hard on the player Birmingham fans used to know as “Superboy”.
Francis had the star quality that Clough, as a former striker, knew was special. He was quick — lightning quick. He was brilliantly agile, a clinical finisher and, like all the great strikers, he had a natural appreciation of space to get away from his marker.
Before he had even turned 17, he had scored 15 goals in as many matches for Birmingham. Four came in one game against Bolton Wanderers and the hype was summed up by the headlines on BBC’s Sports Report one night: “And Trevor Francis did not score today.”
Famously, his first outing in a Forest was a match against city neighbours Notts County in the Midlands Youth League (Francis was 24 years old and a full England international) on a frozen-over playing surface at Grove Farm, a windswept set of communal pitches beside the River Trent.
Maybe Clough wanted to make sure his expensive new signing did not get any ideas above his station — he was also ordered to brew the half-time tea when he was upgraded to first-team level — but that was never the way Francis was wired anyway.
He came from Plymouth, in the far south west of England, originally and, in his early days with Birmingham, his father, Roy, a shift foreman for the gas board, would drive over 200 miles (almost 350km) up from Devon to watch their home games. Phyllis, the player’s mother, raised his petrol money by sewing and tailoring locally.
Francis was an ordinary boy with an extraordinary talent. The story, for example, of how he met his wife, Helen, on holiday is a romantic mini-novel in which he then lost her telephone number, could only remember that she worked as a hairdresser in Llanelli and so systematically worked his way through the local phone book, ringing every salon listed in that Welsh town (population: around 30,000) until he found her — on the 15th call.
They married a few years later, and it is difficult to put into words how devastating it was for him when she died in 2017. Many of his former team-mates would gather every week for a catch-up at a coffee place 10 minutes from the City Ground and, as such a tight-knit group, they talked among themselves about worrying for him.
To these guys, he was more than just an ex-colleague or team-mate: he was a friend, someone with whom they shared a deep bond. They were all still in touch, more than 40 years after the goal for which he will always be remembered.
Others might remember Francis for his performances in an England shirt, winning 52 caps from 1977-86, or his time with Manchester City, Italian clubs Sampdoria and Atalanta and in Scotland with Rangers, among others.
He managed Queens Park Rangers, Sheffield Wednesday (two more clubs from his playing days, when there were also spells in the U.S. and Australia), Birmingham and Crystal Palace, but though he took Wednesday to a third-place finish in the top flight in 1992 and both domestic cup finals the following season, he was never able to reach the exhilarating heights from the touchline he had experienced as a player.
For those of us, however, who watched him perform in Forest’s colours, that blur of movement in the shiny old Adidas kit, it is easy to understand why a much-missed fanzine titled simply Brian used to refer to him as Sir Trev.
Francis missed the 1980 European Cup final against Hamburg because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. That injury kept him out for six months and, to his anguish, meant he was not even there at the Bernabeu in Madrid to see Forest retain the trophy. The truth was that Clough thought it was bad luck to have injured players hanging around.
Ultimately, though, it is difficult to overstate Francis’ role in this almost implausible success story and, more than anything, the way his goal against Malmo the previous May changed the course of the club’s history.
They still show it on the screens at the City Ground before every home game.
The scene is the old Olympic Stadium in Munich, and Forest are attacking down their left. Robertson has gone past Malmo’s left-back, Ingemar Erlandsson, and is preparing to swing the ball into a crowded penalty area.
Malmo have six players back but Robertson’s crosses are usually deadly accurate and, on the television gantry, commentator Barry Davies’ voice has gone up an octave: “Well, that’s what I wanted to see Robertson do …”
In those few moments, Francis repaid every single penny of that record-breaking transfer fee.
The next time he looked up, there were team-mates running towards him to celebrate. The ball was in the Malmo net. The miracle was confirmed and 25,000 Forest fans were taking in the greatest moment of their football lives.
Thank you, Trevor, for making it happen.
(Top photo: Peter Robinson/EMPICS via Getty Images)