Brian Halford recalls the day a fresh-faced Birmingham City teenager called Trevor Francis destroyed Bolton Wanderers with a four-goal blast at St Andrew's.
Teachers Want Pay Rise, ran a headline in the Birmingham Mail on Friday, February 19, 1971. Some things never change.
Other news that day: Hank Marvin’s divorce came through, Colin Todd completed a £170,000 transfer from Sunderland to Derby and a Darlaston cafe owner was called before the Race Relations Board for allegedly refusing to serve soup to a Sikh.
The Mail’s back page, meanwhile, carried a preview of the Division Two match between Birmingham City and Bolton Wanderers.
With both teams in mid-table, adrift of the promotion race, the match was pretty ordinary in league table terms. But it was to attract a crowd of 25,600, some 10,000 more than had attended Blues v Bristol City a month earlier.
The reason for the surge of interest? One fresh-faced youth.
“Many thousands of fans will go to St Andrew’s,” reported the Mail, “for their first look at 16-year-old superkid Trevor Francis. It is a situation which looked impossible only a few weeks ago when attendances had tumbled to a worrying 13,000 with performances to match. Francis is the draw.”
Plymouth-born Francis had joined Blues as an apprentice in the summer of 1969 and entered the first-team fray in September the following year, as a substitute in a 2-0 defeat at Cardiff.
His first start followed, at home to Oxford, and brought his first goal in a 1-1 draw. Then, after four appearances, Francis did not figure for ten weeks but as Blues struggled and a first-team vacancy was created by Trevor Hockey’s departure to Sheffield United, another opportunity arrived.
With Bob Latchford and Phil Summerill starting to find the net, Freddie Goodwin’s side recovered. Francis also started to fire.
On February 13, Blues visited Sheffield Wednesday and were 3-1 down before the youngster scored twice, with a dazzling solo effort and a stunning scissor-kick, to have Hillsborough reverberating to the sound of ‘Keep Right on’.
“His skill and natural flair are incredible,” reported the Mail. “Experienced northern journalists could talk of little else but Francis.” So expectations of this lad, not long fished out of junior football in Devon, were building as Blues prepared to face Bolton in front of 10,000 extra punters.
Expectations often prove to be empty, of course, leading only to disappointment. Not this time. Pressure? What pressure?
Bolton’s team included one of football’s hardest hard men, former Sunderland midfielder Charley Hurley who, according to one list of ‘Sunderland Greats’, was “constructed entirely of pre-cast concrete and often played on when fatally injured”. Hard as nails he certainly was but the veteran Hurley and his colleagues were in for a roasting.
It took three minutes for Francis to offer the first hint that something special was looming when he headed just over. After 16 minutes, he scored.
Gordon Taylor knocked the ball down and Francis lobbed it over former Walsall goalkeeper Alan Boswell then reacted quickest to head home. The crowd went bananas. Three minutes later, more bananas. Taylor’s centre was won by Summerill and Francis volleyed his second.
The tyro, looking totally at ease with senior football, had more than an hour to complete his hat-trick. Twelve minutes from time came the magic moment.
Summerill’s shot was saved by Boswell but the rebound fell kindly for Francis to find the net with a ball that was soon to be in his possession.
Five minutes later Francis headed home Dave Robinson’s cross and, incredibly, had bagged the first four-timer by a Birmingham player since Jimmy Greenhoff’s in the 5-4 win over Fulham in 1968. Injured in the act of scoring his fourth, he limped off the field to a standing ovation.
“An astonishing player,” observed Bolton general manager Nat Lofthouse, who knew a thing or two about strikers.
The following Monday, Francis was back down to earth at the training ground, cleaning the boots of Latchford and co as part of his apprenticeship.
Those duties helped keep his feet on the ground, a process which might have been slightly more difficult when he read the Mail as the paper captured the excitement generated by the history-making day.
“Goodwin has unexpectedly unearthed a priceless art treasure,” the Mail reported. “For a delicate piece of antique pottery or a valuable original painting, substitute a 16-year-old named Trevor Francis. He is emerging as the hottest piece of soccer property ever to grace the Midlands.”
These days, of course, such a property would be hoovered up by one of the Premier League elite before you could say ‘crass plutocracy’.
Wayne Rooney couldn’t get out of Everton fast enough. Joe Cole didn’t hang around at West Ham. Theo Walcott soon marched away from the Saints.
But Francis was to give Blues eight full seasons’ service, playing 328 games, scoring 133 goals and creating magical memories.
And among the most magical of all is that shared by those who were among the crowd the day Bolton were buried by Francis the apprentice.