British Players in Italy: Trevor Francis
“He is the best Englishman to have played in Italy.” Fabio Capello on Trevor Francis during an interview in 2008.
“I was very pleased to hear this,” Francis admitted. “To receive a compliment from a man of this stature both in England and in Italy fills me with pride.” Indeed it was a grand compliment from one of Italy’s most acclaimed coaches. But what made this Englishman’s career on the peninsula so impressive?
Since bursting onto the scene for Birmingham at the tender age of 16, Francis had become British football’s first million pound man and also scored the winner in Nottingham Forrest’s European Cup final triumph over Malmo in 1979. Three years later, Francis had just finished his first season at a cash-strapped Manchester City and after returning from England’s World Cup campaign, Sampdoria approached the Plymouth born forward. A deal was struck. Francis moved to the Ligurian coast for £700,000 and embarked on his Italian adventure.
Sampdoria had just returned to the big time after enduring a bleak spell in Serie B and their president, Paolo Mantovani, had high aspirations. Signing Francis was a statement of intent and with the help of their English acquisition, Il Doria made a spectacular start to their 1982-83 Serie A campaign. Samp won their first three games, including home wins against a Juventus side that boasted Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi and Gaetano Scirea, a Roma team whose midfield was governed by legendary Brazilian, Falcao, and a win at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza against Inter. The victories sent shockwaves across Italy and in the Blucerchiati’s triumph over the Nerazzurri, Francis made ripples of his own.
After just 11 minutes, with the game at 0-0, the Englishman set off from his own half, eating up ground and gliding effortlessly past the one defender that dared to stop him. Having reached the edge of the penalty area, he exchanged a one-two with Roberto Mancini and fired his shot – off balance – into the bottom corner. It was an exultant start and his side went onto to win the game 2-1 thanks to a splendid Mancini volley.
The Birmingham youth product quickly became accustomed to the mores of Italian lifestyle and this was, in part, thanks to fellow English speaker Liam Brady.
“It was reassuring to have somebody there who could speak English. Having already been there in Italy with Juventus, Liam Brady could speak Italian which was also helpful.”
However during the Ligurian’s third successive victory over Roma, Francis was on the receiving end of a rumbustious tackle from defender Pietro Vierchowod. Renowned for his rugged approach, the Italian’s tackle kept Francis side-lined for several weeks and it was perhaps no coincidence that Samp’s astonishing form tailed off. The Englishman’s injury hampered his progress and Il Doria eventually consolidated their Serie A status, finishing in seventh place.
The following season Francis returned with a bang, producing one of the performances of the season away at Inter, a side that must have been sick of the sight of him. With the Benemata leading 1-0, Francis took the game by the scruff of the neck and scored two second-half goals to earn his side another famous victory.
While his first goal had all the hallmarks of a deadly finisher, the second was virtuoso and truly world class. Watching the goal, the similarity to Michael Owen’s against Argentina in 1998 is striking. Francis’s turn of pace to burst past two defenders was frightening and his left foot finish into the top-right corner unerring. The magisterial performance even prompted Inter’s legendary shot-stopper, Walter Zenga, to claim: “Francis is the best forward I’ve ever seen.”
By the 1984-85 campaign Francis had been joined by fellow Brit, Graeme Souness, in a Samp squad which possessed the likes of Gianluca Vialli, Mancini and ironically, Francis’s old nemesis – Pietro Vierchowod. The Doriani bared the fruits of this talented amalgam and in 1985 they secured their first trophy of the Mantovani era, winning the Coppa Italia. Yet Francis’s lack of fitness came back to haunt him as he missed out on playing in the final.
Unfortunately for the former Nottingham Forrest man, this proved to be a leitmotif throughout his Italian career and according to journalist Piero Sessarego, Francis suffered from hyperuricemia – an excess of uric acid in the blood – which weakened his muscle fibres. Some also suggested that Francis may not have helped himself by indulging in some of life’s guilty pleasures, a love for drink and food were among his ‘alleged’ misdemeanours.
There was no panacea for his muscular problems and Francis eventually left Samp in 1986 to join Atalanta. In truth this spelt the end of his time in Italy and after an indifferent year in Lombardy – where he registered just one goal in 21 appearances – the Englishman joined Rangers to player under his former teammate Souness.
Despite the injuries, Francis and Sampdoria remember each other with equal fondness. In 68 appearances for the club he registered 17 goals and his exploits have not been forgotten. In November 2012, Francis was Sampdoria’s guest of honour for the derby against Genoa, a privilege he was proud to be awarded.
“It was marvellous to go back and see so many old friends…I was greatly appreciated by the supporters and they gave me a warm welcome on my return.”
And is it any wonder. Francis was an intelligent forward. His movement was intuitive and pace blistering. This combined with an adroit first touch and a veritable elegance made him a genuine entertainer. This is what distinguished him. Serie A was renowned for resolute and uncompromising defenders, but he had the ability to embarrass the very best of them. Just ask Walter Zenga and Fabio Capello.
By Luca Hodges-Ramon - @LH_Ramon25