February 11, 2013 by Made In Brum
I’m going to go through a 3-part review of the Trevor Francis era at Birmingham City, when he was our manager. Now, I don’t have any first hand memories of that time because I will have been 4 when he took over. It was about then when my dad started dragging me to the matches, but I can’t remember much of them other than the odd free-kick from Martin Grainger, it wasn’t until the Bruce era that I started paying any attention!
So let’s begin with his first season in charge. In May 1996, Barry Fry had been sacked by Jack Wiseman after a difficult season in the first division (the equivalent of the Championship). Although he had lead Blues to a memorable league and cup double in 1995, there were question marks about his rationality. In his 3 year reign as manager, he had signed 40 players, sold 30 and spent a net total of almost £7 million. He was described by some Blues fans as: ‘the mad attacker’, because of his less than pragmatic approach, which often led to his teams letting in a lot more than they scored, and Fry was notorious for his eccentric touchline antics.
Needless to say, Blues needed a sense of stability. Trevor Francis appeared to be, and in my opinion was, the man to give us that. By all accounts, the general consensus amongst Blues fans immediately after his appointment was one of great optimism. He was many people’s first choice for the job, because he had guided Sheffield Wednesday to a couple of cup finals before he was quite harshly sacked, but more importantly, he was a big terrace favourite as a player. Despite his indisputable talent, he was incredibly loyal to the Blues, staying at the club for 8 years when we were near the bottom of the table- he could have easily got a transfer away earlier. There was no doubt he would have the club’s best interests at heart, so many fans took him to their chests immediately.
In the 1996-97 season, Francis’s first in charge, we got off to a mixed start, in what was a season of inconsistency. We won the first match 1-0 against Crystal Palace, but only won 1 game in 7 after that. We then had a more promising spell taking 13 points from 7 in November, before not winning for 4 matches. Having only scored 1 goal in those 4 games, we then put 4 past Reading, so were our goalscoring problems over? Not a chance. Of course knowing Blues, we had to then go on a 5 game losing streak. In fact, it was only towards the end of that season that we developed a little more consistency to recover a top half finish, winning 9 and losing just 1 of our remaining 15 games.
Although it was a slightly frustrating opening season for Francis, we finished 10th which was an improvement on last season’s 15th place under Fry, and we could boast the joint-best defensive record in the league. So we did have something to build on. The problem was that we couldn’t score enough goals, because we had just 52, which was the joint-second lowest total of all the top 19 teams in the division. Perhaps a little surprising given that Francis was a second-striker in his playing days, but we certainly needed a goalscorer. Nicky Forster was signed in January, but had an injury-stricken first few months at Blues, scoring just 3 goals.
We spent another £2.2 million on fairly experienced players, Chris Marsden, Simon Charlton and Jon McCarthy, but the noteworthy change of summer 1997 was that Steve Bruce left. After a series of disagreements with Francis, he became player-manager of Sheffield United. To replace him, we signed Darren Purse for £700K, which would prove to be a good piece of business.
In autumn 1997, our season got off to the perfect start. We rose to the top of the table, taking 13pts from our first 5 games and it looked as though this could be our season. Of course it was too good to be true. Blues had to mess this up somewhere along the line, so inevitably we got just 1 win from our next 14 games after that, and sink into lower midtable. In those 14 games, were many 1-1 or 0-0 draws, or 1-0 defeats. The lingering problem from last season was clear, we still couldn’t score enough.
Francis then, decided to take no chances and splashed the cash, £1 million, on Dele Adebola in January. We had made a brief revival just before then in the run up to Christmas, so the signing wasn’t too late to help us make a push for the play-offs. Strangely, right before Adebola signed we went to Stoke and won 7-0, in our first match of the new year. It just wouldn’t be Blues if we didn’t draw a blank in our next match, and we did, playing out a goalless at home to relegation-threatened Huddersfield.
A good, consistent run of form towards the end of the season helped our cause as we began to ascend the table with the gleam of the play-offs in our eye. We enjoyed a bit of satisfying Midlands status-setting along the way too. We got our revenge on West Brom, who had beaten us at the Hawthorns in the reverse fixture, and thanks to a terrific second half turnaround, we did the double over Wolves with a 3-1 win at Molineux. I know it was 15 years ago, but researching the results now, I must say it does feel rather satisfying!
It was the latter weeks of the campaign in which our impressive defence really came into its own. We kept clean sheets in each of our remaining 4 matches, which boosted our play-off chances. However, frustratingly we lost out to Sheffield United on the last day. We had taken 4pts off the Blades that season, and agonisingly they actually lost their final game at Stockport, meaning that we just had to beat Charlton to get in. On a run of three straight wins, could we do it? Of course not. In front of a sell-out crowd, we were held to a 0-0 draw by the Addicks, meaning that we would be playing first division football next season.
However, on the whole, the 1997-98 season did see us get another step closer to the play-offs. We didn’t seem to miss Steve Bruce at all, as Darren Purse filled his shoes perfectly and became our long-term replacement for Bruce at centre-back. He helped us get the best defensive record of the division, we conceded just 35 goals. However, it’s true that our goalscoring had improved since last season, as we scored 60, 8 more goals than our previous total, but by no means had it improved drastically. Neither of the £1 million+ signings of Nicky Forster and Dele Adebola had exactly taken the league by storm, and it was still Paul Furlong who was getting most of our goals, he finished the campaign with 19.
So, could we hold onto our great defensive record, start finding our goalscoring feet and finally secure a play-off spot the next season? Find out in part 2…
By Gabriel Sutton