Kevin Francis - Good Feet for a Big Man

The following article was written at the beginning of June for the When Saturday Comes writer's competition.


A figure of fun for opposition fans and the odd television pundit, Kevin Francis was much more than just the tallest player in the league. In five seasons he helped to turn around the fortunes of Stockport County and became an icon in the process.

In March 1991 County were well on their way to promotion from Division Four after 20 years in the bottom division, this would be the first major achievement, after the previous season’s play off appearance, under Uruguay-born Danny Bergara. However, striker Paul Williams had been sold to West Bromwich Albion that month, his replacement was Kevin Francis, a £45,000 signing from Derby County who had barely troubled the statisticians in his 17 appearances at the Baseball Ground. Not the move of a side chasing promotion, but this signing saw a legend born at Edgeley Park.

Of course, we didn’t know it yet and being honest, no one could have predicted the seismic impact Francis would have on 1990s County, but Francis would become a symbol of the era. 117 goals in 198 games don’t tell the whole story as Francis and Bergara became the perfect symphony for County. Under Bergara County scaled new heights after years of attrition, they made the play offs, including two finals, in four of his five seasons at Edgeley Park, the aforementioned automatic promotion was followed by successive Wembley finals in 1992 and 1993 in the Autoglass Trophy. Averaging 72 goals per season Bergara’s County gave the long-suffering fans guile, guts and glory after two decades of fighting in the lower reaches of the 92.

Francis alongside fellow striker, Andy Preece, with a supporting cast of other easily recognisable lower division names, such as Mike Flynn, Chris Beaumont, Jim Gannon, Lee Todd and Peter Ward were the stars of the 1990s revolution in Stockport and Francis optimised what the team was about; a brash, cocky underdog, all played out through Bergara’s football. But to say they were the only traits of those County sides would do an enormous disservice to Bergara, Francis and company. Bergara’s playing background in Spain also harnessed a desire for technical ability in his players, with no shortage of intelligence and flair. Bergara’s ultimate legacy though was how he shaped the club we know today. It’s true they didn’t actually win anything during his reign, but what he gave the club was worth so much more than material objects. Bergara’s career at County was all about recapturing the club’s self-respect and he gave it back to the club and the fans many times over.

Photo: The Athletic

The beginning of Francis’ time at County was decent enough, five goals in 12 appearances before winning promotion in style with a 5-0 victory against Scunthorpe United. However, Francis took off in the 1991/92 season, scoring successive hat tricks in the Autoglass Trophy and went on to score 26 as County posted a league second-best 75 goals and their fifth-place finish gave them a play off place in their first season back in the third tier.
He became County’s record post-war goalscorer in 1992/93 with an impressive tally of 39. His goals included a headed goal in the Autoglass Trophy final at Wembley, it proved to be a consolation, but the spine-tingling support, despite being 2-0 down, from the County faithful which preceded the goal will live long in the memory.

Unsurprisingly, County were not Brazil and in the era of John Fashanu’s Crazy Gang at Wimbledon and John Beck’s Cambridge United side to the untrained eye County were that type of physical long-ball team, to close observers they were anything but. Bergara simply played to County’s strengths and sought to get the ball into the opponent’s half as quickly as possible, and it worked.
Unfortunately, there were those with a lazy attitude, who couldn’t see past Francis’ height including a few ex-players, notably former Manchester United European Cup winner Paddy Crerand, and television presenting duo Ian St. John and Jimmy Greaves. Greaves and St. John poked fun at him on national television, while Crerand called him ‘crap’ on local radio. Ray Wilkins, then of Queen’s Park Rangers, evidently had home improvements on his mind before a third round FA Cup tie in 1994 when he quipped “if I need my gutters cleared, I’ll phone Kevin Francis”.

Photo: Manchester Evening News

The following season, 1993/94, among transfer rumour and speculation, Francis’ 30 goals helped County to the play off final, among the goal highlights was a well-taken equaliser in that QPR cup tie, Rangers were a well-respected side who had finished fifth in the inaugural Premier League the previous season and County dumped them out with a thumping volley from Andy Preece. County fans were used to the drama and the limelight by now, but with it came increased exposure on the club and Francis in particular, as Leeds United and Wimbledon were two of the clubs rumoured to be interested in him.

County again tasted defeat at the twin towers in the 1994 play off final against Burnley (where County made history by being the only team to have two players sent off in the same game at Wembley). Burnley had finished 12 points behind The Hatters and the game represented something of a nadir for Francis and the club. The following season saw the team slump into mid-table, seemingly the glass ceiling of promotion from the third tier had been reached and neither Francis nor Bergara were able to smash through it. Bergara was sacked in March 1995 following an altercation with Chairman Brendan Elwood (Bergara subsequently won his unfair dismissal case against the club) and Francis’ last goal for County was a consolation header in a 2-1 defeat against Bradford City on New Year’s Eve 1994, he was sold to Birmingham City for £800,000 just days later.

Francis returned to Edgeley Park in 2000 but made just four appearances before a broken leg sustained during a home draw against Manchester City brought down the curtain on his County ca
reer once and for all. Voted County’s Player of the Century in 2002, Francis owed a lot to Bergara’s keen eye for player development and from a rough diamond was formed a genuinely quality footballer.
Yes, he scored a lot of goals with his head, at six feet seven inches he was always going to use his height advantage to full effect, but a quick visit to YouTube will correct any pre-misconceptions about him. Take the goal against Wrexham in April 1991, where he dummied an opponent on halfway, sailed past two retreating defenders, before unleashing an unstoppable drive into the top corner. Or perhaps the acrobatic overhead kick which marked his 100th goal for the club against promotion rivals Port Vale in April 1994. Not bad for a “big man”.

To say Kevin Francis was a special player who scored a lot of goals would gloss over the impact he had at County, he was a real cult hero, a talisman. However, in the end, he deserved his chance at a bigger club, his hometown club. He may have gone on to play for clubs bigger than County and eventually won the medals which eluded him during his time there, but he is still a legendary figure at Edgeley Park, he played with passion, determination and most of all, a smile. Much like the County side of the era Francis had a brazen and cavalier style but looking closer, he and County were an imperious combination; they were both unpretentious, unconventional, gregarious and fearless. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a statue, hopefully life-size, of the great man outside County’s Cheadle End in the near future.


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