Queens Park Rangers: the spring of 76
Norwich. Bloody Norwich. Even now, 36 years after a frenetic, fluctuating Easter Saturday at Carrow Road, the mere mention of the word can alter Gerry Francis’ facial expression from a grin to a grimace.
For it was there that a Queens Park Rangers side led by the 24-year-old Francis, who was also captain of England, suffered the freakish defeat which ultimately prevented the Football League championship trophy going to Shepherd’s Bush rather than Anfield.
“We won 13 and drew one of the last 15 matches,” the former midfielder, now 60, recalls after putting Stoke City’s squad through their paces as coach to the Premier League club. “The only one we lost in that run was at Norwich. We dominated, but you get matches where unbelievable things happen all at once – you hit the inside of the post and the ball bounces out, or you chip the keeper and it clips the bar.
“It was that day when Phil Parkes came and punched the ball, really powerfully. It went about 25 yards and a Norwich player volleyed it straight back past him. You end up thinking ‘It’s fate. Nothing we can do will make a difference’. We lost 3-2.”
With two home games to conclude their programme, QPR could still finish top. “Arsenal on Easter Monday was massive because we actually went 1-0 down in the last 10 minutes. Then Frank McLintock equalised, and with a minute left Stan (Bowles) was brought down. I was the penalty-taker. I remember placing the ball on the spot and turning round. Near enough every one of my team-mates was facing the other way. Even Parkesy couldn’t look.
“The cover of the programme was a picture of me taking a penalty a few weeks earlier. It showed me putting it to the keeper’s left. They shouldn’t really have done that. So I changed my side and put it to the right. Jimmy Rimmer went left and we won 2-1. We then beat Leeds 2-0. After that we had 10 days when we thought we could be champions until Liverpool played their last fixture, at Wolves. It was delayed because of international commitments. That would never be allowed to happen now; the last matches would kick off simultaneously.
It was out of order because it meant Liverpool knew what they had to do.” If Liverpool won they would be champions. If they lost it was QPR’s title. A low-scoring draw favoured the Reds. But 3-3 would spark wild celebrations in west London. A contingent of QPR players watched the drama unfold in the studios of Thames TV. Wolves, needing to win to stay up, led until 14 minutes from time, but Kevin Keegan equalised and Liverpool went on to win 3-1. “I don’t think we even stayed to the end,” Francis says.
The repercussions of that single aberration in East Anglia were extraordinary – and not only for QPR, whose manager Dave Sexton would depart for Manchester United within a year and who were back in the Second Division by 1979. Liverpool, having been handed the opportunity to wrest back the initiative, grasped it with the ruthlessness and style that became their trademark. Bob Paisley’s side not only clinched the title for the first time since he had succeeded Bill Shankly but also won their first European Cup 12 months later.
As the first of four such triumphs in the space of eight years, it launched an era of unprecdented success. But ’76, Francis argues, could and should have been QPR’s year. What’s more, he believes their brand of slick, ground-level football would have been ideal for the continent’s premier club competition.
“We had a great team and ought to have won it really. But give Liverpool full credit. They were always up there, decade after decade. I came in against the team with Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ron Yeats and Ian Callaghan. Then I played against the Kevin Keegan-John Toshack side, also with Ian, and later the Graeme Souness-Kenny Dalglish one, with Ian still in it!
“They were a big club, a buying club rather than a selling club like QPR. We were still a small club really. So they were able to build on winning the League which they did. That season, though, I honestly thought we were the best side.”
Indeed, the Hoops had beaten Liverpool 2-0 at home on the season’s opening day, Francis setting the tone for the campaign with a sublime goal which lives on via the internet and DVD. “We knew we were a good side and felt we could go on and win things,” he says. “The way we outplayed them – a fantastic side who were going to be title contenders – gave us a massive lift.”
A week later Francis and co won 5-1 at champions Derby, Bowles collecting a hat-trick, and Sexton kept them on course to the bitter end. “I liked Dave. I used to watch his Chelsea team that won the FA Cup and European Cup-Winners’ Cup. I thought he was an excellent coach, very forward-thinking.
“From this distance I can see that he would come over as quite dour. Actually he was charming, with a good sense of humour, if a bit ‘old school’ in that he had certain standards. Stan had a few run-ins with Dave but then we all did. I was a single lad and I certainly went out enjoying myself. But away from the big-club environment of Chelsea and United, maybe he was able to let himself go a little. The players who were at QPR then speak very highly of him now.”
Anti-climactic as it was, runners-up spot represented the culmination of a remarkable decade for Francis and QPR. The club were in the Third Division when the boyhood Brentford supporter - his father Roy played for them alongside Ron Greenwood and Jimmy Hill during the Fifties -- signed as an apprentice at Loftus Road in 1967.
“The team with Jim Langley and Rodney Marsh won that league and the first Wembley League Cup final that year, then gained promotion again,” he says. “We went straight back down from the First Division, but I got my debut as a 17-year-old as substitute for Ron Hunt - against Liverpool - in the game that confirmed our relegation. I think I was on £9 a week then, and when I signed pro it went up to £15.” Back in the Second Division, Francis scored on his full debut at Portsmouth, one of the seven other clubs for whom he later played. "Dave Clement, a very good right-back who used to be my room-mate, also got a goal,” he says in wistful remembrance of his fallen comrade.
In 1972, with Francis blossoming alongside the veteran Terry Venables, shrewd dealing by manager Gordon Jago laid the foundations for the team Sexton would guide to the brink of glory. Jago sold crowd favourite Marsh to Manchester City for £200,000, using the money to buy a City reject, Bowles, as well as Don Givens and Dave Thomas.
“We went up with Burnley in ’72-73,” says Francis. “We were a young side and Terry helped us a lot with his experience and personality. He was a bit of father figure to me and I was very upset when he was sold to Crystal Palace. They made me captain which I didn’t really want because I was so disappointed about losing Tel.”
The gloom abated as Francis discovered he had an “instant understanding” with Bowles. “Me and Stan could play ‘blind’. We just knew where each other was going to be. I’d never had that with any player before. “My only regret about our partnership is that we never got a chance to play together for England. Don (Revie) picked us both, but by the time he capped Stan in late ’76, I was injured. It was a shame – he’d have brought my game out, and vice-versa. You don’t realise these things until you’ve moved on, but the time we had together was fantastic.”
Fantastic . . . but short-lived. After their great season Francis suffered a back injury and did not play regularly for the best part of two years.
“In February ’77 I returned for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final at Aston Villa and scored in a 2-2 draw (Villa won the replay). "I also played against AEK Athens in the Uefa Cup quarter-final and scored two penalties in a 3-0 win. I didn’t make the second leg and we went out on pens. I did come back eventually, though by then QPR were in major decline. We’d lost Parkes and Thomas and in ’79 we were relegated."
A £445,000 move to Sexton's new club, Manchester United, had fallen through the previous year. When the reunion came, after QPR went down, it was with Venables at Palace. "I got my form back there, surrounded by the team who were called the “Team of the Eighties”. We had some superb young players – Kenny Sansom, Vince Hilaire, Terry Fenwick, Jerry Murphy, Billy Gilbert and Paul Hinshelwood – and got bigger gates than QPR.
Not for the last time, finances caused problems at Palace. Venables went to back to the Bush and Francis followed. “People ask if QPR are my club. Well one of my sons, Jake, is a midfield player in the Academy there and the other, Adam, is a striker in the under-18s. I try to get to see them whenever possible. There's still a massive family link. "But I also had about 13 years there as a player and another six or seven as manager, when we finished fifth in the first season of the Premier League. That’s 20 years of your life, so it’s bound to be a part of you. I became England captain with them. How many players today would stay at a smaller club in those circumstances?
“I only left as manager because they wanted me out of the way. They wanted to sell and bring Rodney Marsh in as director of football over my head. The fans weren't happy and neither was I. It was hard to sustain or recreate what we started under Dave (Sexton). But in the mid-Seventies, QPR were everyone’s second-favourite team.”
* From BACKPASS magazine. For subscriptions: http://www.backpassmagazine.co.uk/