When Nottingham Forest signed trevor francis for £1 million in 1979, they smashed the world-record transfer fee by paying virtually double the going price. Manager Brian Clough wanted Francis to spearhead Forest’s drive for European glory. The rest is history.
The era of English football’s “million-pound madness”—as tabloids later described it—was ushered in by Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough. On Feb. 9, 1979, before a gaggle of TV crews at Forest’s City Ground, the irascible Clough glanced at his new forward Trevor Francis, picked up his squash racket, and joked, “I’ve brought this along in case he makes a balls of it, and then I’ll whack him with it.”
So began a two-year period in which Nottingham Forest, both Manchester clubs, and Wolverhampton Wanderers attempted to loosen Liverpool’s vise-like grip on English football by spending rapidly inflating sums on young talent. The knock-on effects for English football were far reaching, but not in the way the purchasing clubs, or indeed the million-pound players themselves, would have liked.
Clough had made his move for Birmingham City’s jet-heeled forward in the hopes of closing the seven-point gap between reigning First Division champions Forest and league leaders Liverpool. “Trevor is star quality,” explained Clough’s assistant, Peter Taylor. “He’ll add flair to the team, and help pack our brand-new grandstand.”
Despite concerns over City Ground attendances, the Forest board decided to spend £2.5 million on a 10,000-capacity double-decker stand, complete with executive boxes. Forest were in the latter stages of the European Cup, and the board believed it would recoup the cost of the stand if the team qualified for Europe each year. Superstar players would help draw the crowds. Director Stuart Dryden insisted that the scheme wouldn’t affect transfer spending and that the stand would be paid off in five years. He was wrong on both counts.
Trevor Francis was signed by Nottingham Forest to do one thing: help them do better in Europe. And he did just that. Above, Francis headed the winning goal as Nottingham Forest defeated the Swedish Champions, Malmö, in Munich’s Olympiastadion to win the 1979 European Cup final, 1-0.
In the short term, the purchase of Francis appeared to vindicate that buoyant confidence. There remains some conjecture over the exact fee for Francis, with Clough claiming he paid £999,999 because he didn’t want Francis saddled with being the first million-pound footballer. By the time value added tax and other fees were factored in, the price rose to around £1,180,000. Clough believed in an egalitarian policy for his players: Asked at the news conference where and when Francis would play (he was cup tied for the early rounds in Europe and the League Cup), Clough responded bluntly, “He’ll play when I select him.”
And so it proved. Francis was barred from bringing in his own soap and towel (“Don’t you be getting ideas above your station,” Clough warned him. “You’ll use the same gear as all the others, young man”) and was instructed to pour the tea for his teammates during games in which he wasn’t playing.
By season’s end, Francis repaid Clough’s faith by scoring the winner in the 1979 European Cup final against Malmö in Munich’s Olympiastadion. His headed goal from a John Robertson cross saw him tumble into the shot-put circle before celebrating with his teammates. “Trevor Francis was good for us,” Clough explained. “But we were good for him, and gave him medals he can be proud to show his grandchildren.”
After the ’79 European Cup final, however, Francis’s influence at the City Ground waned. Despite scoring crucial goals in the quarter- and semifinals, he missed the 1980 European Cup final (which Forest won against Hamburg) and his appearances grew rarer. He was afflicted by numerous injuries, and Clough and Taylor bemoaned the fact that he “didn’t have enough of the devil in him.” Francis was sold after just two seasons, with Forest already in decline and Clough and Taylor at loggerheads about the merits of splashing out million-pound sums. It would prove to be the death of their relationship.
In September 1979, the transfer record was smashed twice in a day. The reckless capture by Manchester City of Wolverhampton Wanderers’ box-to-box midfielder Steve Daley remains arguably British football’s most notorious transfer. City’s former first-team coach Malcolm Allison had been invited back to the club by chairman Peter Swales. Allison decided to sell off youth team graduates and crowd favorites Peter Barnes and Gary Owen because he believed “they’d lost their desire.”
Allison had been in talks with Wolves manager John Barnwell for months about Daley and claimed to have verbally agreed to a fee in the region of £500,000. Once Swales got involved, the fee somehow skyrocketed to £1.43 million, which City inexplicably agreed to pay.
Later the same day, Wolves broke that record by securing the services of Aston Villa’s Andy Gray for £1.469 million. Barnwell predicted, “He will be the player who propels this club forward.” Gray scored the League Cup final winner at Wembley against Nottingham Forest to push Wolves into the UEFA Cup, but Wolves failed to progress in Europe and labored in the league. With economic recession biting in the Midlands, and a new £2.5 million stand to pay for, Wolves became swamped by debt. Within five years, they had plummeted to the fourth tier of English football. In 1983, Gray was sold to Everton in a fire sale to ward off bankruptcy.
GOOD COP, BAD COP: By his own admission Clough, far right, was not equipped to manage successfully without Peter Taylor, left. The two worked as a pair by complementing each other’s strengths, but their longtime relationship ended badly over a transfer dispute in 1982, when Taylor, then the Derby manager, tried to sign Clough’s Nottingham Forest player John Robertson. The two never spoke again and Taylor died suddenly in 1990.
The plush new John Ireland Stand became a byword for financial mismanagement in 1980s football. But at least Gray (who admitted, “Wolves should have taken a million from what they got for Steve Daley and instead of buying me, paid off a chunk of the loan on the new stand”) gave Wolves fans some Wembley cheer along the way.
There was no such salvation for City misfit Daley. Swales eventually admitted, “Signing Steve Daley was a case of trying a bit of one-upmanship on that lot at Old Trafford. I should have minded my own business.” City had also just shelled out a combined £1 million on teenage sensations Michael Robinson (from Preston) and Steve MacKenzie (from Crystal Palace). Daley’s move to Maine Road, described by the Observer as “the latest plutocratic passenger on the City gravy train,” was an unmitigated disaster.
Clough, dressed unusually in a red leather training jacket, emerging from Nottingham Forest’s City Ground to face television cameras after his club signed Francis from Birmingham City. Clough’s right-hand man, Peter Taylor, center, was quoted as saying, “Trevor is lucky he is joining Forest at their peak. If we mess this up, we may as well emigrate.”
Now an accomplished after-dinner speaker, Daley delivers a hilariously self-deprecating routine. One of his choice lines is: “I remember when we ran out at Old Trafford for the Manchester derby. I couldn’t wait to sample the atmosphere, and the first thing that struck me was—well—a meat pie. Smack in the face.” He wasn’t laughing at the time. “To me it was deadly serious, and I failed. The new team didn’t gel. The crowd quickly got on my back, and I couldn’t blame them, to be honest.” After his debut performance, the Observer suggested that “everything he did was neat and clever, but none of it ever served to bind the side together.”
It didn’t get any better for Daley. The verbal abuse from the Maine Road terraces reached such a crescendo that 14 months after becoming England’s most expensive footballer, he signed with the Seattle Sounders for just £200,000. “I decided that in order to rebuild my career and my life, I had to leave the country,” he recalls. “It was the right decision, because I was judged purely on my merits in the NASL, and I was free from all the brickbats back home.”
City may have had their fingers badly burnt by the Daley deal, but that didn’t prevent them from shelling out another £1 million fee on Norwich striker Kevin Reeves in 1980. Although a decent striker, Reeves never justified his fee, either. Francis left Forest and signed for £1 million, playing for one injury-hit season before City jettisoned him to the Italian club Sampdoria. Only Reeves survived at Maine Road long enough to see the club relegated in 1983. The Sky Blues were mired in debt, mainly because of the folly of their extortionate signings in the early ’80s.
Brian Clough and Peter Taylor desperately tried to maintain their success at Nottingham Forest. They splashed out £1.25 million on Coventry City’s Ian Wallace in July 1980, and made Justin Fashanu English football’s first black million-pound player when he signed from Norwich City in July 1981. Wallace was the top scorer in three of his first four seasons, but Fashanu’s form at the City Ground was a disaster. Clough squarely blamed Taylor for the Fashanu debacle, insisting that his erstwhile partner’s trusted antennae had failed him. An exasperated Taylor claimed, “Justin didn’t want to play football.”
Clough raising the European Cup at the City Ground in Nottingham in August 1979. He retained it the following year after Forest defeated Hamburg in the final—a game Trevor Francis missed through injury.
But Clough, too, treated Fashanu harshly. On learning that Fashanu was frequenting a gay club in the Nottingham City center, he confronted the player with the question, “Why do you keep going to that bloody poofs’ club in town?” In his autobiography, Clough remarked, “It wasn’t long before I could stand no more of him.” The underlying homophobia, hardly atypical of that era, is palpable.
Within a year, Clough, exasperated by Fashanu’s poor form and the ludicrous number of parking tickets he’d accrued in Nottingham, summoned two local officers to cart him away from the training ground. The million-pound flop had dared to arrive at training with his personal masseur in tow, something Clough took a dim view of. Fashanu, who later described his spell at Forest as “sounding the death knell of my football career,” was sold to city neighbors Notts County, where his career went into terminal decline. Thereafter, Clough relied on youth team products rather than expensive imports, but Forest never again launched a realistic title bid.
As Liverpool continued to dominate both the domestic and European scenes, the transfer market settled down. Manager Bob Paisley said, “Few, if any, of the players who cost a million pounds have justified the fee.” The exception was the dynamic Bryan Robson, who cost Manchester United £1.5 million from West Bromwich Albion in 1981, and remained at the club for 13 years. But despite also shelling out £900,000 on both Ray Wilkins and Frank Stapleton, United didn’t win a single league title in the 1980s. Aston Villa did, in 1981, with a team that cost a relative pittance to put together. “It’s about the right player recruitment, not flashing the cash,” explained Villa boss Ron Saunders.
With dreams of more European glory fading, Clough signed Justin Fashanu, right, from Norwich City in 1981. England’s first million-pound black footballer flopped badly, and Clough did not distinguish himself by the way he treated the player. Two years earlier, Wolves had signed striker, Andy Gray, bottom, from Aston Villa for £1.469 million. Although Gray’s goal in the League Cup final against Forest qualified Wolves for Europe, the move did not work out and the club became swamped with debt.
The million-pound madness of the early 1980s spectacularly derailed the steady progress of Wolves, Manchester City, and to some extent, European Champions Nottingham Forest. So did economic recession, shrinking attendance, and football hooliganism. Andy Gray and Trevor Francis delivered success for their clubs in the short term, true, but Steve Daley and Justin Fashanu came to view the “million-pound footballer” label as a curse. Daley has been able to turn his history into lighthearted banter. Fashanu, alas, hanged himself in an East London garage in 1997.
This article originally appeared in Issue 15 of Eight by Eight. As an independent magazine it’s your support that enables us to continue bringing you the stories from around the football world. We hope you’ll buy the issue and join us.
Illustration by Wesley Bedrosian. Photographs by Getty Images and Alamy.