George Francis – Brentford legend

23 Oct

Brentford FC have announced the incredibly sad news that George Francis passed away yesterday, aged 80. George is, of course, the second highest goalscorer in the club’s history – just behind his strike partner Jim Towers – and, like his fellow ‘terrible twin’, the epitome of a Brentford legend

I never had the privilege of seeing George, who was this year inducted into the club’s ‘hall of fame’, play for the Bees and so would struggle to pay adequate tribute. However, I was fortunate enough to interview Jim Towers back in December 2009 for a piece which, inevitably, focussed heavily on the relationship with George and their playing days.

The article is reproduced below – as we pay tribute to a man who was a hero to so many Brentford fans, through the words of his team-mate and friend.

Where Are They Now – Jim Towers

The careers of Jim Towers and George Francis, Griffin Park’s own “Terrible Twins” are hard to separate. From their time playing against each other for rival Saturday teams though National Service together and then part of the same Brentford team for most of the 1950’s until a controversial sale to Queens Park Rangers, they truly are legends. With 163 and 136 goals respectively, Jim Towers still hold the all time Brentford goalscorer’s record!

It speaks volumes for their pairing and the team of the time that that they were able to accomplish this simultaneously as, fifty years later, Francis is still our second place all time scorer. A feat made all the more incredible when you consider some of the goalscorers that have followed them through the years and had the chance to make this record their own – Sweetzer, McCulloch, Holdsworth, Forster, Blissett and Owusu to name but a few.

“Where are they now” was fortunate enough to met up with Jim recently to find out how he got there, his opinions on the game today, his memories of the time and that move to Loftus Road.

In 1947 Brentford had been a top-flight team. Seven years later and they were back in Division Three, with a team heavily dependent on youth policy. However, this focus on youth, combined with the club’s slump in form, gave Jim Towers his opportunity.

“They had a fellow who ran Brentford juniors called Alf Bew. He didn’t really know a lot about football but what he used to do, and there were quite a few Brentford players in this area, was sign everybody on amateur forms. Brentford had a few schoolboy internationals but anybody in the area he’d sign!

I came from Shepherds Bush but when I turned professional there were quite a few schoolboy internationals who played for the first team but didn’t really go on. Alan Bassam, Roy Philpott. All schoolboy internationals in this area but that was Alf’s success. He just signed everybody on then other people used to look at them. It was a joke. You kept everybody and if somebody got injured, you got a chance.

I wasn’t really in the limelight though. I played for a boy’s club in Shepherd’s Bush. We were drawn against Brentford in a little cup match at Boston Manor and that’s how it came between me and Alf. We were a good team and beat Brentford juniors so he asked me if I would like to sign for Brentford Juniors. They had a couple of player’s short; I played and scored about four goals against somebody. So then I was part of Brentford juniors.”

From playing with the juniors, Jim’s next move was one which took him by surprise, especially as he was about head off to Germany with the British Army.

“Coming up eighteen years old, nobody at that age played although these days you’re in the first team. I was coming up to that age and going into National Service, which you had to do. Then they asked me if I’d like to turn professional!

It was out of the blue because I didn’t think I was any better than any of the others and so I signed professional around June and then went into the army on July the 4th. The only contact I then had with Brentford was minimal because I was in Germany all the time.

At that time there was a fellow called Jackie Gibbons here, who was a good player, and he was manager of Brentford. He was an amateur player but he was manager when I signed. When I came out of the army, Tommy Lawton had taken over so it was a matter of who knew me? Nobody knew anyone. Georgie Francis, my pal, had the same thing. He was stationed with me but got demobbed about seven months after so that’s how it went. You just came along and were lucky if you got twelfth man for the reserves in those days. Other than that, you just used to go and watch another match.”

Having come out of the army, although signed to the club it wasn’t a case of walking straight into the team.

Jim continues, “ It took a year and as I said, when I came out the army in 53, it was mid-season. Then you had that year where, at the end, I could have been let go. There were lots of players not being kept and in those days you used to get a letter saying you are or aren’t being retained. That’s how it was.

Luckily, I’d played a couple of games but it seemed fast, ever so fast. I was playing for the British army and playing not bad football but this seemed ever so fast and I thought I’d never make a living at it. Then, after I trained and started scoring a lot of goals for the reserves, they retained me. Then they took a lot of older players, such as Georgie Stobart. They didn’t do all that well so they started putting in the Brentford youth like Dennis Heath, myself, Georgie Bristow – all those type of players. That’s how it kicked off. I started scoring a few goals and luckily for me it just went on and on.”

To say it went on and on is putting things mildly. Whilst Jim was on the books for ten years from 51-61, his goals came in an even shorter period if you consider he only started playing in 1954.

“I was what they a call a fixture, I was always in the team. At the same time, if you look at the Guinness book of records or any other book, you’ll find that people who scored a lot of goals were at the club a long while. In my best year I got 37. Now, if somebody got 37 they’d be sold. No question. So, it’s nice to have the record but it’s a little bit artificial because players don’t stay that long. To score what I did now, you’d have to be at a club a fair while and you’re just not. Score twenty goals one year and you’re gone.

Look at all the records of clubs in the third division South and there were three players playing for England in that league. John Atyeo, who played for Bristol City. Then you had Matthews playing for Coventry. They were actually in the England line up and you couldn’t imagine that now.”

There must have been more to it than just being a regular in the team. What did Jim put his goalscoring feats down to?

“I had two good feet. Everybody thought I was left footed but actually I was right footed. That’s how good it was. If I had a penalty I’d take it with the right foot but the left foot, it didn’t make a difference. Once the ball was moving a bit, it made no difference. In actual fact, that’s what gives you the goal because you get that fraction of a second where somebody else tries to get it over and its gone. Bang. You get the goal.

Even Shearer was right footed although his left was good, but when you don’t mind what foot it comes on then it gives you the fraction of a second and that makes a big difference. ”

Whilst recognising his own skills, Jim is fair enough to admit where he may have been slightly weaker.

“I wasn’t all that good with my head, to tell you the truth. Infact, I used to take the corners sometimes although did score some with my head. If it was on the right, Dennis Heath would take them but if it was on the left, George McCloud had trouble hitting the corner over.”

It wasn’t just the ability to hit a ball with either foot but the ability to hit it with power, which was also key to Jim’s prowess in front of goal. I had read that at one point he actually knocked a spectator out. Is this true?

“Probably! The funny thing about it, and I can always see the funny side, was that when you used to come out on to the field, and they don’t do it now because they do all the run ups, everybody used to like a kick of the ball, even the defenders and everybody used to like a shot at the goal before the match started. There were often people not interested because the match hadn’t started and it was like a minefield by that goal.”

The type of ball probably accounted for a few casualties, as he continues.

“ The ball was a lot heavier! The ball’s changed. By the time I got in you had the white ball for floodlit matches and that was alright. The lace had gone. You’ve got to go back to 52-/53 for all that so I missed the laceup ball. It was a bit before I got in the first team.

It’s not just the ball that was different but the pitches, too. The playing surfaces now are beautiful compared to when I played and that must make a difference. I’ve walked on pitches that were all sand, like a bog. That makes a big difference.”

We’ve briefly mentioned his partnership with George Francis and I wonder whether this inspired him towards the amount of goals he scored. Was there any rivalry between the pair of them as they raced into the record books?

“There was no rivalry. It didn’t really matter. No disrespect to the game, he might have scored 35 in one year and me 30. The next I’d get more. It didn’t really matter.”

Infact, they were very good friends, having met years earlier and perhaps this helped forge that bond on and off the pitch.

“George, I knew from way back, long before the juniors. We used to play for the cinema teams. They used to have kids going along on Saturday mornings. George played for one and I played for another. It all seems like another world but that’s how I knew George. I went out with his sister for quite a while but nothing came of it. I knew his family well. George was Brentford through and through. He lived by Acton Town so was local whereas I was the other way.”

One theme that runs throughout my conversation with Jim is his continued interest in the modern game, especially when comparing how things were fifty years earlier for him and George.

“Now football’s always in the papers, on the telly. You think that these days, my name would be up on that Sky every week   – Jim Towers scored for Brentford. George Francis scores for Brentford.

Now your name comes up and you’ve never heard of them, other than in the Premier Division. Its high profile. The fellow giving the commentary knows everything about them – that’s his tenth goal of the season etc Some little Carlisle fellows got his tenth goal of the season. Back then, nobody even knew where Carlisle was ! That’s how it is nowadays.

It’s so high profile these days. If you look at Defoe who scored those five goals for Spurs against Wigan the other week…. I scored four goals against Southampton and I had to almost walk home after the match because by the time we got back to Brentford all the buses had finished and I didn’t have a car in those days.

I had to make my own way home after scoring four goals. I don’t think Defoe had to do that!!!

That’s exactly how it happened. It was an evening kick off and by the time you got back from Southampton the buses had stopped. How the game’s changed.

He got five goals out of nine; I got four from six but I had to walk home from Brentford to Shepherd’s Bush. It’s true. That’s what happened.”

Aside from transport issues, Jim also comments on another key differ between the way the game was played in his day and in current times.

“Players drink a lot now during the game which was unheard of when I was playing. It was amazing when you think about it. You used to go all the way up North and you wouldn’t have a drink before you played. You didn’t get one in the dressing room. A cup of tea maybe, afterwards. Now, there’s water being thrown at them at all directions. Even the subs drinking.

When I played we were running on empty all the time. You never had a drink. You’d go into the dressing room with no facilities. Maybe a pot of tea for half time and lemonade for afterwards. On hot days, which there were, nobody knew; you just got on with it. It was a case of, “ don’t drink a lot of water, you’ve got to carry it around”. Now you need it all the time. We were handicapped for a start by the way the game’s changed. We would have obviously been better because there were certain times when you were playing and you couldn’t pick your legs up. For some reason it wasn’t going right or whatever. That was probably what it was. Exhaustion. Nobody had said you need a drink of water. It was unheard of, you just didn’t know.”

Tower and Francis managed just short of 300 goals between them for Brentford, including 61 in 58-59 which saw Jim top scoring on 37. As such, it seems incredible now but the start of the 1961 season saw the club choosing to sell the pair of them to arch rivals Queen Park Rangers. To this day, Jim is still not sure why.

“ I didn’t particularly want to go to QPR. Why he sold me and George, I don’t know. They might have had a money problem but it wasn’t massive money we went for. About ten thousand in the end (the record books, officially, say eight) but it wasn’t big money so why they needed that I don’t know?

It was a certainty they’d get relegated the following year. Which is exactly what happened. After we went they were taking people on free transfers. My mate Kenny Coote, the club captain, still used to come and have a drink with me Sunday nights. Even he said, we’re a certainty to go down and that’s what happened.

There was no reason to go and now I‘m not sure why I didn’t make a stand.

I can’t think. George was the same. I can understand him selling me or I can understand selling George. I can’t understand him selling both of us at the same time, it was ridiculous.”

The passion with which Jim talks about the Brentford games against QPR, prior to his enforced move across West London, make the transfer sound even more ridiculous than he puts it!

“QPR. For me, and George, it was more than a local derby. We WANTED to win and to beat them more than anyone. Over the years, I don’t think QPR came off too well and perhaps that’s why they took a liking to us and bought us. We had a very good record against them. It was the special one.

More special to me and George than Ken, for example, who used to live over this way (Jim is still a Hounslow man). For us though, George was Acton and I used to actually walk from my house to QPR when we played there.

I can never remember QPR winning at Brentford. I think we had a 100% record against them here over eight or nine years. ”

Outside of the derby matches, Jim cites two particular games as real stand out moments. The more obvious one is that which resulted in his long walk home that one night.

“The standout game according to everybody is when I scored the four goals against Southampton. For me, it became more important afterwards. At the time it didn’t seem so important but as your career finishes, people say, “Oh, you scored four goals against Southampton” To get four away! Probably, if you look at the Southampton records there wouldn’t be many people who had done it against them.”

The other was actually at a rival of ours, about whom he explains… ,

“I had had a trial for Fulham but it turned out that I went to Brentford.

Many years later, which gave me a lot of pleasure, I went back to Fulham and played in an all-star match. A testimonial for a couple of players I watched – Arthur Stevens and Joe Bacuzzi. They were great players for Fulham and I went back and played in the all-star game with Billy Wright, Jones who used to play outside-left for Tottenham and all that crowd. All internationals. That was nice for me to have the chance again, after not getting in, to go back and play in that game.”

After leaving football, Jim went to work for British Airways where he stayed for twenty-five years. “ It was good. When footballers finished you didn’t have any money, not like now. Working there helped because you got a pension to keep you rolling over. Only through British Airways though. Most people who packed up football in those days didn’t have anything. Pack up and the next day you’re down the job centre. It happens.”

I do wonder if a man of his talents ever considered staying on in the game?

“I had a little gap between the football and going to the Airport as I played in the Southern League for a while. In those days, everybody used to pack up and go in the Southern League.”

However, in regards to working in the game, Jim is clear.

“Not really, because there was no money. It’s nice if you do well but there’s a lot of people just at the side of the road. I don’t think I’d have liked to go cap in hand. At least at BA you had a job. If you were coaching, unless you were the manager, once he got the sack you’d get it with him. There were lots who got the sack and you never heard of them again. And there was no big money in it ”

Outside of work, now that Jim is retired does he still watch Brentford much?

“Not very often. I go occasionally. I went last year and also when Brentford have played QPR but I don’t often go. Unless you go regularly you don’t get a feel of the players so you’re just watching a group of people. You’ve got to get to know them, to get the feel of the players. I could tell you more about Tottenham or Arsenal now because I watch it on Sky.

When I played, everyone knew one another. The team didn’t change and the teams you played would come back two years later and roughly have the same team. Nobody moved because if you got retained, you stayed. There was no point. I has the chance to go to Northern clubs and was asked if I’d be interested – Preston, Newcastle, Sheffield Wednesday – but I thought what would I want to go up there for? I was a single fellow and didn’t get married until quite late. I went to QPR and it was no big deal but going all the way to Sheffield, finding somewhere to live was different. Well, I’ve always been from this area and never ventured too far.”

It seems surprising, although perhaps more symptomatic of the way football has changed, that for all his goal scoring heroics Jim only has one hat-trick ball in his collection. Or should I say, had….

No. In those days you didn’t get them. I’ve only ever had one football from when I scored a hat-trick for Millwall, after I’d left QPR. They just didn’t give them out in those days. I never got a ball from Brentford.

I did have a ball from Millwall but what happened was, when I went to Gravesend they were always short of everything. Didn’t even have a ball. In those days Brentford were short, imagine what Gravesend were like!!

I said to (the then manager) Walter Rickett, I’ll fetch my ball. I let them play with it, then left it down there. Once you’d played with it, that was it. They weren’t like they are now and it had got a little bit torn so I said to keep it.

Then, the hat-trick ball was like a lucky charm but now, they’re all over the place. You don’t get the ball you scored the hat-trick with because they’re being thrown on from all over the place. Defoe probably wouldn’t know which ball he actually scored those five with – probably a different ball for each – so it would be a miracle if he got the same one afterwards. “

Meeting Jim has been a real eye-opener in the difference between the way football was played then and now. More than that, it has been a pleasure to meet a man of his reputation and hear him talk so modestly about his achievements. This is perhaps best summed up by Jim’s own appraisal of his time at Brentford.

“Anybody watching me when I was 20 and they were 30 is probably long gone now!

Time makes players better than they were. Everybody’s a great player when they’ve finished but when they’re playing “you’re useless”. Every player that’s talked about, the time they played is actually better remembered than they actually were.”

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