EPISODE 1. BIG KEV FRANCIS
The city of Calgary in Canada is more renowned for ice hockey and the Winter Olympics than Association football. It sits within the peaceful confines of the Alberta province, tucked under the protective shelter of the vast Rocky Mountains. The country’s 5th largest city is a metropolis of skyscrapers, giant structures and large rail links. Calgary’s local constabulary even boasts its very own high rise ~ All 6ft 7 inches of former professional footballer Kevin Francis. An English expat, retired centre forward turned Canadian law enforcer. A Rocky Mountain himself, it’s hardly surprising Calgary’s crime rate is adequately in check and relatively low. The once bruising lower league talisman now dons a blue badged uniform and becomes the first entrant in the Big Man Upfront miniseries. Episode 1 tells the tale of a bizarre night in the FA Cup 21 years ago.
15TH JANUARY 1999 – Oxford United v Chelsea. FA Cup 4th Round.
Oxford United were in a mess. A reported 9 million pounds worth of debt with staff left unpaid and a half built new stadium across town that the club simply couldn’t afford to finish. As the scaffold sat rotting away throughout the winter, they carried on at the old Manor Ground ~ A 9000 capacity shed, rarely full with a sloping pitch for company. Oxford were heading for relegation back to Division 2 (now League 1) of the English Football League but in early January of 1999 had managed to beat Crewe Alexandra in the FA Cup to set up a potentially money spinning 4th round tie. A kind draw would alleviate some of their financial burden and, for the time being, stave off the threat of administration. The draw was kind. Premiership giants Chelsea were coming to town and better yet, Sky Sports wanted to televise it. KER-CHING.
The match itself was an excellent cup tie, set in a time when the cup meant something. A cracking full house atmosphere under the lights and played at a lightning fast tempo. Chelsea fielded a plethora of globally renowned superstars. Italians Gianfranco Zola, Gianluca Vialli and French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly to name a few but it was Oxford’s previously lesser known striking substitute who was grabbing the limelight, pre and post match talk.
The big man was warming up along the touch line, his giant frame engulfing the screen when the camera focused in. He dwarfed his compatriots as he sauntered through the motions; very high knees, heel flicks and side to sides, the commentator dubbed him the largest outfield player in the English league football. The hype was huge, the Sky cameras had their narrative that bordered on patronising given his size but a closer look into the player’s career suggested he wasn’t just the Bambi on ice novelty act the tv production team were making him out to be, there was substance. 88 goals in 152 appearances for Stockport County had seen him become a club legend and had paved the way for an £800,000 move to his boyhood favourites and hometown club Birmingham City where he had a decent spell, if not as prolific. That lead to a switch to Oxford and this FA Cup fourth round tie where the sense of anticipation, intrigue and readiness for him to enter the uneven field was palpable. The crowd and the nation viewing at home waited patiently, willing the Oxford manager/Nigel Mansell Spin off, Malcolm Shotton, to get him on. They needn’t of worried. The stage had been constructed from the offset, the Manor ground crowd demanded it, the country now demanded it. Shotton obliged around the 60th minute. On came BIG KEV FRANCIS.
It was an introduction that produced the largest cheer of the night, fitting for the man’s size, not far from 7 foot of striker. It didn’t take long for him to ruffle feathers of the Chelsea Centre half’s, messrs Lebeouf and Desially visibly shaken after the first few aerial duels. Accomplished world class Premier League defenders who knew they were in a proper battle. This was a striker to be taken seriously, a team to be taken seriously. Oxford, by this point, were remarkably 1-0 up through a young Dean Windass’ header. The Manor Ground crowd sensed Chelsea were here for the taking and when a home attack down the left produced an inviting cross heading in the direction of an unmarked Francis, they thought this was the sealer, Sky’s would-be fairytale ending to the picture they’d been painting all night. With only a simple tap in required the big man’s long gangling legs had managed to tie themselves into a double bow. He’d lost balance and the chance squirmed away much to undoubted disbelief of Malcolm Shotton and 9000 others watching on.
The night wasn’t to get any better for the big striker. With Chelsea pushing for a late equaliser and the clock ticking towards 90 minutes, a defending Francis awkwardly lunged towards Vialli inside the very crowded 18 yard area. A typical centre forward’s tackle that was accompanied by the Italian’s tumble and an instant referee’s whistle. Penalty. With stunned silence inside the ground, a distinctly bemused Francis looked on while his teammates protested on his behalf. The replays seemed to suggest a good contact on the ball but the referee was undeterred and Lebeouf would slot home the resultant, if fortunate, spot kick. 1-1 and a heartbreaker at the death for Oxford.
Despite the initial disappointment, the draw would become a brilliant result for Oxford United with the subsequent replay at Stamford bridge turning out to be a lucrative one. Lucrative enough to see them financially secure till the end of the season where they would ultimately be taken over and saved.
As for Kevin Francis, he gained a greater cult following after his strange night in the FA Cup. A brief spell back at Stockport failed to reach his own previous heady heights. He would also go on to have time at Hull City and Exeter as well as various forays into non league before hanging up his boots. Finishing with a total of 126 career goals, Kevin Francis emigrated with his family to Canada and became a cop.
There aren’t too many police officers in Canada or English lower league footballers that can claim to have played in a football match where they have overshadowed Gianfranco Zola whilst being a substitute, came on to rapturous applause, missed an open goal, give away a last minute penalty and still left the field a hero having inadvertently but potentionally saved his club from extinction. The instantly recognisable striker never had the clichéd great touch for a big man but his towering presence, uncompromising, unorthodox style and never say die attitude were all superb qualities. When Kevin Francis hit a ball, it stayed hit. When he puts the cuffs on, they stay nicked.