The Clarets Trust were delighted to present John Francis with Honorary Membership ahead of the Manchester United fixture, recognising his commitment to Burnley Football Club, football more generally and his emphatic response to racism during the Club’s 1994 play off success.
Francis generously offered his time to Clarets Trust Board members George Poole, Andy Brown and Simon Bennett ahead of the game, during which time the Trust presented the 59-year-old with a plaque and spoke to him about his Burnley career, life after football and Vincent Kompany’s current squad.
Burnley finish the business at York after the tragic passing of young apprentice Ben Lee
Francis joined Burnley Football Club in January 1990 from Sheffield United, initially finding success as an out-and-out striker alongside Ron Futcher. Their partnership would lead the Clarets to the play offs in 1991 and see John net 19 goals in all competitions. But in the following season, Francis manoeuvred out onto the right wing and helped fire Burnley towards our fabled promotion success away at York City.
“We should have won at Carlisle and we ended up drawing that game,” Francis recalled. “I probably scored one of the best goals I’ve ever scored!”
Offered the chance at promotion away at Carlisle United, Burnley had more fun on a lilo than on the pitch, with the team unable to make their chances count and eventually drawing 1-1. Francis’ stunning effort from the left flank was not enough to see the Clarets promoted, despite the merry mood that saw Burnley supporters cheerily invade the pitch, with one memorable fan ‘swimming’ on a lilo in the centre circle.
Not to worry, for Burnley had another opportunity the following week, with a rearranged trip to York City to contend with. The original fixture had been cancelled following the tragic death of young Burnley apprentice, Ben Lee, who fell to his untimely death whilst trying to retrieve a football from the Longside roof.
“We ended up winning at York and it was fitting with what happened a few days beforehand, with young Ben passing away,” reflected Francis. “We had to rearrange that game for the last game of the season, and we ended up winning, so it was good memories.”
“They came to York in their thousands, they’re going home as champions,” were the famous words of Clive Tyldesley, as Burnley sealed promotion and the Fourth Division Championship title away at York – with Francis netting the winning goal.
Bedlam ensued on a night that will live long in the memory of all Burnley fans. The Clarets were on their way back from the Football League basement and had won their first title since Harry Potts’ side sealed the First Division Championship in 1960.
‘The monkey’s just scored against you,’ Francis takes a stand at Plymouth
Out of contract just weeks after the York game, Francis’ first spell with the Club was over, but he’d be back less than twelve months later after returning on a permanent deal from Cambridge. Jimmy Mullen welcomed him back with open arms and Francis was instrumental as the Clarets marched towards the play offs in the 1993/94 season.
An 0-0 draw at home to Plymouth Argyle had set up a mouth-watering tie at Home Park in the second leg of the semi-finals, though it was a match marred by the unacceptable racist abuse thrown the way of Francis by certain Plymouth supporters in the ground.
Verbal taunts and monkey gestures were sent the way of Francis as Burnley fell to a 1-0 deficit, but his incredible response on the pitch saw the Yorkshireman produce a brave display of resilience to the despicable behaviour of the home fans.
Scoring twice within as many minutes on the half-hour mark, Francis triumphantly sent Burnley on the road to Wembley and produced an emphatic response to the racist abuse by mimicking his own monkey gestures back to the home supporters – who by now looked more akin to an animal tucked with its tails between its legs.
“It was an emphatic response to the abuse I suffered, but I would have been in trouble nowadays if I’d done anything like that,” laughed Francis when speaking to the Clarets Trust. “Things have moved on, we’ve learned a little bit as time has gone on, and I don’t think racism gets ignored as much as it used to do. It is still there; it is still prevalent. Obviously, we have seen the situations with the England games, with Saka’s penalty miss where he was abused afterwards…
“Every time I got the ball and I was running down the line, you could hear monkey chants. So when I scored, like I say it was probably the wrong thing to do, but I’ve turned and I’ve just run down to the crowd and said, ‘the monkey’s just scored against you.’ But it’s one of those things, I did it, and like I say, I don’t think I’d get away with it in this day and age.”
Burnley’s eventual winning efforts at Wembley saw the Club promoted to the second tier, though Francis’ day was overshadowed somewhat by a serious injury that would trouble him throughout the rest of his career.
He would never again reach the same heights in a Burnley shirt, but it was not to matter, for Francis had already written himself into Burnley folklore for his goal-scoring, bubbly personality and of course, his other famous celebration at Plymouth – the wobbly knees special.
“I have no idea where that came from,” joked Francis, with a self-deprecating scratch of the head. “It was sheer elation and that’s it! I don’t think anybody gave us a chance to win that game. We went down there [to Plymouth] and they’d all booked their coaches for Wembley! I think Jimmy Mullen put the newspaper up – saying that their coaches had been booked – on the board of the changing rooms and I think that was enough for the players to think, ‘let’s have a go at them!’”
In answer to one of the Trust’s questions, Francis doesn’t quite remember who his roommate was for that game – he suspects it may have been a young Andy Farrell – but what is abundantly clear are the special memories he holds of that side that got promoted under Jimmy Mullen to the First Division.
“We had a great team at the time, the likes of Adrian Heath, Ted McMinn… Warren Joyce was fantastic that night. It was fitting because we had some good footballers, but we could win games the hard way as well.”
Life after football sees Francis coach future England footballers
Francis’ contributions did not, and have not, stopped with his retirement from the professional game. Having returned to Burnley FC in January 2008 to work alongside former teammate – and roommate – Andy Farrell, within the Academy, Francis spent six years with the Club before going on to support grassroots football within his home county of Yorkshire.
The success of Wharfedale Grassroots Academy and Ilkley Town AFC owes a lot to Francis, who alongside a strong group of other coaches, has inspired a dramatic rise in young girls playing football in the area. Notably, Ilkley Town AFC only had one under-11 girls’ team in 2021, but now sports 302 registered women and girls across 14 separate teams.
“For the last year, I’ve been doing the scholarship over at St Mary’s St Menton and Ilkley Town FC, and also, we set up a Wharfedale Grassroots Academy for the teams in and around the area, in and around the Wharfedale district. We’ve done really well, we’ve been going a year and have over 300 kids, all age groups practically – we’ve got a couple we need to do this season. But it’s onwards and upwards at the moment.”
Prior to his move into grassroots girls’ football, Francis earned his spurs as a coach whilst at clubs like Leeds United, during which time he coached many future England internationals such as former Burnley winger, Aaron Lennon.
“I was at Leeds and we had some good players, Lewis Cook has been there, Fabian Delph, James Tavernier, to name but a few. I was at the Club when Aaron Lennon was there as well, so some good players have come through. We had a good coaching group at Leeds.”
Francis: ‘Koleosho looks unbelievable, it’s nice to see someone with pace’
Talk soon turns to the Burnley Football Club of 2023. After all, we are sat in one of the Club’s new(ish) accessibility stands ahead of a blockbuster fixture against Manchester United. For Francis, it is night and day from the Club that he left as a player in 1996.
“If you look at the stadium now, it’s just phenomenal,” says Francis, as he looks up to the gantry where he will soon be doing co-commentary with Phil Bird. “What they’ve done with it is second to none, and it’s now up the standard where you can say we are a top Premier League team.
“It brings back memories, looking up at the stands, of having to run up and down the stands, with the 12-minute runs we used to have to do and all sorts of things like that.”
Times have changed since then, but just as Francis routinely got fans off their seats in a state of excitement throughout the early 1990s, that role is reserved these days for the talented Luca Koleosho, who has proved a shining light of Burnley’s early season having signed from Espanyol in the summer.
“I saw him the other day, how quick is he!” exclaims Francis, clearly feeling the same excitement as most Burnley fans at the prospect of seeing the young Italian/American in action. We question the former Turf Moor favourite on who’d win in a race when both were at their best, he or Koleosho, but Francis can’t help but chuckle at the prospect.
“I’d have loved to have seen it, it’d be interesting,” he laughed. “But he looks rapid doesn’t he, Koleosho? He looks unbelievable, it’s nice to see we’ve got somebody with pace. I love Benson as well, the way he comes inside a lot and scores goals. He’s a very good player.”
Unfortunately, neither Koleosho nor Benson could help the Clarets see off Manchester United in a fixture that saw the twenty-times champions of England reduced to just 38% possession and riding a wave of luck to win at Turf Moor. Whilst the defeat was disappointing, the first half performance in particular was evidence of the improvements that are being made within Vincent Kompany’s squad week after week.
“Obviously, I watched a couple of games last season and it’s quite remarkable the improvement in the team, and what Vincent has done in the year he’s come in. It’s astounding, I don’t think any manager would have ever done that,” Francis speculates.
“The way they’re playing is completely different to the way with Sean and if you look at what Vincent has done, he’s got players comfortable, brave on the ball and with a good winning element, playing with purpose.”
All eyes turn to Chelsea and Burnley’s No Room for Racism fixture
Thankfully for the Clarets, that winning edge shone through at Luton Town in midweek and we now go into the game against Chelsea with our tails up. Chelsea have been nothing if not inconsistent thus far in the Premier League and we can head into Saturday’s game confident of leaving our mark on Mauricio Pochettino’s side.
The Chelsea fixture will also offer an opportunity for the Club and fans alike to show their support for the No Room for Racism campaign, as football unites to tackle racism, hate and all forms of discrimination.
Across Turf Moor on Saturday, fans can expect to see No Room for Racism insignia, whilst the players have selected the pre-match playlist with their favourite songs from black artists.
Ahead of kick-off, the players will demonstrate their ongoing solidarity with anti-racism efforts by taking the knee, a powerful statement against racism that dates back to Martin Luther King kneeling in prayer during the campaign for voting rights in 1965.
In our chat with Francis, he referred to the jeering that England players had suffered when taking the knee against Hungary in June 2022, a saddening sight that has also regrettably been seen in Premier League fixtures this season.
Given that the gesture is a statement of solidarity from Burnley’s players against racism and other forms of discrimination, we at the Clarets Trust ask that all fans show their support for our boys in claret and blue by applauding No Room for Racism efforts on Saturday. Be loud, be proud and show that racism cannot be allowed.
As one of the most prominent and successful black players in Burnley’s storied footballing history, we could not be prouder to reveal John Francis’ Honorary Membership of the Trust during Burnley’s No Room for Racism campaign. It was a pleasure to speak to John and we once again thank him for the many years of friendship he has given to our local area. Up the Clarets.