RIP Bernard Tapie, the colourful Frenchman who allowed Chris Waddle to change the history of Sheffield Wednesday

Dressed in a slightly oversized, classically 90s suit and an expression of slight confusion, Trevor Francis shuffled his way through the streets of Paris clutching a scrap of paper adorning the address of a very famous man.

By Alex Miller
Sunday, 10th October 2021, 5:00 pm

It was the summer of 1992. Erasure were top of the charts, Michael Keaton’s Batman was on every billboard in Europe and Neil Kinnock had recently retired as leader of the Labour Party after a shock election defeat to John Major’s Conservatives. Europe was enjoying the rapid transition to a post-Cold War central market and business, generally, was beginning to boom.

And as the promised riches of the forthcoming Premier League were about to hit the bank accounts of top tier clubs, Sheffield Wednesday were plotting something magic. English teams were back in European competition and the Owls were looking forward to UEFA Cup involvement having finished third in their first season in the top tier.

In the corridors of Hillsborough, unbeknown to the press at the time, they had a major target in mind. Francis was in Paris on a covert mission. They were going after the magician.

Chris Waddle, England international and genius, had flown the nest of British football three years earlier to join Marseille. Arriving as a relative unknown in France in the pre-globalised football world of the early 90s, he was one of a handful of players who had gone continental in the wake of the ‘Heysel ban’ in search of European competition.

By the time the summer of 1992 had come around, however, he was a superstar to the point that six years later, as part of Marseille’s centenary celebrations, he would be voted the second best player in the club’s history. His partner in crime at the Stade Vélodrome, Jean-Pierre Papin, wasn’t a bad name to fall in behind.

A home bird by nature, Waddle had made it known to those within the game that he fancied a return to England. Trevor Francis hopped on a plane.

The address on his scrap of paper was that of the office of a Bernard Tapie, who died of stomach cancer earlier this week at the age of 78. Expecting to enter a meeting with a room of Marseille directors, given the proposed sale of a club favourite, Francis rang a doorbell and was invited inside.

Former Marseille owner Bernard Tapie died last week aged 78.

There he found only one man, Tapie, owner not only of Marseille but a burgeoning sports label called Adidas who would within months become a Government minister in France.

A colourful character who would later turn his hand to acting and singing, it was before he played his hand in a match-fixing scandal that would see his beloved club stripped of their 1993 French title win but not – crucially – the only Champions League win to date by a French side. Despite his controversies, Tapie died a revered figure in his homeland.

A football obsessive, he knew all about the man in his office; Trevor Francis, the world’s first million pound footballer.

“How things have changed,” Francis later remembered of the events in a meeting room that after some time began to fill with the Frenchman’s smoke. “I flew over to Paris by myself to have a meeting in an office where I was given the address and it was one to one.

Trevor Francis worked wonders to bring Chris Waddle to Sheffield Wednesday in 1992.

“I conducted the negotiations, I got Chris in for a million and it is the best million that Sheffield Wednesday has ever spent.

“I wouldn’t have thought there was a better player in the history of that club than Chris Waddle.

“That year he should have regained his place in the England team, he didn’t, but he was named footballer of the year and rightly so, he was brilliant.”

The Owls boss had been allowed to make the solo mission by his Wednesday directors with a rye smile. The ambition of their manager was exciting, but the feeling was that it was an ambition too far – the money required was one thing, convincing Chris Waddle to sign for Sheffield Wednesday was another.

Chris Waddle celebrates after his goal for Marseille beat AC Milan to win the UEFA European Cup quarter final second leg match in March 1991. (Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

Skipping back through the Paris streets after a successful negotiation with Tapie – £1m was no small figure in 1992, particularly for a 31-year-old who had been exiled from Graham Taylor’s ‘safety first’ England team a year earlier – Francis dialled the news through to the suits back home.

They almost choked on their biscuits, regaining composure only to hear Waddle’s salary of £200,000 and cough up crumbs once again. But after initial resistance the cash was found and it proved to be money well spent, Waddle’s famous drop of the shoulder injecting new life into a side that went on to come so painfully close to winning major silverware.

“I don’t think they thought I could get it over the line,” Francis said.

“He was outstanding and that season he was voted the Sports Writers’ Player of the Year, and he really should have made a return to the England team. He was a very important player, and the type of player that Wednesday fans must dream about now.”

If those Wednesday fans were to be polled as those Marseille supporters were on the greatest player in their club’s rich history, you can bet there would be no name ahead of Waddle this time.

On news of Tapie’s death, Chris Waddle was one of the first to send a message of condolence on social media; ‘RIP Bernard Tapie, what a man. Legend xx’. The businessman’s coffin was given a ceremonial last outing at Marseille along with that Champions League trophy. Thousands of supporters turned up to sing his name.

Some 1,500 kilometres from his spiritual home, Bernard Tapie played a small but vital part in the modern history of a different club in blue and white.

Were the Frenchman to have conducted business a little differently back in 1992, Waddle’s legend in Sheffield may never have been born.