Football News: Champ Man Legends Part 10: Francis Jeffers
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Francis Jeffers Championship Manager 01/02
Perhaps the ultimate story of failed potential that continues to fail but still remains employed in the game is Francis Jeffers, one-time the ‘fox-in-the-box’ that was to be the final piece in the Arsenal jigsaw. It was a career that promised so much but achieved so much less, all down to his own failings in truth. But, in the late 1990s his star was shining bright as his natural talent shone through and he offered something that was then missing in the English game – he was a natural goalscorer. His story contrasts particularly strongly with that of another Everton youth product, Wayne Rooney, as there are so many comparison points between the two which show how desire to make it can often be the main difference.
Like Rooney, Jeffers was born in Liverpool, in Jeffers case it was 1981 and they both went to De La Salle school in Croxteth, as well as both making their Everton debut at the age of 16. Unlike Rooney, Jeffers was always slight, with a focus on pace and movement, rather than power and strength. Jeffers was seen as a future star early, and at 14 he was picked as one of the select few to go to Lilleshall that year, spending two years there and making himself well known to Everton fans by writing a monthly article in ‘The Evertonian’ charting his progress there and with the England U-16 team. Perhaps that was part of the reason why he was so highly regarded by Everton fans even before he was near the team or perhaps it was just because they were going through a similar period to the one they are currently in, with a team struggling against relegation. Whatever the reason, Jeffers arrival into the first team was hugely anticipated.
In March 1997 he signed YTS (Youth Training Scheme) forms at the Toffees and returned to them from Lilleshall for the following season. The fans did not have long to wait to see him as Howard Kendall brought him on as a half-time substitute for central defender Dave Watson, with Everton 2-0 down at Old Trafford against Manchester United. He was just 16 years old and it was his only appearance of the season. Instead he played a big part in the reserves and under-18s, playing a vital part in Everton’s win in the FA Youth Cup in the 1997-98 season. They beat Blackburn Rovers in the final.
Jeffers was so highly rated that when the Sunday Times Magazine produced a list of people who would be famous in 10 years’ time in May 1998, Francis Jeffers was the only football who made the list: “On Boxing Day 1997, Jeffers, then 16 years old, made his debut with Everton and became the team’s youngest player since 1966. A quick, slightly built striker who scores goals with apparent ease, in February this year the 17-year-old signed a five-year contract with the club, worth over £1m. This makes him England’s highest-paid teenage footballer ever, and he still has a year of his youth apprenticeship with Everton to run. It is a mark of the club’s confidence in a player whom they regard as the next Michael Owen.” This was after just one appearance in the first team.
The following season, 1998-99, Jeffers became a bigger part of the first team squad, making his full debut away to Derby County in 7 February 1999, setting up a goal for Nick Barmby and performing well enough to keep his place for the FA Cup game against Coventry City just under a week later. There he scored his first goal for the Toffees in a 2-1 win, Barmby returning the favour by setting him up. He could have had a hat-trick and Coventry’s former Everton defender David Burrows said of him afterwards: “Jeffers movement was exceptional. He moved our centre-backs all over the place and created all sorts of problems. His partnership with Hutch was good, and between them they played some excellent one-touch stuff that had us in trouble. His pace and the way he got through for his goal did bother us. We ended up defending far too deep because of that and it left us under lots of pressure.”
Two weeks later he had added his first league goal as he scored against Wimbledon to earn a 1-1 draw for the Toffees. By the end of the season he had managed to notch 7 goals in 17 appearances, including the last goal of the season for Everton, and the club’s 6,000th goal in top-flight football, against West Ham United. The arrival of Kevin Campbell had given him a partner to work off and the pair of them managed 14 goals in 9 matches to rescue a struggling Everton side from relegation. There were reasons to be optimistic for the Toffees though, with the fledgling partnership looking capable of firing the blue half of Merseyside up the table for the following season.
Just two days before the start of the season in August 1999, with some terrible timing for everyone involved, it was made public that Jeffers had fought with Walter Smith and handed in a transfer request. The fingers of blame were pointed all around as both parties leaked stories accusing the other of being at fault. Smith’s side blamed obscene wage demands and claimed Jeffers’ dad had made the row with Smith public. From the player’s side stories were floated around that Jeffers just worried about his place in the first team as Smith had used him very sparingly in pre-season. What did come out was that Smith had told him to “get out of my office before I kill you” after he handed in the transfer request. A massive fans’ backlash saw the rift quickly healed and the transfer request was withdrawn within a week. Jeffers afterwards said of it: “I am an Evertonian through and through…in hindsight, it wasn’t a very clever thing to do [in reference to his transfer request]..I never wanted to leave Everton because of my love for the club and the fans.” But it was not to be the end of his attempts to leave the club he claimed to love, another thing he had in common with Rooney, his constant claims to be a Blue but desperation to leave when the chance came along.
The transfer request was soon forgotten by fans as he started the 1999-2000 season well, and was Everton’s top scorer by the beginning of October, using Campbell as a foil to drift off and find space, which he was adept at doing. He was also doing well at England U-21 level and equalled Alan Shearer’s goalscoring record with 13 goals in his 16 games for them. However it was to be his undoing as a February U-21 international match against Argentina saw him stretchered off after just 8 minutes. He had twisted his ankle and sustained serious ligament damage doing so, ending his season early.
Negotiations were underway over a new contract and Jeffers started the new season well, playing five times in the Premier League and scoring 5 goals, but repeated ankle and shoulder injuries decimated his season and he scored just one more league goal all season, in February 2001, against Leicester. It was to be his final league goal for the Toffees. The following month he rejected the biggest contract offer the club had ever made to anyone, £28,000 per week, which was huge for the time. With Manchester United, Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur circling ready to buy him, Jeffers was not keen on renewing his Everton deal, though some Everton fans at the time blamed Smith and his number 2 Archie Knox for wanting rid of him. However it was clear his head had been turned and Jeffers had decided to move on, despite all his talk of loving the club. With a goal record of 20 goals in 60 appearances, there was plenty of interest.
Arsenal’s interest was the one that caught his imagination and he refused to meet with Newcastle United as he wanted to join the Gunners: “Once I met the manager and the chairman my mind was made up. I didn’t want to go anywhere else even though I had other offers. It’s a massive club, one of the biggest in Europe and for them to be interested in me is magnificent. Playing with world class players I’m definitely looking to improve.” Arsenal at the time had Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord, Dennis Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu up front, so Kevin Campbell, an ex-Arsenal player himself, warned Jeffers that “he needs to make sure he gets loaned back to Everton….he needs to learn his trade playing week in and week out.” Even Jeffers himself said later that, “I look back now at that Arsenal squad I joined and think, ‘How did I ever believe I was going to get in the team?” But somehow he did think that he would and signed for Arsenal for an initial £8m fee, with £2m further dependant on various conditions being met, such as number of appearances and goals scored. Henry himself had only cost £11m a couple of years previously.
Wenger’s quote at the time has become legendary: “I’ve signed Francis because he is a good player and has the qualities I need in my team. He is only 20 and he’s a great example of a player with quality because he’s already had experience of playing in the Premiership. Francis is that ‘fox in the box’ we have been talking about and although he is a goal scorer, I want to develop him as a team player so he is not obsessed by just scoring goals.” The ‘fox-in-the-box’ has become almost mythical, but Jeffers turned out to be more of a sloth than a fox. Injuries did affect him but, even when he was fit, he was unsurprisingly struggling to break into the team. In fact he failed to even make the squad for either the 2002 or 2003 FA Cup finals.
His first season at the Gunners they won the Premier League but Jeffers had made just 6 appearances in the league over the course of the year and that was not enough to earn a winner’s medal at the time. He had only managed one league start. In total he only made 10 appearances in all competitions and scored twice. The following season he made a few more appearances, 28 in total, scoring 6 goals, but managed just two more starts. It was enough to get him his one and only England cap, in the same match that Rooney made his England debut, with Jeffers coming off the bench to score the only goal in a 3-1 defeat to Australia at Upton Park in February 2003. And that was as good as it got for Jeffers, though still young he was already on the downhill slope: “I was out, partying, living life – tossing it off in training because I always thought I wouldn’t play on Saturday anyway.” Other Arsenal players were quoted describing him as a “cocky upstart…not as good as he thinks he is”.
His final Arsenal appearance was in the 2003 Community Shield as he came on to replace Bergkamp and 12 minutes later was shown a red card for kicking Phil Neville, the Gunners’ 50th red card under Arsene Wenger. Jeffers never played for Arsenal again. He had only played for them 39 times before he was sent back to Everton on loan. By now the Toffees were under the management of David Moyes and he said of the return: “This is his chance to put right the things that many people have said about him.” Unfortunately it seems Jeffers was better at proving people right instead. Moyes was unhappy with his attitude, which was often questioned and he did not score a single goal before being dropped from the first team picture. In fact even when Duncan Ferguson and Rooney were both suspended against Newcastle, Moyes chose to shift James McFadden up front and Jeffers was sat on the bench. It is reported that Jeffers was furious, going “ballistic” and yelling at Moyes “you can stick your shirt up your arse. I don’t want to play for you ever again.” Not much of a threat when you are unwanted anyway, but Jeffers was sent back to Arsenal early, even though Everton would be stuck paying his wages. Jeffers did eventually apologise to Moyes and was given a brief chance to resurrect his career but it was no surprise that the Scotsman decided not to make the loan permanent in the summer.
Instead Jeffers was sold to Charlton Athletic for £2.6m. The 23-year-old was already looking like a player on a slide into obscurity scoring just 5 goals in 24 appearances that season in all competitions for Alan Curbishley’s side. The following summer saw him farmed out on loan to Rangers, this time to play under Alex McLeish. McLeish had no better luck with him than fellow Scots Smith and Moyes and Jeffers was sent packing without a single goal in his time in Scotland, a flop with little sign that Jeffers even cared.
The summer of 2006 he was released by the Addicks, who had given up on him, but he was surprisingly given another chance to make it in the English Premier League by Mark Hughes, then in charge of Blackburn Rovers: “I spoke to a number of clubs but once I spoke to manager Mark Hughes my mind was made up. These are exciting times for me. I’ve had a couple of difficult years but I’ve no doubt that I can still do it. Given a fair crack of the whip here I’m sure I can get back to my best and take this club forward.” There is the problem in a nutshell – he is talking about being given a fair crack of the whip like his failings were down to anything but himself. Jeffers had still not realised that he was the one letting himself down. That season he scored just one goal for Rovers in the UEFA Cup against Basel as Benni McCarthy and Shabani Nonda kept him out of the side most of the time.
Jeffers was not even able to make it to the end of the season before he was sent down to the second tier to play for Championship side Ipswich Town on a month’s loan, finally finding a place where it seemed to click for him. It was March 2007 and he scorer and was awarded man of the match on his full debut away at Hull City in a 5-2 win. He did well enough for Ipswich to extend the loan until the end of the season, despite a hamstring injury. Jeffers managed 9 games and scored 4 goals, leading to the Tractor Boys to try and sign him on a permanent deal. Their first 2 bids were rejected and Ipswich chairman David Sheepshanks accused Rovers of holding them to ransom. Finally the third bid was accepted and personal terms were offered to Jeffers but Sheepshanks could not agree personal terms with Jeffers: “We made what we felt was a very lucrative offer to Franny and it was an offer that could exceed what he is earning at Blackburn. But unfortunately, despite our extensive efforts, we have not been able to match what the player wants financially from the deal.” Finally he finds a place where he is given a chance, performs well and yet Jeffers finds a way to screw it up through greed.
Instead Sheffield Wednesday paid an undisclosed fee to sign him on a 3-year contract, but he suffered an injury on his debut and only managed 20 minutes in total in August. In October a tackle by Ryan Shawcross of Stoke City damaged his ankle ligaments and Jeffers was ruled out for 7 weeks. In December he returned to the team and came on as a substitute in a defeat against Hull City. He managed just 12 appearances in the entire 2007-08 season and scored twice. That summer he suffered with more ankle issues and a groin injury and was sidelined until September. January he received a red card for a foul on Nottingham Forest’s Joe Heath. Entering his final contracted season and it lasted until August, just weeks into the season, when he headbutted Tommy Fraser of Port Vale. Manager Brian Laws was fed up of him by this point and fined him the maximum allowable and transfer listed but Wednesday were unable to offload him. Jaffers never played for them again and he was released at the end of the season, with the Owls dropping into League One. In 3 seasons Jeffers had managed 60 appearances in total and scored just 5 goals.
The offers were no longer flooding in and Jeffers went on trial at Blackpool under Ian Holloway but failed to impress. A return to first club Everton to train was agreed but they had even less interest in signing him than Blackpool. At 29-years-old his career was on the buffers and he headed off to what was (maybe still is) a fairly weak retirement league for European players as Jeffers joined Australian A-League side Newcastle Jets. Even then, despite them being in such a weak league, it was initially on trial at the suggestion of Michael Bridges. After looking at him, head coach Branko Culina was not entirely sure about him and he was signed on a 10-game guest contract. Culina found a completely different player from the youngster who had been targeted by Wenger: “I could see from the beginning that he wasn’t a prolific goal scorer….he set up; he gave us a focal point of attack. His ability to hold the ball up and bring other players into the game was exactly what we needed.”
Unfortunately for the Jets Culina found he was working with a player who just did not have the desire any more: “I found him to be easy going and probably didn’t seem to be overly concerned what happens to his career. Sometimes players think they’ve just got to turn up on the pitch and it’ll be fine, but it’s not. What he was lacking in his game [was] the passion, the enjoyment, the fitness, but the talent was there.” After just 9 games, with no new contract agreed for him to stay as Jeffers was looking for a long term deal and the Jets were not interested in that, Jeffers left: “They are saying they want to keep me but the chat I had with the club today was disheartening. I have enjoyed my time here. I told the club if everything was right I would love to stay but I don’t think that is going to happen. The big thing for me is securing my future and my family’s. I can’t accept a deal until the end of this season with nothing for next season. From what was said today, the club is not in a position to offer me a deal and by the looks of things, I’ll be going back to England.”
With no interest from English football, Jeffers instead had the choice between Major League Soccer in the USA or Motherwell in the SPL. He chose Motherwell, signing for them in February 2011: “When you go to America, they are not as passionate, are they? Here, the fans turn out, they want to see the team play well and give it their all. I’m not the type of lad who would want to go somewhere to wind down. I’ve had injuries, so I’m not going to go anywhere and think, ‘I’m here on my pension’. That’s not what I’m about.” Once again he failed to impress, though Jeffers did at last manage to score his first ever Scottish Premier League goal and won a Scottish Cup runners-up medal after coming on in the final as they were thrashed 3-0 by Celtic. At the end of the season Jeffers was released.
Luckily for him there was a new head coach at the Newcastle Jets and so he returned to the A-League, signing a 1-year contract on 20 October 2011. Once again Jeffers was unimpressive and, with just 1 goal, he was released at the end of the season. His career had slumped so low that Jeffers’ next stop was the Maltese league. I wonder if he had the same disappointment on arriving there as my mother did on discovering it was not where Maltesers originated from? Floriana were the team that took him on but after just two games, and one goal, they realised that they could not afford his wages and Jeffers quickly left to return to England. Though it was not without a bit of scandal, firstly after a fake Twitter account in his name claimed the Maltese league was the worst he had ever played in. Though I am not sure why that caused a fuss, it seems like a perfectly reasonable assessment!
Back in England he was arrested outside his father-in-law’s house. Jeffers was separated from his wife at the time and police were called to an incident outside his flat and arrived to find Jeffers brandishing a broomstick while his father-in-law, Albert Boden, had “some injuries”. Jeffers was charged with a public order offence but the charge was dropped and he was instead ‘bound over’ to keep the peace.
League Two’s Accrington Stanley signed him for the rest of the season on 8th March 2013, but they released him at the end of the season as even the 4th tier in English football was beyond him. The summer saw Jeffers go on a number of trials, and not at Sefton Magistrates Court this time, as Bury, Brunei DPMM of the Singapore S-League and Chester City all took a look at him. None of them wanted him though. In the end he announced his retirement from playing in 2013, with just 280 appearances since making his debut in 1998. He had a total of 49 goals and 13 assists in a career that had so much promise but so little reality.
Once again Everton offered him a chance as he joined Everton’s academy as a volunteer coach in 2014 saying: “I think I could connect with the kids telling them why they should do that and why they shouldn’t do other things. I’m not guessing at why they shouldn’t be doing it. I’m saying it because I know.” In 2016 he was formally employed as part of the academy coaching team. The following year he had a short run as temporary coach of the Under-23s while David Unsworth was in caretaker charge of the first team following the sacking of Everton manager Ronald Koeman. 2018 saw him promoted full-time as an Under-23s coach. The next time there was a caretaker manager at the Toffees, this time Duncan Ferguson, Jeffers stepped up to work as part of his backroom staff.
Coaching might have been going well for him, but away from football Jeffers’ private life was still a problem and he admitted to sending menacing messages to his wife on WhatsApp while they were in the midst of divorce proceedings. The pair had split and Jeffers had seen her with another man and he told that she would “not need her clothes because she will be in a coffin” and that her “life would be over”. In October 2019 he was handed a 12-month restraining order from being near his wife’s home or the coffee shop she owned. He was also fined. A few months later he was banned from driving after he refused to take a breathalyser test. Jeffers had been spotted driving erratically in Allerton, at one point his rear wheel mounted the pavement, but he told police he had drunk “just two bottles of lager”. He was handed a 17-month ban and fined.
In May 2021 Jeffers left Everton once more, this time to become a first team coach with Ipswich Town under Paul Cook. He was soon promoted to assistant manager but then left the club when Cook was sacked at the beginning of December. Once again a former team-mate came to his rescue when David Unsworth was appointed manager of National League side Oldham Athletic. In September 2022 Jeffers was appointed as a coach with the club announcing that they would be setting up a B team which he will be in charge of.
“I always knew Franny would be good as he was a natural. He was a local boy who could’ve become a real legend at the club.” – Kevin Campbell.
Could’ve probably sums up Francis Jeffers career. He could’ve been so much. Instead he messed up chance after chance after chance and always due to his own failings, while constantly looking to blame someone else. And that is the kind of person that is seen as the right choice to work as a coach for other players. It is little wonder English coaches are so rare when chances get handed to people like him, someone who has shown himself time and time again to be the wrong type of person to be involved with the game. Jobs for the boys, rather than giving it to the best candidate.
For the previous Champ Man Legends article on Tonton Zola Mokouko click HERE
Written by Tris Burke May 14 2023 12:02:20