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With Everton trailing Manchester United by 2-0 on Boxing Day of 1997, Howard Kendall tried to summon a Christmas miracle by pulling an unknown 16-year-old striker from the bench for his Premier League debut. That prodigy was Francis Jeffers – hailed as Everton's biggest talent for a generation – and it promised to be the start of an illustrious career. Unfortunately, Christmas miracles don't always come off.
While Jeffers spent the following four years establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in British football, scoring 18 league goals in 49 games before he'd left his teens, his big money move to Arsenal proved to be the catalyst for one of the most infamous declines in English football's modern history.
In the summer of 2001, Arsene Wenger described Jeffers as “obsessed with scoring goals” and dropped £11 million on him. In the twelve years between signing for Arsenal and retiring from the game, Jeffers would score just 22 more times. The ‘fox in the box’ could never live up to the buzz; his talent was forgotten and he became a running joke, falling from Champions League nights in London to midweek mediocrity in Malta. His career has become a stark warning to young players prematurely christened by the media as English football's 'next big thing'.
We decided to find out what actually happened to Francis Jeffers. We spoke to fans, managers and teammates and found a story of bad luck, bad decisions and, ultimately, a talent that was tragically wasted.
"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
At Everton, Jeffers quickly established himself as one of England’s brightest hopes. He also quickly became the fans’ golden boy. Before he broke through he’d had a season ticket on the terraces, now he was living the fans’ dreams and playing for the club he’d always supported. That he was a local lad and his eagerness to, literally, fight for the cause only endeared him more. Jonny Hutchinson, an Everton fan who regularly came over from Belfast to watch them play, remembers those early years; “when I travelled over it was him I was excited to see, he offered us real hope in what had been a miserable time.”
His early talent was clear, but it was when Everton brought in Kevin Campbell that Jeffers really started to shine. Campbell’s career was revived after a brief spell in Turkey, and Jeffers was getting better every week. Between them, they formed a ruthlessly effective partnership, scoring more than fifty goals between them in the three years they spent together, and did their best to keep Everton in the Premier League. “The natural way Franny played helped my game immensely”, Campbell remembers of those years together, “it was a joy to play with him!” When Campbell signed for Everton, Jeffers was just “a baby really … yet his talent level, finishing ability and movement were excellent”. Everton had struck gold with the combination of young and old.
Nowadays, seeing Jeffers’ name alongside the rest of the Arsenal squad he joined looks ridiculous, but, at the time, Arsenal’s move for Jeffers made sense. Other big clubs were circling and he was only 20, so Arsenal’s £11 million wasn’t too bad. He joined an exciting team, packed with talent and technique. He was the missing piece, the fox in the box who would convert the chances created by the grace of Thierry Henry and Bergkamp. His big move came with a warning, though; Campbell recalls telling Jeffers “he needs to make sure he gets loaned back to Everton...he needs to learn his trade playing week in and week out.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jeffers found his playing time at Arsenal limited. Sylvain Wiltord and Henry had their positions in the Arsenal team locked down and no one, especially not Jeffers, could break in. Last year, Jeffers himself admitted, “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?'”
The new competition and quality Jeffers found at Arsenal was only one stumbling block he had to face. Jeffers had spent most of the 2000/01 season on the sidelines with ankle and shoulder injuries. Injuries would become an ever-present concern in Jeffers’ career.
If injury and Arsenal’s squad depth were out of his control, the third factor that stopped his Arsenal career before it ever really started was not. Since his early days at Everton, Jeffers’ attitude had been questioned. His apparent problems had reached a peak when he demanded a new contract and, upon Everton’s rejection, handed in a transfer request. Walter Smith, his manager at Everton, wasn’t happy and told Jeffers to “get out of my office before I kill you.” It was the same at Arsenal, with one Arsenal source, quoted in the Evening Standard in 2004, describing Jeffers as a “cocky upstart” and “not as good as he thinks he is.” For Jeffers, this was all part of a cause-and-effect problem, “I was out, partying, living life – tossing it off in training because I always thought I wouldn’t play Saturday anyway.”
Jeffers spent much of the next two seasons languishing on the bench. The great hope of British football scored just four league goals in two seasons, and Kevin Campbell’s words seemed prophetic.
"Jeffers fell into the lower league abyss and faded from memory faster than an X-Factor finalist."
After two years in London, Jeffers found a helping hand from Everton. By then, though, he was too far-gone. His years on the bench had set him back and the prodigal son’s return was a bitter disappointment. Once again, Jeffers’ attitude was questioned, and his second spell at his boyhood club ended in acrimony. After being overlooked by David Moyes during an injury crisis in April 2004, Jeffers decided to speak out, apparently telling Moyes he would never play for him again. Moyes probably didn’t lose too much sleep over the threat; Jeffers hadn’t scored in any of his 18 league games that season.
After spells at Charlton and Blackburn, Jeffers’ time in the Premier League was over. He fell into the lower league abyss and faded memory faster than an X-Factor finalist. There was an emergency loan to Ipswich and a couple of years at Sheffield Wednesday, where he scored just five times in 60 games. His time at Wednesday came to an abrupt end in 2009 after he was sent off for hitting an opponent. Jeffers was fined and transfer listed for the incident. He wouldn’t play again in England for three years.
After leaving Sheffield, he signed a short deal with Australia’s Newcastle Jets. Branko Culina, the man who brought Jeffers down under, needed convincing about the deal, “I didn’t feel that it was worth the risk, but Michael [Bridges, ex-Sunderland and Leeds] said “look you know if we can get him right it would be sensational” so we took the punt”. Bridges and Jeffers had come up at the same time, and Culina was an avid watcher of the Premier League, between them they knew what Jeffers was capable of.
The initial contract Jeffers signed was only for 10 games, but it was a familiar story. Jeffers struggled for fitness and form and his attitude, by now, seemed too far gone, “I found him to be easy going and probably didn’t seem to be overly concerned what happens to his career” remembers Culina, “sometimes players think they’ve just got to turn up on the pitch [in Australia] and it’ll be fine, but it’s not.”
"JEffers career will forever be contrasted with Wayne rooney, a fellow Evertonian who made his England debut on the same night as francis."
It's assessments about Jeffers' mental aptitude for elite-level football that prove the most telling. Is it those qualities that made him so different from Wayne Rooney, a player who has forged a reputation for playing with passion? Jeffers career will forever be contrasted with Rooney, a fellow Evertonian who actually made his England debut on the same night that Jeffers did against Australia in February 2003.
Ironically, Jeffers scored England's only goal of the game that night – and not Rooney.
Jeffers game had changed beyond all recognition by the time he arrived in Australia. According to Campbell, when they played together, Jeffers was a player who “liked to hunt space in behind defences and play on the defender’s shoulder.” While Culina was managing him, though, it couldn’t have been more different. “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.” Jeffers was a completely different player; the ‘fox in the box’ tag now seemed more redundant than ever.
When he was in Australia “what he was lacking in his game [was] the passion, the enjoyment, the fitness,” remembers Culina “but the talent was there.” That’s the way it always was with Jeffers. When he was 16, he was one of the most gifted players of his generation. By the time he was 30, he could look back on a decade and a half in which injuries and attitude had meant that he didn’t live up to his potential.
When Jeffers’ short contract expired, he moved on to Motherwell in Scotland before another, even more unsuccessful, spell back with the Jets in Australia. Next followed a couple of games with Floriana in Malta before he returned to the North West and signed a deal with Accrington Stanley. One last throw of the dice.
Just 12 years after signing for Arsenal, Jeffers found himself right at the bottom of English football. For all the early hype and talent, it had been an unceremonious fall from grace. There was a feeling, though, that he was still too good for Accrington. Luke Clark, who played with him there, remembers “he had the quality to be the best player in that league if he’d stayed fit”. It’s a sentiment shared by Culina, “the Championship certainly would’ve been okay … even the Premier League, I’m not sure about top teams but I certainly think mid-table down towards the bottom he was more than capable.”
In the end, it wasn’t to be, injuries meant his Accrington career was too stop-start and Jeffers was forced to retire after less than a season there. It was the same story that had plagued his career.
"His career has cast a shadow over young talent in this country for a generation, a reminder of how it can all go wrong and that potential will only take you so far."
Jeffers' fall was as unexpected and sudden as any in English football. His career has cast a shadow over young talent in this country for a generation, a reminder of how it can all go wrong and that potential will only take you so far.
Last summer, Raheem Sterling became football’s dominating story. Like Jeffers, he rejected multiple contract offers, bitched about his manager and, eventually, made a big money move to a bigger club. Manchester City’s decision to sign him has been questioned and scrutinised in a way that Arsenal’s move for Jeffers never was.
Like Jeffers, Harry Kane is a local lad who has won the heart of his fans and scored on his England debut. Throughout the season, naysayers and pessimists have jumped to make comparisons between the two players and warn of the pitfalls. The cases of Kane and Sterling prove the scepticism that hangs over young English footballers. Jeffers, and his history of injuries, attitude and false hope, has become proof of how wrong it can go.
Jeffers himself knows this. He’s gone full circle and is now coaching at Everton, where his work with the next generation will carry allows him to build on his mistakes. “I think I could connect with the kids telling them why they should do that and why they shouldn’t do other things,” Jeffers said last year, “I’m not guessing at why they shouldn’t be doing it. I’m saying it because I know.”