Francis Jeffers: The fox in the box

16 years ago when Arsene Wenger signed a young English striker for £8 million many people thought that the 20 year old would go on to be one of the countries great strikers. Names such as Lineker and Shearer had become household names thanks to both their predatory instinct and superb finishing ability and Francis Jeffers showed signs that he held that very same goalscoring talent. What actually happened was very different and the career of Jeffers slowly went pear shaped as soon as he left Everton in search of a brighter future. Where did it all go wrong? How did a player so highly rated slowly slip into footballing obscurity?

During the late 1990's, Everton had a knack of producing young English strikers that promised much but failed to deliver. Phil Jevons was part of the first team squad at age 17 but after just eight appearances in five years, he was moved on to Grimsby Town. Jevons actually proceeded to have quite the commendable career in the lower leagues of English football and was rather prolific for various clubs. Danny Cadamarteri became an instant hero for Everton when he scored in a Merseyside derby but he was in and out of the team throughout his time with the Toffees. Whilst Jeffers was moving to Arsenal, Cadamarteri was in court on assault charges, spelling an end to his time at Goodison Park. To say he wasn't a goalscorer during his subsequent career would be an understatement.


Then there was Jeffers. He was different and before Wayne Rooney burst onto the scene it looked as though Everton had already figured out how to produce top English talent. To date, he is the joint leading goalscorer for the England under 21 national team with 13 goals in 16 caps, a testament to just how good he was as a youngster. That record is currently shared with Alan Shearer and the England faithful would have been forgiven for getting excited about the emergence of Jeffers, which was taking place at the same time as a certain Michael Owen. In Jeffers and Owen it seemed that England had two ready made replacements for the ageing duo of Shearer and Sheringham but only one of them would fill that potential.


Whereas Owen stayed with his boyhood club during his younger years, Jeffers had his head turned when Arsenal showed interest. His form for Everton and the England under 21s had seen him become known as the “fox in the box” and he was certainly seen as hot property. After making his debut aged 16 for Everton, he went on to score 18 goals in 49 Premier League appearances. Not a bad return for someone so young and someone who fell out with then manager, Walter Smith, over his salary. Clearly cracks were beginning to show as he was booed by his own supporters when he rejected the offer of a new contract. Arsenal swooped in and got their man.

With his encouraging performances in recent years and the rather hefty price tag, the Arsenal fans rightly expected great things but unfortunately for all parties involved it just did not go to plan. Jeffers had joined arguably the best team in the country at that time, it was an Arsenal squad consisting of great names such as Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole. Competing for a starting place is hard enough when the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, Kanu and Wiltord are all at your club but when you are marred by injury too then the task becomes almost impossible. Arsenal won the League and Cup double in Jeffers' first season with the club but he only made six appearances in the league, scoring two goals.


His second season in North London saw him feature a little more with 16 appearances in the Premier League (14 as a substitute) but with a return of just two goals, it was clear that he was a long way behind the talents of Henry and co. That second season would prove to be his last in an Arsenal shirt as he spent most of the 2003/04 season on loan with Everton in what was a barren second spell on Merseyside. Yet another fall out with a manager, this time David Moyes, resulted in his loan being terminated early.

The career of Jeffers deteriorated further and further as time went by. The striker played for a total of 11 clubs in his career including spells with Newcastle Jets of Australia and Floriana of Malta. He struggled to hold down a regular place with most of the clubs he played for throughout his career and was blighted by injury whenever it looked like a decent comeback may be on the cards. A player that it seemed may become a top English player had transformed into a journeyman striker that struggled to score goals.


The career statistics of Jeffers make for rather sorry reading. A total of 235 league appearances at various levels of the game saw a return of just 40 goals and half of those goals came before his 21st birthday. Hardly the “fox in the box” he was once known as. There was one aspect of his career however where he never disappointed and that was whenever the three lions were on his chest. As well as holding a goalscoring record at under 21 level, Jeffers also scored in every single game he played for the England senior team. I write that a little tongue in cheek as he was only capped once, against Australia in 2003 where he made his debut on the same night as a certain Wayne Rooney. Jeffers would retire with one cap and one goal for his country.


Arsenal paid £8 million for just 39 appearances and eight goals in all competitions for the man who is seen as one of the modern day flops of English football but just how much blame can be placed at the door of Jeffers? Injuries are cruel and Arsenal fans know better than anyone that players can get serious injuries that setback their careers but perhaps there is more than meets the eye in his apparent inability to get along with managers. The early career bust ups with Walter Smith and David Moyes were followed by an incident in 2009 when he was sent off, whilst playing for Sheffield Wednesday, for headbutting an opposing player. He was fined the maximum amount allowed and transfer listed immediately by manager Brian Laws who was disgusted by the incident.


This was not a one off occurrence and the Arsenal fans amongst you may remember his last appearance for the club in the 2003 Community Shield tie against Manchester United. He was sent off for kicking out at Phil Neville, an angry reaction to a clash in what is a physical game. Arsene Wenger did not defend the striker and said that he fully deserved his red card. Maybe Jeffers never learned from his mistakes?


The debate about players getting too much too soon was as relevant then as it is today and there is definitely substance to that argument in this case. So often I feel that it can be a cop out to say that players are paid too much and that is why they no longer put the effort in but Jeffers fell out with Everton over salary at such a young age when it should have been his development on his mind, not his pay cheque. The John Bostock feature I wrote last year shows that when things do not go your way initially, it can still be turned around and that with the right character you can get back up from any knock down. Jeffers never seemed to get back up. He was unhappy to only be playing League Cup games and have cameo league appearances for Arsenal rather than understanding that he was plagued by injury and that Henry was the better player. If it was all about playing football then he should have stayed at Everton but perhaps the problem with Jeffers wasn't that he had too much too soon but that he wanted too much too soon. Whereas Bostock was made to run before he could walk and recognised that fact, it seems that Jeffers wanted, and believed he could, run, when he had only just learned to walk.