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Former Arsenal and England striker Francis Jeffers makes unlikely return to English football
Francis 'Fox in the box' Jeffers – bursting onto the scene some fifteen years ago, he quickly became one of the brightest prospects and hottest properties in English football. While a serious of niggling injuries and unsuccessful transfers saw the striker seemingly turn his back on the English game, but he’s now returned in unlikely circumstances, with League Two side Accrington Stanley.
Jeffers will now find himself turning out at Accrington’s Crown Ground, which holds just over five-thousand spectators. This will be a world away from the backdrop in which Jeffers began his professional career; Old Trafford, Boxing Day 1997. It was one of Everton's toughest fixtures of the season and the first chance to shine for a frail looking, relatively unknown striker plucked from the club's youth ranks. Brought on as a half-time substitute to make his league debut in a fixture of this magnitude, these circumstances were always like to cause a feeling of anticipation and expectancy from Everton fans and the wider football community.
The following seasons saw Jeffers become a regular for Everton, showing more glimpses of promise and undoubted potential. Becoming aware of his value to the club, Jeffers began making noises about wanting a better contract. This, perhaps understandably led to a dispute between the player and his then manager Walter Smith, who initially froze the striker out of the squad at the beginning of the 1999-200 campaign. Jeffers and Smith did seemingly manage to bury at the hatchet, as he returned to the Everton team to form a formidable partnership with fellow striker Kevin Campbell. He continued this impressive form into the next season, before multiple ankle and shoulder injuries put his season on hold, injuries that would persistently blight the striker throughout the season and in later years.
Jeffers caught the eye of numerous managers, none more so than Arsenal's Arsene Wenger. Who, so convinced by Jeffers’ ability saw fit to pay out a then club record fee of £8million for the want-away striker. The faith Jeffers' new manager had in him was unquestionable, but his first-team opportunities at Arsenal would be limited by recurring injuries and the prominence of Arsenal's French duo Thierry Henry and Sylvan Wiltord.
In his three years with the Gunners he managed just four goals from the twenty-two games he featured, coming off the bench for most of his appearances and the ubiquitous opinion being that he was a flop. His last Arsenal appearance saw him being sent off in the 2003 Community Shield against Manchester United for a stamp on Phil Neville. It could be suggested that this one act of violence was indicative of the frustration he suffered during his spell with Arsenal.
There were however some positives for Jeffers during the years he was with Arsenal, such as scoring his first England goal on his first (and last) England appearance in February 2003.
In an attempt to recapture his previous form, Jeffers was sent back to the place where it all began; Everton. Despite this, he was unable to recover his knack of scoring goals, failing to score in the league in twenty-two Everton appearances. Before yet another managerial fall-out, this time with David Moyes - saw his loan cut short as he returned to Arsenal in December.
Hoping to put his disastrous time with Arsenal behind him, he joined Charlton Athletic for just over £2.5million in the summer of 2004. The striker looked set to be given what he had desired at Arsenal; game time, but after failing to make an impact he appeared in just half of Charlton's games that season and managing three goals. The next season saw Jeffers again being shipped out on loan, this time joining SPL side Rangers. Where it was expected that he'd be able to flourish against the lower standard of opposition facing him in Scotland, but just as on his fleeting return to Everton - he failed to score during the loan spell. Returning to his parent club Charlton at the end of that season, Jeffers was told that his contract wouldn't be renewed. To the surprise of some, he did however manage to find himself another Premier League club, joining Blackburn Rovers.
Jeffers' deterioration in ability, form, and perhaps most importantly; confidence - was there for all to see. He failed to get off the mark for Rovers after ten games and was sent out on loan to Championship side Ipswich, scoring a goal on his debut and claiming the man of the match award. He finally seemed be showing glimpses of the competent, confident striker he once was. This was short-lived however, although going on to score four goals in nine games, a hamstring injury cut short the spell and he was forced to return to Blackburn.
A turbulent spell with Sheffield Wednesday was followed by unsuccessful trials with Everton and Blackpool, both declining to offer the striker a contract. And so Jeffers left England to join Australian side Newcastle Jets on a short-term contract, perhaps in an attempt to flee the intense scrutiny of the British press and fans, which had once had such high expectations for the striker.
After making a positive impact in the Australian league, he opted to return to the British game. Joining SPL side Motherwell in the 2010-11 season. He suffered indifferent form and left at the end of the season, re-joining Newcastle Jets on a one-year deal. The striker failed to repeat the form shown his first stint with the Australian side, who decided not to offer Jeffers a new deal. Once again, he found himself ditched by a club and in search of a new challenge.
Many different theories are held with regard to Jeffers' career, would it have all gone to plan had he stayed with Everton? Or was he thrown into the first team too soon, placing too much weight on his shoulders? Taking into consideration his debilitating record of injuries throughout his career; it's tough to see how he would ever have fulfilled his full potential. Although had he stayed With Everton, then perhaps he could have became part of the framework there, carving out a respectable, if not unremarkable career such as Tony Hibbert or Leon Osman have done; seeming to avoid personal accolades but yet very much integral to the team. But a young, ambitious Jeffers perhaps peaked too early. Favouring the glitz of a big-money move just as his fellow former-Evertonian Wayne Rooney did. One would imagine that when Jeffers participates in an archetypal drizzly, mid-week fixture for his new club (one of the poorest supported teams in the Football League) he will be left to wonder what could have been if had his time over again.
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