The enigma of Francis Jeffers

Still going, he is.  Here's Josh Clarke with an instalment of 'Franny Watch'.

Whatever happened to 'the fox in the box'?

Since being heralded as the England’s next natural goalscorer, the enigma that is Francis Jeffers has been forced underground like Roald Dahl's protagonist and left to feed off scraps like his urban counterparts.

Signing a 10-week 'guest player' contract with A-League side Newcastle Jets, Jeffers is exactly halfway through his stint, having yet to register. For a guy who is equal top goalscorer with Alan Shearer for the England u21's, how did so much early promise fall by the wayside?

The Everton youth system has been churning out ‘next-big-things’ long before the days of Wayne Rooney, Jack Rodwell and José Baxter. Danny Cadamarteri anyone? When a young Franny Jeffers burst onto the scene, making his debut aged only 16 at Old Trafford, comparisons with Gary Lineker, not just in the disconcerting angle of their ears, seemed justified. A quite reasonable return of twenty-odd goals in his first few seasons quite certainly seemed to suggest so.

His blossoming period in the familiar surroundings of Liverpool came to an abrupt halt when he learnt the hard way that you never argue with a Scotsman about money. A much-publicised row with Walter Smith led to the headstrong teenager being dropped from the team for half a season, presumably spending his time wistfully watching David Unsworth in training and dreaming of a brighter future.

A brighter future that seemed to be on the horizon when Jeffers was on the receiving end of an incredibly flattering £8m bid in 2001 from Arsene Wenger's sexy new Arsenal. Baring in mind that the season previous, the Gunners had signed Robert Pires for only £6m, Jeffers' fee was an indication of his burgeoning talent.

So, the 'fox in the box' was supposed to be the missing piece in the jigsaw, the instinctive predatory figurehead whose presence was necessary in order to turn the eloquence of Theirry Henry, Marc Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp into cold, hard goals. It never quite turned out this way. His time at Highbury was dogged by niggling injuries and Jeffers played a secondary role to the rather more exotic skills of Wenger's continental contingent. In fact, his signing, in tandem with the recruitment of Richard Wright for £5m, signaled a brief foray into the English transfer market, which Wenger has shown reluctance to replicate ever again.

Jeffers miserly return of four goals in his time with the Gunners was less than half that of what Gilles Grimandi achieved during his time at the club. However, misfiring performances in North London did little to stop the international progress of the under 21 maestro and the pinnacle of Jeffers' career came in the form the sole international cap he received in 2003. In a strange parallel to his current predicament, the second-half substitute got on the end of a Jermaine Jenas pull back to glance home a consolation goal in a dire 3-1 loss to Australia.

Sadly, Jeffers never featured again and subsequently his career spiraled out of recognition into the recesses of less-giddy heights.  A loan move back to his original stomping ground couldn't ignite the goalscoring flame and a falling out with another Scotsman, this time David Moyes, signaled another acrimonious exit from Goodison Park.

He still managed to command a £2.6m fee when Arsenal, looking to regain some of their initial outlay, plugged a transfer across London to Charlton. A four-year spell, which saw him go from Charlton to Rangers to Blackburn to Ipswich, yet netting, only seven times, saw Jeffers' stock drop dramatically. Still, Sheffield Wednesday saw no good reason not to splash out the princely sum of £700'000 to secure his services.

In fairness, in terms of minutes on the pitch, Wednesday were the club who actually got the most out of Jeffers, but a ratio of one goal in every ten outings never really struck fear into opposing defenders.  His time at Wedneday culminated in an ugly incident that saw Jeffers headbutt Port Vale player Tommy Fraser. Brian Laws saw fit to fine the player the maximum permissible amount and Jeffers never featured again until his contract expired last summer.

After spending a summer unimpressing Ian Holloway at Blackpool and once again failing to capture David Moyes imagination, Jeffers decided to prolong his summer and emigrate to sunnier climes.
In October he became the marquee signing for Newcastle Jets, landing a 10-match guest contract for the mediocre Australian A-League side. He was quick to make his mark, setting up young striker Marko Ješic with a delightful pass. The truth is though, that a forward will always be judged by how many times he hits the back of the net. And indeed Jeffers revealed to the club's website that the Aussies have been typically vocal in what they expect from England's forgotten man.

"I spoke to a lot of press this week and they all sort of said to me `you're the man to get the goals’. and it was all goals, goals goals," Jeffers said. "But I'm not just about goals; I can play a bit as well."

It doesn't take a psychologist the standard of Jose Mourinho to note that saying the word 'goals' five times in 20 seconds goes a long way to showing exactly what is on that particular person's mind. He has started five games out of five, so evidently 'can play'. Once again, it seems as if the weight of expectation sits very heavily on Jeffers' shoulders. Unless he can get a decent return in his next five games, Newcastle Jets can be added to a plentiful list of clubs where the bar has, perhaps, been set just a little too high.

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