What Ever happened to Arsenal’s ‘fox in the box’ Francis Jeffers?

The Everton academy product still ranks among Arsene Wenger’s worst signings.

Francis Jeffers playing for Arsenal.
Francis Jeffers for Arsenal The Everton prospect ranks as one of Wenger's worst signings. Image Arsenal.com

Everton has always been a hotbed for young football talent, with the late 90s and early 2000s proving a fruitful time for the blue half of Merseyside, though they didn’t always turn out quite like Wayne Rooney.

There was Danny Cadamarteri, a talented forward whose off-the-field problems saw him run out of second chances with the Toffees while Michael Branch also started brightly before fading at Goodison Park.

Then there was Francis Jeffers.

To label Jeffers a flop would be a touch unfair – his tally of 20 goals in 60 appearances for Everton was impressive considering his age – but certainly failed to live up to the hype that greeted his first appearance for the Toffees at Old Trafford at the age of just 16.

At his best alongside Kevin Campbell during the 1999/2000 season, Jeffers’s time with Everton was marred by a contract disputes with the club.

The youngster also endured a fractured relationship with manager Walter Smith, culminating in an incident where Jeffers handed in a transfer request only to be angrily told by the Scot to “get out of my office before I kill you”.

Frozen out at the start of the campaign, Jeffers eventually forced himself back into contention and, midway through the 2000/2001 campaign had impressed enough to earn the new contract he had so desperately wanted.

The only problem was that Jeffers didn’t want it anymore: he wanted out of Everton.

Sold to Arsenal for £8m the following summer, Jeffers arrived at Highbury with the tag of the “fox in the box” proving to be something of a millstone round his neck.

“Playing with world class players I’m definitely looking to improve,” he told the press on his arrival at the club – the only problem was, he didn’t get to play all that much.

It wasn’t so much that Jeffers underperformed for the Gunners in the years that followed, he just never really enjoyed the clear run of games in the first-team required to find some form.

Injury prone at Everton, the same problems continued at Arsenal while the form of Sylvain Wiltord and Thierry Henry further limited his game time.

A bit-part player in Arsenal’s Premier League success of 2002 and back-to-back FA Cup wins, his final appearance for the club would be another low point with Jeffers brought on in the 2003 Community Shield only to be sent off just minutes later.

Despite enduring a difficult time at Arsenal, Jeffers has only ever had good things to say about his manager at the time.

“Arsene Wenger gave me a fair crack of the whip… He tells you how it is, one of the only managers I played for who did,” Jeffers once told The Independent.

Loaned back to Everton, Jeffers failed to rediscover the form that had once made him hot property, scoring just once in 18 games.

The seasons that followed saw Jeffers complete a series of short and largely forgettable loan moves and permanent switches to Charlton, Rangers, Blackburn and Ipswich.

Jeffers began to indulge more in the nightlife and “was out, partying, living life – tossing it off in training because I always thought I wouldn’t play Saturday anyway”.

A return of four goals in nine games on loan at Ipswich suggested Jeffers had found a new home but he failed to agree a permanent move and instead headed to Sheffield Wednesday where more injury problems contributed to a return of just five goals in 54 games.

From there the clubs willing to take Jeffers became increasingly random: Newcastle Jets in Australia (twice), Motherwell, Floriana in Malta and Accrington Stanley.

At Floriana, he quit the club after just two appearances with the Twitter account @OfficialJeffers later tweeting out that it was “the worst league/club I’ve been involved with”.

Jeffers denied that the comments were his, pointing to another account called @FJ10official, but the damage was already done.

Worse was to come a few weeks later when Jeffers was arrested in December of 2012 for reportedly wielding a broom handle at his father-in-law Albert Boden, having just split from his wife Lucy.

Despite two goals in seven games for Stanley the following year, Jeffers was soon back on the hunt for a club at the start of the 2013 campaign, eventually suffering the ignominy of being rejected by Steve Kean – the ex-Blackburn boss who was in charge of Singapore side Brunei DPMM.

One final failed trial at Chester followed before Jeffers called time on a career that had promised much.

“I am not saying I threw it all away because I had a decent career,” Jeffers would later reflect.

“I fulfilled a lot of ambition but I always say it, I know how much ability I had. I’m not soft. I know how good a player I was. One England cap wasn’t enough.”

He can at least look back on an England career that saw him score on his one and only appearance for the senior side – a fine header in a 3-1 friendly defeat to Australia in 2003 – a game that also marked the debuts of Wayne Bridge and Wayne Rooney.

His return of 13 goals in 16 appearances for the England Under-21 side also remains a record he jointly holds with Alan Shearer.

Now working for the Everton academy on a voluntary basis, Jeffers has come full circle, teaching the next generation of Toffees talent not only how to play the game but, hopefully, to avoid making the same mistakes he did.

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