Francis Jeffers: What Happened to the “Fox in the Box”

Francis Jeffers’ career promised so much in its infancy but ultimately failed to reach the heights of its early potential. Jeffers’ career saw him play for the likes of Everton, Arsenal, Charlton Athletic and Blackburn Rovers but ended with spells in the Championship, as well as clubs in Scotland, Australia and Malta before eventually retiring after a seven-game spell at Accrington Stanley in 2013.

Jeffers will be most fondly remembered for the way he burst onto the football scene with a flurry of promising performances as a youngster at Everton, making his debut at the age of just 16, coming on as a half time substitute at Old Trafford in 1997.  ​

The Scouser established himself as a key member of Everton’s squad and registered six goals in 28 appearances for the Toffees in his breakthrough season. He followed that up with a bright start in the next season, before suffering problems with multiple ankle and shoulder injuries which ruled him out for long periods, however when Jeffers did play, he demonstrated his goal scoring instinct and had the best goals to game ratio in Everton’s squad that season, which saw him be labelled as “the fox in the box” by pundits and supporters. That prompted rumours of interest from some of the Premier League’s biggest clubs, which saw Everton offer him a new and improved deal to secure his future towards the end of the campaign. ​

However, after some deliberation, Jeffers elected not to sign a new deal and Arsene Wenger convinced him to move to the Gunners in the summer of 2001. Arsenal paid an initial fee of £8 million, with the potential of a further £2 million based on appearances. Much was expected from Jeffers in North London upon his arrival with the prospect of him linking up with the likes of Thierry Henry and Denis Bergkamp. However, he was ravaged by injuries during his time at Arsenal and failed to build any momentum and consistency, which limited him to just 22 appearances in three years between 2001 and 2004. When Jeffers did play, he failed to live up to the potential he displayed at Everton, scoring just four goals in all competitions. Even during a loan spell back at Everton for the 2003-04 season, he failed to regain his form, as he scored just twice both of which came in the FA Cup against Fulham, before falling out with manager David Moyes and seeing his loan spell cut short. ​

During his time at Highbury Jeffers earnt his first and last England cap in a shock friendly defeat to Australia at Upton Park. He had impressed in his 16 games for the England u21’s scoring 13 goals in just 16 games between 1999 and 2003, a record matched only by Alan Shearer, which prompted Sven Goran Eriksson to call him up to the senior England squad. Despite the disappointing defeat on the night, Jeffers capped his night with a well taken headed goal for England’s consolation goal, injuries and a loss of form in the following years meant he was never able to add his solitary goal for the Three Lions.

In the summer of 2004, he moved to Charlton Athletic for £2.6 million on a two-year deal, scoring five goals in 24 appearances in the 2004-05 season but once again injuries affected his form. Ahead of the start to the 2005-06 season Rangers signed Jeffers on loan for six months, but saw his spell at Ibrox end prematurely in December after performances had failed to live up to expectation. He returned to the Valley but was frozen out of the side and released at the end of the campaign. ​

A move to Blackburn Rovers in 2006 provided Jeffers with a Premier League lifeline, but his first team chances were limited due to the form of Blackburn’s other forwards Benni McCarthy and Shabani Nonda, although he did register a goal against Basel in the UEFA Cup. Jeffers joined Championship side Ipswich Town on loan in March 2007 scoring on his debut against Hull City and winning the Man of The Match Award. He suffered a hamstring injury against Southend United but recovered well and spent the remainder of the season at Portman Road where he scored four goals in his nine appearances. ​

Ipswich tried to sign him in the summer but after eventually succeeding with a third bid, they failed to agree personal terms. Sheffield Wednesday stepped in to secure his signature on a three-year deal, and it was at Hillsborough where he made the most club appearances in his career, with 54 in three years scoring five goals in those appearances. His time at Wednesday ended after he was released, after various injury problems and Sheffield Wednesday’s relegation to League 1 in 2010. In the following three years before his retirement, Jeffers had two spells with Newcastle Jets, as well as short spells with Motherwell, Floriana and Accrington Stanley.

He eventually retired in 2013 having amassed just 234 appearances in his 14-year career and scoring 40 goals. Injuries deprived English football the opportunity to witness Jeffers full potential, which appeared to be vast in his formative years when he burst onto the scene at Everton and with his performances for the England U21’s. He was never able to live up to “the fox in the box” nickname that he had been given in his early years but will still be remembered for that early promise.

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