“Accrington? It’s as special as Valencia”

Evening Standard

Few footballers have had such a dramatic change in fortunes as Francis Jeffers. Tonight, he will turn out for Accrington Stanley against AFC Wimbledon exactly 10 years to the day since he played for Arsenal against Valencia in the Champions League.

The two stages could not be more different. Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium seats 55,000 and is the fifth largest in Spain. Accrington’s Crown Ground holds 5,000 and gates this season are averaging 1,500. The club, propping up the Football League, have no training base so players change at the ground and then practise at a nearby school or college. But, unlike that night at Valencia when he came on as a substitute, Jeffers will definitely start tonight’s match.

And, for all the change in his fortunes, the 32-year-old sounds genuinely cheerful as he tells me: “That evening was a special moment and I remember it fondly but I do not see being at Accrington as coming down. You never know where you will turn up in football. You have to deal with the cards dealt. You keep going to the death.

“Lots of people say I never had the best of careers. But if, at the age of seven when I was playing in the streets of Liverpool, the only place you could play football, you would have said you will play for Everton, Arsenal and England, I would have definitely taken that. I have played in some big games, in some magnificent stadiums.

“Now I am playing in League Two at Accrington. It is a good atmosphere and I will be giving it my all and enjoying it as much as I did when I was playing at Goodison or Highbury. When you come into football as a young lad you come into it because you love it.”

Jeffers admits this love came under severe strain in recent months after his experiences in Malta with Floriana, his 10th club in 15 years. “I was not getting paid. I decided I couldn’t be away for my family. Putting up with what was happening wasn’t acceptable and, after two games, I walked away without any money. It was difficult.”

Indeed, the return to Liverpool was so difficult Jeffers ended up in court. Last December, police found him brandishing a broomstick and, earlier this month, a court heard the victim was Jeffers’ father-in-law who had been found by police with “some injuries”. Jeffers’s marriage had broken up and, charged with threatening behaviour, he was bound over for 12 months.

Jeffers, though, is keen to talk about the difficulties of finding a club. “I could not join anyone until January [because of the transfer window]. I went five or six months without playing and had to keep myself in shape by boxing and going down to the beach.”

He could only leave the beach because he knew the Accrington manager, Leam Richardson, was looking for a striker. “He asked me whether I would be interested in getting the boots on,” says Jeffers, who joined last week. And, while what Arsene Wenger wanted from Jeffers was very different to Richardson’s demands, Jeffers is eager to prove modern footballers have a feel for the romance of the game.

“Just like that night at Valencia, tonight will be special. Accrington Stanley and Wimbledon both have similar histories. At Wimbledon, the fans fought pretty hard to get where they are, a magnificent achievement to come up so quickly from scratch. Accrington have come from nowhere. The old advert went: ‘Accrington Stanley, who are they?’ They have passionate fans. Without them the club would not be around. This is one game we need to win.”

The necessity to win gives this match some resemblance to events of a decade ago. Then, Wenger brought Jeffers on with 15 minutes to go in a futile attempt to qualify for the quarter-finals of Europe’s top club competition. Now Accrington need a win to start what Jeffers hopes will be “a bit of a run so we can put a bit of distance between us and the bottom two”.

It’s so tight in League Two that the bottom five teams are on 40 points each and on Saturday Accrington beat one of those sides — Edgar Davids’s Barnet 3-2 — with Jeffers earning the penalty that led to the third goal. But, despite all this optimism, when pressed, Jeffers admits a career which started with such promise at Everton back in 1997 and saw him score for England in his one and only international, against Australia in 2003, has not gone to plan. “I’ve underachieved massively. I should have had a better career. But a footballer needs luck and lot of things to go their way.”

Things seemed to be going Jeffers’s way when in the summer of 2001 he left Everton for Arsenal, becoming a rare English signing for Wenger, who said he hoped his £8million striker would be “the fox in the box”. For Jeffers it meant a break from the team he loved.

“I had a season ticket for 12 years at the Gwladys Street Stand. I could not believe I was playing for Everton and I thought I would play there all my life. But Arsenal were chasing me and Everton needed money coming in.”

However, the striker had come to Highbury recovering from an injury and soon discovered how things can go wrong in football. “I had got a bad ankle injury at Everton and got it operated on before I went to Arsenal that summer. It was never quite right. I needed another ankle operation after my first season and was struggling to get into the team.

“With the players there — [Dennis] Bergkamp, [Thierry] Henry, [Sylvain] Wiltord, Kanu — it was difficult to get a run in the team. I was just a young lad and the players at Arsenal were a lot bigger stars than at Everton. I was No9 and getting changed next to Berkgamp, No10, Freddie Ljungberg was the other side, Patrick Vieira not too far away.”

In two seasons, he played only 22 games and, while part of the squad who won the Double, he was gone before the Invincibles of 2004, having returned to Everton on loan. Yet it is the memory of working with Wenger that he cherishes. “I’ve played with some good managers. Walter Smith, David Moyes [both Everton], Mark Hughes [Blackburn] but, to this day, Arsene Wenger is by far the best manager I’ve played for.

“Arsene and Walter had totally different styles. Walter was a bit more of a shouter and talker. Arsene was very hands on. He liked to see every training session but he was pretty quiet. He very rarely raised his voice. He did not need too much shouting. He set his team up the right way and we never lost that many games. He had a lot more world-class players. His job was made easier.”

Wenger’s job has since become a lot more difficult with no trophy for eight years but Jeffers is certain his former boss has not lost his touch. “He is still doing a magnificent job. When I went to Arsenal, there were World Cup winners and a lot of experience: David Seaman, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown were regulars and they were 30 plus. It is a totally different side now, a lot more youth.”

And, just as he cannot see Arsenal without Wenger, he cannot see life without football, “I will carry on unless no one else wants me. I am only 32. There is loads left in the tank.”

AFC Wimbledon are about to discover how much.

On his travels



(Games 49/goals 18)






































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