There are only small consolations left for Francis Jeffers, footnotes in a career that has mostly been a slow dwindling of hope. He knows the story well enough, so that after signing for Motherwell in the final hours of the January transfer window, he addressed again the nature of his time in the game: Everton, Arsenal, England, then the fretfulness of waning opportunities.
He talks of holding on to his enjoyment of the game, the simple pleasures of training, playing, interacting with his team-mates. Jeffers knows that he cannot leave behind the £8m transfer fee that Arsène Wenger paid, or the description that the Frenchman coined of him being a "fox in the box". They have to be endured, along with the sense that he has lost something – promise, certainly, and maybe the intrigue of a talent that seemed sharp and refined – but not abandoned his faith.
His career is reduced now to seeking meaning, or even comfort, from every training session and match, as though the idea of any higher purpose has been discarded. Jeffers spent the final two months of last year in Australia playing as a guest for Newcastle Jets, and there were offers from the Major League Soccer in the United States, but the chance to move to Scotland seemed like a way to deny the further diminishment of his career.
"When you go to America, they are not as passionate, are they?" Jeffers says. "Here, the fans turn out, they want to see the team play well and give it their all. I'm not the type of lad who would want to go somewhere to wind down. I've had injuries, so I'm not going to go anywhere and think, 'I'm here on my pension'. That's not what I'm about."
So how do we judge him? In the decline of his transfer fees, from £8m to £2.6m to £700,000 to nothing? Or in his goals: 20 in 60 games for Everton, then only 25 since he left Goodison in 2001? Or in comparison with Wayne Rooney: they both went to the same school, De La Salle in Croxteth, both made their Everton debuts at 16, and both made their senior England debut in the same game, against Australia in 2003, but then that was Jeffers' solitary cap (and goal), while Rooney's move to Manchester United only confirmed the brilliant range of his talent, and he now has 69 England appearances to his name.
The Jeffers who is sitting in a hospitality lounge at Fir Park seems removed from these distinctions. His thin, pallid face seems on the verge of melancholy but his narrow eyes are keen and restless and there is a defiance to his slim frame. He is unburdened, and this chance in the Scottish Premier League, where he once spent a futile spell on loan at Rangers, came as a late reprieve. His career will remain a source of regret, but also something that he has come to terms with.
"I've had some good times, playing for England and all that, but the thing that keeps creeping up is that I was not as successful as I should have been," he says. "People say I should've stayed [at Everton] but would my career have been different? I'd just had an ankle operation so I didn't play too many games in my first year with Arsenal. I struggled to get my head round playing in Carling Cup ties and making the odd appearance from the bench. It was difficult to take when you're young and want to impress."
Injuries have curtailed so much of Jeffers' career – particularly recurring ankle problems – that he should be aggrieved by his misfortunes. But then there have been times when his impatience has caused rifts with managers, while his spell at Sheffield Wednesday was disrupted by a red card for headbutting an opponent.
At 30, he is not a troubled figure, just accepting. He has brought some insightful movement and technique to Motherwell's forward line and has already scored once for the club, but it remains a temporary arrangement until the end of the season. It is as if teams are uncertain about the trust they can place in Jeffers, or at least the reliability of his fitness. There have been moments, too, when he has known that doubt himself.
"I've got to be honest, I didn't think I would get back from my last injury, because I missed out on a year's football," he says. "I went to five or six different surgeons who said they couldn't find the problem. In the end, it was only a simple little operation that I needed, and that makes you [savour playing]."
He is resourceful, Jeffers, and an earnest, generous soul. He has accumulated dismay, but also a sense of realism; he has come to an understanding that you take whatever you encounter, and try to hold on to your own spirit. "All of my family go to work every day. I turn up, do a bit of training then go home," he says. "I'm very blessed in that respect, and that's what I have to look at."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies