“It still hasn’t sunk in,” says Simon Francis, shaking his head and smiling. Sat in a country pub in Nottinghamshire, close to his family home, Bournemouth’s right back is tanned and relaxed, just returned from an all expenses paid trip to Las Vegas, courtesy of owner Maxim Denim.
“I think until the first day back or the day that the fixtures come out and I look at the teams I am going to be facing, it won’t sink in. The games around Christmas too. It’s going to be surreal, and certainly different to anything I’m used to playing against. But it’s the step up that you want to be involved in.”
‘Simon Francis, Premier League footballer’ is a phrase that the man himself admits will take some getting used to. Now 29, Francis was released by Notts County at the age of 16, and was halfway through a college course when he was invited for a trial with Bradford City. Six months later he was playing in the Championship, but it has taken a further decade for Francis to finally reach the top flight.
Francis has been Bournemouth’s Mr Consistent for the last three years, but stepped up his level a further notch this season. He has missed just eight league games from the last 138. No defender created more chances or made more assists in the Championship this season. Only one made more tackles and only three players completed more passes in the division. Francis was honoured at the PFA awards dinner last month.
“I didn’t know any of those statistics!” he says. “Getting in the Team of the Year is the important one, because it’s voted for by all the players that you played against. It shows that you are doing something right. I honestly thought more than just Matt Ritchie and I would get in that team. Everyone has been excellent.”
Francis’ is a career reborn after arriving on the south coast from Charlton Athletic in 2011. He stalled at Sheffield United after joining from Bradford, something the defender admits was at least partly down to him enjoying the footballer’s lifestyle a little too much. An extended spell at Southend United in League One led to Charlton’s purchase, but Francis’ career had meandered at the Valley. There is no doubt as to who he believes is responsible for his improvement.
“Eddie [Howe] has improved me as a player,” he says. “He’s improved everyone really. I just feel so comfortable on the pitch and off the pitch too. Being settled off the pitch makes a massive difference.”
So what exactly has Howe changed about Francis’ game?
“Everything! He does a lot of mental work as well as physical. We work not just on the training pitch but watching videos of different matches, different formations and how we can each improve.”
“He brought things into my game that I have never worked on before. As an example, I watch a lot of videos of other right-backs, the specific runs they make. We look at how they perform, the type of runs they make when the winger has the ball. The likes of Pablo Zabaleta, Seamus Coleman. It sounds a little bit cringey now that I’ll be playing against them, but those were the players that I was looking up to. He just adds things to my game that nobody else has.”
The admiration Francis has for Howe is obvious. He smiles every time his manager’s name is mentioned, and he’s happy to discuss the incredible team spirit Bournemouth’s squad shares.
Howe has become the new cause célèbre of English football. He appeared alongside Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, and has been labelled as the new ‘Special One’ by certain sections of the media.
Despite the obvious pressure that comes with such a tag, Francis has no doubt that Howe will go right to the top.
“He is young, but he is honestly unbelievable,” he says. “I have never known anything like the training sessions he puts on, and the hard work he puts into every single session. You go out and everything is marked out. We’ve got an exact allotted time on every single session and every drill. Since the first day he came in I think he has improved as well. He’s got better every single season and even every week. He’s so driven, passionate and obsessed.
“From the first moment he came in we went on a run of 13-14 good results. From then on we knew he would do something special. It really is down to him. We’ve got the players and the ability, but he’s got us playing a certain way and credit to him for that.”
Some players may be wary of revealing their manager’s methods, but Francis is proud to share some of Howe’s strategies. He may be talking about Bournemouth, but there are namechecks for the likes of Barcelona and Bayern. Lofty company indeed.
“We work a lot on training on the stuff that Guardiola does, what he did at Barcelona and does at Bayern. Obviously we’re nowhere near what they are doing, but Eddie likes to look at them and how they are playing positionally. We have to prepare for every eventuality. He’s the next level with this kind of thing, honestly. We do some sessions in training where we get split into two XIs. One team will go into one changing room and one into the other. One team is Barcelona and one team is Bayern Munich. We pretend it’s the second leg of a Champions league game and one team is 2-1 down and with ten men, so they have to go for it. We’ll go out onto the pitch and we’ll play the last 15 minutes out with two different styles of play.
“I remember when he first started, we were thinking that we’d hopefully have a bit of five-a-side or something a bit fun. We went out and everything was marked out and on a set time. We all thought it was a bit intense, but the more you get on the more you get used to it, and you up your game. As soon as you get used to it you want to work harder and harder. He just brings out the best in everyone. I’ve seen the players improve so much since League One, myself included.”
With such effusive praise for his manager, it is impossible to ignore the elephant in the room. Howe has already been linked with West Ham, Newcastle and Sunderland, and the job offers are only likely to increase should Bournemouth quickly adapt to life in the Premier League. Francis is realistic, but hopeful.
“I’d like to think he is looking to stay,” he says. “If a massive club comes in for him it would be hard for him to turn it down because ultimately he will want to manage as high as he can, but at the moment I think he is happy and wants to give it a go with Bournemouth in the Premier League.
“Every time a managerial job comes up in the Premier League we all think ‘Oh no, he’s going to get linked with it’, but he’s stayed with us and showed faith in us. We’ve produced for him and repaid that, especially last season. Without a doubt he will give us a go in the Premier League. He’s a legend in Bournemouth. He can do no wrong. There is no way he could ever be unsuccessful at Bournemouth.”
But while Francis is understandably in high spirits, are there any doubts? Having never played before in the top flight, is Francis worries about not being good enough? Will his place in the Championship Team of the Year protect him from being replaced?
“I’m trying not to think about it until pre-season or the fixtures come out and I find out I’m marking Eden Hazard!” he jokes. “I think in League One I would never have said I’m looking forward to playing in the Premier League, because at the time you don’t look that far ahead. But as it gets closer and closer, you get confidence from it. You believe that you can play higher and you want to play higher. I’ll be working harder than anyone to get in that team and excel at that level.
“Eddie will have to look to bring in some top players because we are in a league where we will need them, but I think he will look to bring the right type of player and character to fit in with the squad. Everyone who has come in has gelled with what we’ve got. We’ve got an unbelievable team spirit. We’re always going out for coffees and for dinners with our partners. I think manager will stick with that.”
It is clear that the club resent the ‘little old Bournemouth’ tag that they feel may hang around their necks in the Premier League. This is not a club merely aiming for survival. So what are the club’s aims?
“Swansea are really the perfect model for us to emulate,” Francis says. “We’re not going to try and copy them completely, but it’s just the similar style of play we have. We try to play from the back, which can look risky, but it’s the only way we know now.”
“I think that we will be okay in the Premier League, because we will stay with that plan, we won’t veer away from it. We’re not going to go direct and we’re not going to go long ball. Swansea were able to stay up and get a mid-table finish. I’m going to sit here and say that’s what we’re going to do, because they brought in some excellent players and coped with it really well. But that’s the mould you want to look at.
“There is no way with the manager we’ve got, with the drive and passion that he has, that at the start of the season we will say ‘right, let’s just stay up’,” Francis insists. “Without being arrogant, we think that we’re better than that. We want to try and be successful. People will always look at little old Bournemouth, but we want to prove them wrong.”
Francis had the chance join Derby County last summer. With his family in Nottingham, it was a move that the defender admits would have been difficult to reject, but Bournemouth turned down two bids from Steve McClaren’s side.
“I had a long chat with the manager, but I already knew how good Bournemouth could be,” Francis says. “Eddie told me that we will be challenging for the top two, at worst top six. It made me feel that I wanted to be part of this. It would have been closer to family and friends in Derby, but this felt like the right decision.
“I went into the meeting thinking that I wasn’t sure of what I wanted to do,” admits Francis. “I walked out of it knowing. That’s how good Eddie Howe is. He made me believe.”
There is a whole town who share that final sentiment. Maxim Demin’s money made the impossible possible, but it is Eddie Howe who turned the Bournemouth dream into reality. His right-back joins a long queue of those ready to thank the manager for this shot at the Promised Land.
You can follow Daniel Storey on Twitter (@danielstorey85)
Is Simon Francis right? Have Bournemouth got a chance in the Premier League? Or will they be ripped asunder by the superstar-laden behemoths of the top flight? Write to us: [email protected]