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Stretched to the Limit | Simon Francis

Simon Francis

Bournemouth captain Simon Francis has plenty on his mind. With nine games left of his club’s Premier League survival scrap, the world went into lockdown. At 35 years old and time ticking on his contract, Simon spoke to us the day before training resumed. That week, the club’s Covid-19 tests were expected to all come back negative. They didn’t. Some days later we spoke again and Simon lifted the lid on how he kept himself prepared for an intense season finale in the shadow of coronavirus

What were your first impressions coming back to training after lockdown?

It was surreal. It’s not what we’re used to as players – the routine of getting in and having banter with the lads. It’s almost like that’s been taken away from us. I have to say, safety is the most important thing and they club have been spot on. The lads have followed every step of the guidelines – they’re just glad to be back playing.

Is it a problem for squad togetherness, dashing straight home after training?

That’s a slight concern of mine. Going into games you need that team spirit, that camaraderie built up during the week or over the season. For that to be not 100% taken away, but limited – we still have to social distance when we’re not in training – it isn’t ideal for training or recovery. You have to be in the car 15 minutes after the session and you’d normally get lads spending an hour or two after training looking after their bodies. It’s something we have to acclimatise to.

You’ve been out with an ACL before, how did lockdown compare with an injury lay off?

The time off with my injury has prepared me for this situation. I feel fortunate that I have a family at home. Having spoken to a lot of the younger players and single players, they found it hard not being able to mix with friends or to even see their family. I’m old enough to look at things outside football, to manage my days a bit better and try  to keep on top of my fitness. It’s been hard, don’t get me wrong, but I’m sure a lot of lads have found it more difficult.

How did you keep fit?

I did some of the club programmes and my own thing. At my age and experience you know what is best for your body. Coming off the back of the ACL injury, I probably couldn’t do as much of the running – on concrete or on grass. I would do one run a week with more cycling and then a lot of the strength-based stuff in my gym at home. I was ticking over and I knew what my body needed to be in the best possible shape for coming back. 

You kept mentally sharp, taking a marketing and management course. Is education a big part of planning for life after football?

I think so. If you ask any player, even early in your career, you can’t help but think what will you do after football. The closer you get to the end of your career, the more you think about it. The biggest time for me to reflect on this was when I did my knee. I knew I’d be out for nine months minimum, which meant I cracked on with the rehab but could also take my mind away from football. That’s hard for me because football is all I know – it’s what I’m obsessed with, it’s what I love watching, I love to talk about the game, to study it. While I wasn’t playing I used education to look at roads I might explore in the future. 

What other roads have you explored?

I’ve dipped my toe in a couple of areas. The media stuff I feel comes naturally. It’s the next best thing to playing. I’m hoping that will be a natural progression after football, or during it – that can go hand-in-hand with my playing career.

You’ve experienced a lot in the game. How disruptive has lockdown been?

I feel like it’s just the unknown for a lot of people. Footballers love having certainty. It’s also a huge blow for players who were in form and looking to go into the tournaments this summer.

Has the captain’s armband weighed a bit heavier through this period?

For sure. The responsibility is something I enjoy – I like trying to help the lads out and if they need me, they know where I am. I was in touch constantly with players when everything broke about lockdown, the wage cut or deferrals the Premier League were trying to put in place. I’ve also spoken with the other captains in the league through the #PlayersTogether initiative – it’s an excellent idea and I was proud to be part of that. Now more than ever it is not about leading the lads on the pitch, it’s a tougher task leading the lads and setting the right examples off it.

Do you think you’ve developed your leadership skills in lockdown?

Yeah, that has been my main focus. As funny as it sounds, the first couple of weeks in lockdown I pictured myself in retirement because the fitness coach said not to do anything too drastic. He said maintain your fitness but also rest the body – which is always nice to hear at my age! Then it became a bit strange because you couldn’t go out. When I retire, I won’t be able to play football but I will be able to see friends and family and visit restaurants, and that was taken away from us. Lockdown has given me more motivation to go back and play at the highest level for as long as I can. It also made me even more aware of my responsibilities off the field and what I want to do over the next couple of years.

What will it be like playing in empty stadiums?

I wish I had the answer, I really do. Watching the Bundesliga hasn’t been enjoyable. It’s great to see top players but it’s surreal. I’m trying to picture when I’ve played reserve games or behind closed doors at the training ground because that’s what it will be like. My job as captain is to make sure the lads understand that and motivate them the best way I can without fans there. Some players wait until they cross that white line and hear the crowd – that’s their motivation. That isn’t going to be there for potentially a long time so there will need to be a lot of hard work in the changing room.

Is this the worst possible way to prepare for a relegation fight?

There are pros and cons. We have almost a fully fit squad again, which I don’t think we had ten weeks ago. But we have a short time frame to return to training before the season restarts. That could potentially lead to injuries. It’s not ideal for preparing for the Premier League at the intensity we have to play. It’s going to be strange and unique. It will test of a lot of player’s characters, so we will have to wait and see.

Your contract expires soon – stressful at the best of times but has that weighed on your mind?

It has slightly. When the games were due to be played ten weeks ago I think the conversation would have taken place. But now it has been pushed back. With the season going into July, I think they will have to extend a lot of players’ contracts. Clubs would be foolish not to because of the risk about players getting injured. 

And then, all being well, you’re aiming for a couple more years playing?

I think so. I always said before my injury I would get to 37, which from my debut at 17 would mean I’d had 20 years in the game professionally. That was a huge ambition of mine. When I got the ACL injury I did think that set me back a couple of years and would mean I’d have to retire earlier. I think the general perception of players is they retire at 35. I’d like to get another year at the football club – I think they know that. I want to help out as much as I can in the next nine games and then maybe one more year with a view to looking at everything else that goes alongside retiring. That would be a perfect transition.

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