When Simon Francis first joined AFC Bournemouth in League 1 in November 2011, captaining the club in the Premier League seemed an unlikely prospect.
Fast forward seven years and having led the team for over a century of top-flight matches, the skipper told Matchday about his approach to the role, rubbing shoulders with John Terry and how, at the age of 33, he is still focused on learning.
Take us back, when did you first captain AFC Bournemouth and how did you find out about it?
It was that summer we got promoted from League 1. I’d never thought about the captaincy but I started to take it more seriously at the age I was with the experience I had going into the Championship. Tommy Elphick wasn’t picked for the first game against Charlton and I walked into the changing room and saw the armband on my shirt.
The manager pulled me and said it was what I deserved and that he saw me as a captain of the future.
It was against Charlton as well, the team who had said I wasn’t good enough for them and then we went and beat them on the opening day, that was a huge moment for me.
I had my daughter as mascot as well so it was almost the perfect day - and the captaincy helped me raise my game. You feel that extra sense of responsibility, you don’t want to let the other lads down, so you try to perform to your best.
Into the Premier League and then when Tommy left, when did you find out that the armband was yours to keep?
Tommy hadn’t been playing as much football as he’d have liked and he had the opportunity to go to Aston Villa. We were always very close so we had a chat about it and he said he thought I’d be captain having had it in his absence and I felt like I deserved it.
But the manager did keep me sweating, he didn’t tell me over the summer, then he pulled me on the first or second training day and said he wanted me to be the club captain. I was overwhelmed, it was a real achievement for me to come from where I had and it almost ran parallel with the roller-coaster ride the club had been on.
Had you been trying to catch the manager’s eye before he gave you the news?
It was a strange one, all the lads started winding me up, saying it must not be coming my way or he’d have told me already. When the manager told me it was a small relief because I felt I’d done enough in the first season to show I could be captain on future occasions, I was delighted to get it.
How does it change your role, from being everyone’s mate to having the extra authority and maybe even the manager’s ear?
In the early days, when I was standing in for Tommy, I didn’t change too much – I didn’t want to change and wanted the lads to look at me in the same way. Then I got it permanently and had to realise the responsibilities and I looked at my role within the team slightly differently.
With some of the lads I’d be more serious and they’d take the mickey out of me, but they understood early on. You have to try and find that filter where you’re still mates but also act as that branch from the manager in the changing room, almost thinking how the manager would want me to act.
I’d like to think I’m the first one to voice an opinion or be vocal within the changing room, get the lads up for games and show the right mentality – more than anything I base my captaincy on trying to lead by example.
The lads have to know that you’re not making mistakes, not on purpose anyway, I’m not as vocal as Tommy was or other captains I’ve had but I want to lead by example on and off the pitch and if the players can respect me I’m certainly happy.
Do you ever pinch yourself? There are only 20 Premier League captains in the world and you’re one of them.
It is quite surreal. One moment like that was at the Premier League captains’ meeting when I first took the role.
Sitting in a room with John Terry, Jordan Henderson and the top captains, having a discussion with the FA and PFA was a pinch myself moment, voicing my opinions in that company was excellent and something I really enjoyed.
The leadership’s something that’s also shown with the Simon Francis Academy, how did that, with Harry Arter, get to where we are now?
I was really fortunate, Harry set it up in his name and I’d come down on numerous occasions as a few of us were doing our B Licences and coaching the children. After the birth of his child he couldn’t down as much as he’d like to and with my kids now in school and nursery I had a bit of spare time in the afternoons.
I took over last season and here we are now with a successful academy and really looking forward to the future.
For you, is the Academy a hobby, a business or something for you to focus on the coaching with going forwards?
It’s a bit of everything really, of course it’s a business and you have to look at that side of things, there’s a lot of paperwork and dealing with people I’d never thought would be involved but it’s something I’m thoroughly enjoying. I’m fortunate to have the staff we have on board and we’re building nicely, we have something on every day, which is a success for us and next season we’re looking to enter a league, that’s the ultimate aim.
Quite a few of the players in the squad are worked towards their coaching qualifications, we seem to have plenty of leaders in the changing room…
Honestly, that comes down to the manager. We all enjoy working with him so much each day that coaching is something a lot of us look to.
We come in from a session and we talk about training for the next hour or two over lunch, go home thinking about training the next day because the manager always keeps us guessing and asking questions.
He puts the onus on us the players a lot of the time and for me that’s a great way for developing us as you need to go out and learn and improve, not just play, and I’ve certainly improved a lot under this manager. The manager’s said it as well, he felt he became a better player once he started his coaching badges, you certainly look at things a different way.
How do you look at your journey over the last seven years with the Cherries, do you regret that it didn’t happen earlier?
Personally, I certainly have regrets that I didn’t work harder when I was younger. That’s why now I get into a lot of the younger players now to do the right things on and off the pitch to give themselves the best chance to play at the highest level as early as they can.
I made mistakes and it took me longer than it should have to play at the highest level. Having said that, I couldn’t have picked a better way of doing it; getting two promotions and playing with a bunch of lads who I love playing with and then ended up being captain for.
Have you played with people who were in similar situations to yourself but for whatever reason didn’t make it?
Yeah, I speak to a lot of players who I used to play with and they always say to me they never thought I’d play Premier League football, and I have to agree with them.
At points when I was at Southend or Charlton not involved and training on my own on Saturday mornings with the young kids there were points when I wondered if I’d ever reach even the Championship and be playing.
What was it like for you this season when the games started with Cardiff but as captain you weren’t starting?
It was a new experience for me, at Bournemouth at least. I found it hard, I’m not going to lie, but on the other hand we watched the Marseille game having played against Betis the day before, and against Marseille the lads couldn’t have performed any better.
A few of us sat in the stands saying that if the manager played that team against Cardiff nobody could complain.
He spoke to me saying he was going with the Marseille team and I absolutely respected that.
No-one’s place is certain in the team and I was delighted for the players who played and it gave me a chance personally to reflect on things and I found myself to be more vocal in the changing room when not starting the games because you focus not just on yourself but the game and motivating the other players.
There were a few games I’d come on in and felt I’d done well in, then I got my chance against Palace and have played back-to-back games and got the wins.
The manager’s recently praised you for still wanting to learn every day at 33, where does that mentality come from?
I just think you have to have that mentality at this level, no matter what your age is. I don’t want to stop playing Premier League football and I don’t want to retire anytime soon so for me to want to stay in the team I always have to want to learn.
I wake up every morning looking forward to training and giving my all and it’s only when I don’t have that desire any more that I may think about calling it a day. At the moment it’s burning more than ever and I’m enjoying every minute of it. I’m glad that the manager said that and I take those words very kindly.
Next up are Southampton, an established Premier League team we can learn a lot from, but over this season and last season you can see we’re learning pretty well...
The Premier League has brought on the rivalry, it had been a while since we’d shared divisions with them, we’ve had some excellent games and the atmospheres have been brilliant.
I think rightly the fans can call it a derby now, it’ll be a hostile atmosphere on Saturday and it’ll be a great occasion. We’ll be going in full of confidence, we feel like we’re progressing now and we can match these teams. Southampton are a huge club in the Premier League, but we have to have the mindset and the hunger to get the win that we need.