Dundee United, Partick Thistle and Belgium – Frédéric Frans interview

By Keiran Fleming

Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming caught up with former Partick Thistle and Dundee United defender Frederic Frans. During the chat they covered Frans’ friendship with former Rangers and Dundee United player Charlie Miller, his first impression of Scottish football and his current side’s push for European football.

Frans made his first step into the world of professional football at the young age of five and he has never looked back:

“ I grew up 45 minutes away and I was playing for a local, small club. I was literally playing for 2 months I think and I got an invite to play with Lierse. After the first training session I joined. Obviously because they were my first club they started to become my boyhood club”

Frans spent his whole youth career with Lierse and became a leader in every age group he played with.

After continuously impressing in Lierse’s youth system the centre back got his opportunity in the first team against one of Belgium’s biggest and best clubs:

“I think I was 17 when I made my debut against Genk away, I think it was for 3 minutes or something. Actually a few weeks ago we played Genk and I was thinking about that moment  when I made my debut. The week after (my debut) we played against Standard (Liege) where I played 30 minutes and from then I started playing more.

“I must admit I don’t remember too much about it (the debut). I know I played one pass in it and I know I was nervous before the game but it went so quickly. A month before I wasn’t even training with the first team, I was in the reserves going to school, so I was never thinking I was going to be a professional player. Then suddenly a few injuries happened in the first team and boom I was in. I was a professional football player and it never stopped. That’s how it can go.”

A debut year is always one of the highlights of any professional’s career, however, Frans’ first year in the top flight of Belgian football would end in disappointment.

Lierse would struggle and be relegated into the second tier:

“The team was horrible. They had 5 or 6 points before January and then in the transfer window they signed a few players then I made my debut. In the second half of the season I think we got 25 points or something which was enough to secure the relegation play-offs which was an achievement. If we got the same points in the first half we would have been top 6. We played against Mechelen and we lost the play-off.

“The 6 months I played in the top league I played every minute so I was hoping we would stay up. There were offers from a lot of other teams but because they were my boyhood club from 5 years old I was thinking ‘I’m still young let’s go to the second division and play every week’. I stayed and it took us 3 years to get promoted.”

After 3 years of developing in the second tier, Frans was not just rewarded with another chance of playing at the highest level in Belgium but he was made captain of his beloved club:

“I was 20 years old when we were in the top league again and I think I became the youngest captain in the top league at that moment. I had to thank the coach at the time (Eric Van Mier). He loved playing the young boys at the club because he himself came through the ranks. I think that’s why he liked me. Obviously to be 20, 21  and captain a team in the top league I think that’s something you can be proud of.

“For me it was a massive honor. I was always captain of the youth sides so it was perfect. I captained every team for Lierse so that was perfect.”

Although he started his first season back in the top flight on a huge high, Frans was hit with a knee injury that would put him out of action for 8 months:

“The worst part (about the injury) was because I was captain so young there were a lot of good clubs interested in me. I had German Bundesliga teams interested and you set your hopes and career on these things you know. You think it won’t stop and then suddenly you get your knee injury and then you’re out for basically a year and that was hard.

“You learn a lot of lessons from it as well you know. You get more professional, you learn more about your body, you have to remain positive.”

The Belgian’s first real taste of Scottish football came from an unlikely friendship with former Rangers and Dundee United player Charlie Miller when the scotsman joined Lierse:

“I played with Charlie Miller in the second league and the top league. I was young when Charlie was there and he was fantastic with the young guys. He had such a great experience, he was such a nice man, he was unbelievable for us. He taught me so much. I remember there was a young boy whose football boots were a little bit broken, the next day Charlie came in he had looked at the size of the boots and had bought him new boots. Those things you don’t forget.”

After spending his whole career with his boyhood club Lierse, Frans decided he want to test himself in a different environment:

“I always dreamt of going abroad so now was the time to just do it. My contract was up but it came after the year where I had a cruciate injury so I had few offers in Belgium but I always said if I stayed in Belgium I would play for Lierse. So I waited but since I waited so long the clubs in Belgium went away. Abroad was harder to get because I didn’t play for almost a year. I thought it would be easier to get abroad because I was the youngest captain (in the league) and those things but in football they quickly forget.

“I had some trials. I went to Poland, I went to Leeds but due to different reasons they never worked out. Then Charlie came and said Freddy don’t worry I can help you out. Charlie along with John Viola know Alan Archibald, the gaffer at Partick Thistle, they told him about me and I signed there.”

Although he only spent 2 years at Partick Thistle he managed to connect with the Jags fans. A 30-yard-screamer against Ross County solidified his place in Thistle folklore:

“I’ve only shot at the goal from there once in my life and it was a goal. So I promised from that day I’m never going to shoot again because my shot conversion percentage goes down. It was perfect.”

“I think for a lot of fans from Partick Thisle that I still speak to that goal was a big memory. We took a lot of fans to away games as well even to Ross County. It was a special moment. I think it’s one of those goals if you ask Partick Thistle fans in 20 years they will still remember and it’s the same for me. It was probably the best goal of my career.”

Although he only spent two years with the club, the jags still hold an important place in the Belgian defender’s heart:

“It was my first experience abroad and I came into a club that was fantastic. They were really nice people, it was a real family club, great coach. Alan Archibald was one of the best coaches I had. They had a really nice team as well. There were a lot of boys that played for a long time together because they came up from the lower leagues and they all stick together. I came to a team that was very tight and they accepted me because I was one of the only foreign players. They treated me like one of their own, I loved it.”

Frans still sees his time under Alan Archibald as being one of the best decisions of his career but a call from his boyhood club meant it was time for a return home:

“My contract was up and they offered me a new deal at Partick. I wanted to stay but then Lierse came back. Lierse will always be a special club for me. The coach who gave me the captaincy became the coach again. I had 2 great seasons at Partick, I had a fantastic time abroad but Lierse is a great project, it’s close to home and I knew we had a great team. I don’t think if it was another club I would’ve gone back.”

In his first season back at Lierse the club came so close to being promoted back into the top flight. Sadly Frans’ fairytale return would come to a tragic end:

“The season after we didn’t get promoted it all started to go wrong. The chairman wasn’t happy we didn’t get promoted, it cost him a lot of money. In 8, 9 years he put about €75 million into it. Before he took over the club he was probably thinking it was going to be a top four club in Belgium.

“He stopped paying us or we were paid 3 months too late. You could feel something was going on. He wanted to sell the club. A lot of people came to watch for example, the guys from Kingpower, Leicester City, they wanted to buy but the chairman asked for €20 million. In the end no one wanted to buy it anymore and he pulled the plug.

“It was horrible, it was really horrible. It’s like somebody died. I remember after the club went bankrupt all the fans and all the players came together in the stadium. There were like 10,000 people in the ground on the pitch. I remember I took the mic because I was the captain. I had to do a speech for 10 minutes, there were people crying. It was unbelievable. I was a fan as well because I was there from 5 years old. It was my life. The fans lost their club.”

After what really was a terrible and emotionally exhausting ending to his time back at his boyhood team Scotland came calling again. Frans now had the opportunity to return to the country that was becoming his home away from home:

“Suddenly you’re a free agent again. Because I had 2 really good seasons at Partick and then 2 really good seasons at Lierse it wasn’t hard for me to find a club. Some offers came in, I had from Ross County, Partick wanted me back, a few offers from Sweden, Norway and then Dundee United came. Dundee united gave me a really good offer and because we liked Scotland the first time we were like let’s try something new. A new place, a new club, they paid a really good contract.”

“It was similar to when I returned to Lierse. It was a good project, they want to go up to the top league, big club. I liked the challenge, trying to get promoted. I prefer playing for teams like this to teams playing for 10th spot.”

Frederic joined the Arabs as part of a group of players signed by Czaba Laslow at the start of his second season in charge. It wouldn’t be long before Frans would be playing under a different manager at Tannadice:

“I don’t think Czaba was bad, I think he was a good manager. A really nice person, he was too nice, I think that was the problem and a lot of the boys took advantage of that I think. The season before the results weren’t great. When I started there I could feel it was going to stop with Czaba, it was a battle he wasn’t going to win. His English wasn’t the best, he could speak good English but the way he communicated wasn’t the best. It didn’t click with the Scottish boys. I don’t think the transfers were good. He signed a lot of players and he tried to bring in some Scottish boys as well that weren’t really up to the standards.”

“I got on really well with Robbie Nieslon, great coach, great manager. I still speak to him because I’m on the UEFA B course and he’s one of the tutors.We speak about the course sometimes, I ask him for help, he helps me and gives me advice. When I came I played everything under him, I learned a lot, we got some great results but then around the January window he got some transfers in. Then I got a big injury, I ripped my abductor at Falkirk, I slipped on the synthetic. I was out for almost a season. I came back for the play-off games but I wasn’t really fit. I had a connection. He liked me in the dressing room. Even though I wasn’t 100% fit he always took me to the game because he needed my positivity, leadership and experience.”

Dundee United would again fail to win the Championship and enter the play-offs. In the final they would come face to face with Saint Mirren in what would be a heart-wrenching game for the Arabs:

“The one with the penalties at Saint Mirren was horrible, I don’t know what to say about it. For the players, for the fans it was just horrible.”

After another enjoyable spell in Scotland Lierse came calling again and it was time for Frederic to return home to help rebuild the club he once loved:

“I had another year on my contract. Robbie had brought in new boys when I was injured and the owners told him if he wanted any more players he needed to make room. He needed to get players out because the year before a lot of players came in. He said to me that he’d love to keep me but I was on too big of a wage so I accepted that. No problem that’s football but obviously I needed to wait for another team to come in. I fancied my chances still because I thought I was better than the centre backs that were in (the squad) but you could feel that they wouldn’t allow me to play.

“I remember in the league cup group stage there were 2 centre backs injured and they would play midfielders there so you could feel they wanted to push you out. We came to an agreement at the end of August, beginning of September, and I signed for the new Lierse.

“They had to restart in the 3rd league, I was 30 years old, they gave me a 5 year deal at the new Lierse. I thought it’s my hometown, they’re going to try get to the top league asap again so why not,”

After joining the new Lierse Frederic immediately began to realise that this was nothing like the club he had grown up playing for since the age of 5:

“I joined in September and I’m not going to lie, it was horrible. First of all it didn’t feel like Lierse to me, there were a lot of the same people and fans. This is the crazy part, there were 2 new Lierses so the fans were divided, the only thing we had was that we still played in the stadium, still the same colours and badge but it was different. I was hoping I would come back into a club with a fresh start but it was not good. We had a very bad team as well because they promised me a team that would easily get promoted from the third league and we literally couldn’t win a game.

“After a month I realise this is horrible. I thought I still had this for 5 years because I’m a very professional player. I love being very professional like first in, last out, getting to the physio all those things. They had nothing, they didn’t have a doctor. You know it really stings. In January Beerschott came in so I was only at the new Lierse for a few months. There are a lot of fans that are angry at me because I left them. I wouldn’t have left if it was like the old Lierse but with this one I didn’t feel the same thing. I’m happy for them, the fans, because they have a new Lierse to follow. I still speak a lot to the people there but for me it wasn’t the same. I don’t think it was right in my career either. If I think about it I should have never done it, go back to the 3rd league, I wasn’t ready for that yet.”

For many last year would have been considered one of the most difficult of their career due to the ongoing pandemic. That wasn’t the case for Frederic Frans:

“2020 was the best year of my career. I scored against their (Beerschott) biggest rivals. I scored the winning goal that made us go top of the league. In the last game I scored another important goal that helped us win the game and got us to the play-off final. I always knew I was better than the 3rd tier, I always knew I was better than the 2nd tier. My goal was for Lierse to be in the 1st tier. I could see that wasn’t happening so I took a chance with Beerschott, I knew that would be my best chance. Fantastic club, fans, history also only 40 minutes from my house. I believed in myself.

“We won the first leg of the play-off final, then covid happened. In May they decided the promotion final needs to be played one week before the start of the new season. 2 days before the final the league decided that they would have 18 instead of 16 teams in the top league so both of us were promoted. We still played the final just to find out who was the real champion and we won the second leg.”

“Next week we played in the top league and started with 3 wins in a row and by November we were top of the league. We beat Brugge away, we beat Genk. At one point we were the most attractive team in Europe, so the most goals were in our games. From getting a transfer from the 3rd league to the 2nd, becoming the champion, to the end of 2020, almost, being top in the top league. For a promoted team we’ve done amazing.”

We’d like to thank Frederic Frans for taking the time to chat to our Assistant Editor Keiran Fleming. All of us at NE98 wish him all the best for the future.

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