SIMON Francis insists Cherries are aiming for automatic promotion – and he is adamant they have the quality to make the dream a reality.

The Cherries star believes Eddie Howe’s men are timing their push perfectly as they bid to force their way into contention during the new year.

Cherries moved to within four points of the play-off places – and eight of the summit – by extending to 12 matches their unbeaten run under Howe.

Right-back Francis has again been a consistent performer this term and has made 21 starts as a regular in the Cherries back four.

He has helped the Dorset outfit overcome their nightmare opening to the season to put themselves firmly in the League One promotion mix.

And the 27-year-old, who joined Cherries from Charlton in November 2011, has faith in the club’s quest for a place in the Championship.

Francis told the Daily Echo: “We have got a lot of catching up to do but it is not like we are on a bad run of form at the end of the season or around Christmas time. I think we are hitting form at the right time and looking to go into the new year in a better position than we are now – possibly in the play-offs.

“We have got a good run of games coming up where we are playing teams around us or below. It is a massive chance for us to shoot up the table and, come January, be in the play-offs and then look upwards again.

“Come January if we are in the play-offs, I don’t think we will be thinking ‘all right, let’s just stay in the play-offs for the rest of the season’. That is not our aim at all. We want to be in the top two. That is definitely our aim and, personally, I think we have got a good enough squad.

“I think it is the most open this league has been for as long as I can remember. With Tranmere being top of the league for as long as they have been, they have shocked everybody.

“They seem to be the team to beat at the moment but I think we are quietly going about our business.

“I quite like the fact that if I read the paper on a Sunday then we still only manage to have a small little headline on the side of one of the football pages and the teams in the top two or three seem to be taking all the headlines.”

Francis will face familiar foes Colchester at Dean Court tomorrow (3pm) – having enjoyed a fierce rivalry with them during his time at Southend.

He added: “It is a big derby – bigger than I had expected because it is not that close to Southend.

“They hated each other more than any other team nearer Southend. We had some good battles over the years.”