Blast from the Past no.29: Francis Benali

Southampton’s youth team in the 1985/86 season contained a couple of promising forwards. One was so gifted that he went on to score more than 200 goals for the first team and become a Saints legend – his name was Matt Le Tissier. The other was so bad that he would only score once in his entire professional career - but curiously, he also became a Saints legend. His name was Francis Benali.

The key to Benali’s unlikely success – and the explanation for his poor goalscoring record – was that he was quickly converted from striker to left-back when the club’s coaching staff noticed his lack of finishing prowess. The thing is, most Saints fans will tell you he wasn’t very good at full-back either.

“I remember his shocking diagonal hoofs into the west or east stands, depending on which way we were shooting,” said one Southampton supporter on the Ugly Inside forum. “He always used to pass it down the line and out of play,” recalled a fellow fan.

Another recounted: “My fondest memory of Francis Benali was the only time I spoke to him. I met him in the ticket office before the FA Cup game with Pompey in 1996. I asked him, ‘Are you playing today?’ and when he answered 'No’, I thought, ‘Thank God’ and walked away feeling much more confident about our prospects. We won 3-0.”

Which may all sound a bit harsh if you’re Francis Benali, but that would be to misunderstand this unique player-fan relationship - something akin to old friends who have known each other for so long that casual insults are part of the fun. For beneath this veneer of animosity is a deeply held mutual love.

While Le Tissier’s supreme ability endeared him to the Dell faithful, Benali was feted for precisely the opposite reason - somehow thriving despite his technical limitations. After breaking into the first team in the 1988/89 season, Benali carved out a place on the left side of Southampton’s defence that he would hold onto for dear life for more than a decade.

The club made various attempts to replace him with someone cooler - Simon Charlton, John Beresford and Patrick Colleter were among the left-backs purchased during Benali’s reign - but none could dislodge him.

The more games Benali played, the more frustrated the fans would grow with his wayward crossing while simultaneously becoming increasingly respectful of his indefatigability. And with Saints invariably becoming embroiled in relegation scraps most seasons, they eventually had to concede that the grizzled Benali was the perfect man for the job.

“Although not being the most gifted of footballers, he obviously had something about him and was picked to play for us by nine different managers,” pointed out one fan.

“Top bloke but let’s be honest, not the best player,“ said another. "He certainly gave his all to the club, as John Fashanu would no doubt testify.”

Benali’s famous “tackle” on the Wimbledon striker in 1990 (in fact it more closely resembled a murder attempt) epitomises what could be euphemistically described as Benali’s “combative” playing style.

The challenge, which was so outlandishly high that it could have broken Fashanu’s head let alone his leg, earned Benali one of 11 career red cards - a figure unrivalled by any player in Premier League history.

But he could take it as well as he could dish it out, as demonstrated by the time he broke his arm in a match against Leicester and carried on playing.

Not that this incident is glorified in the manner of Bert Trautmann’s broken neck. Benali simply does not command that kind of respect among the football family, although in fairness he may have brought this upon himself with his choice of facial hair.

“He had a moustache when he was about 12”, according to one Dell regular. Which could be deemed acceptable given that Benali was 12 in 1980, just as Magnum, P.I. was giving bristly upper lips a certain distinction. But inexplicably, and indefensibly, Benali retained his moustache deep into the mid-1990s.

Although even this seemed to strengthen his aura.

“He couldn’t pass, he had a right dodgy Freddie Mercury tache but he hated Pompey - all of which helped make him a cult hero with the fans who appreciated his loyalty to the cause in several relegation battles,” said another Saints fan.

Benali’s popularity was demonstrated by the sell-out crowd at his testimonial match at the Dell in 1997, but his most memorable moment in red-and-white was still to come. In a home match against Leicester in December of that year, he scored his goal. And unlike all his previous efforts, it was in the right net.

Fittingly, it was Le Tissier who provided the assist, floating in a free-kick that Benali headed home from an improbable distance of about 15 yards. The scenes of jubilation that greeted the strike matched any of Le Tiss’s finest hours. To this day, a few priceless 'I was there when Franny scored’ T-shirts are stashed away in forgotten drawers and lofts around the Southampton area.

Eventually, another promising left-back emerged from the Saints youth team - and unfortunately for Benali this one could actually pass the ball with some accuracy. The outstanding Wayne Bridge broke through at the turn of the millennium and kept the shirt - between March 2000 and January 2003 he didn’t miss a single match.

Benali was offered a free transfer by manager Gordon Strachan but he decided to stay at his hometown club - and was rewarded in 2003 when he picked up an FA Cup runners-up medal, courtesy of his two appearances in a fourth-round match against Millwall. They proved to be his last games in a Saints shirt and he hung up his boots the following year with 389 first-team appearances.

“Although we joke about his limited talent as a Premier League footballer, he was always a popular character and still is,” concluded one Saint.

Benali’s legend lives on in retirement. At various points he has managed a curry house in Southampton, become a property developer (with limited success) and rumour has it that he still refuses to set foot in Portsmouth.

He also did an incredible charity run in which he ran 1,100 miles in 21 days (that’s almost two marathons per day) - completing the feat at St Mary’s stadium in front of his adoring fans.

Admittedly, Le Tissier would be have been afforded the same reception if he’d just swanned onto the pitch from the car park, but that was the difference between these two Saints academy graduates. One was destined for greatness; the other had to earn it.

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