Friday’s Forgotten Footballer: Francis Benali
Full name: Francis Vincent Benali
Date of birth: 30 December, 1968
Clubs: Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Eastleigh
Position: Full back
The arrival of the Premier League dramatically changed the landscape of the top tier of English football. Along came the ludicrous wages, the overpaid teenagers, the flamboyant foreigners and the wags.
Yet in an era filled with step-overs, nutmegs and all sorts of ball-juggling, there are still valuables role for the no-nonsense midfielder and the ‘hard-as-nails’ defender. Furthermore supporters take great pleasure from seeing a local lad shed sweat and blood for the cause of his beloved club.
Just take a look at Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher, West Ham’s Mark Noble or Stoke City’s Andy Wilkinson.
“Limited in ability but had a heart made of oak - never gave less than 200% for the cause”.
This was just one of the ringing tributes which flooded in upon the retirement of Francis Benali from football. The Southampton stalwart earned a ferocious reputation in the league for his fearless tackling, courageous character and relentless loyalty to the Saints.
Benali started his career as a clinical striker with his impressive goal record capturing the watchful eyes of the scouts of Southampton. He joined along with another Dell legend, Matt Le Tissier in 1985.
The coaching staff soon spotted his talent as a defender and the young Benali shuffled into rearguard duties as a full back. It proved a wise decision as the tenacious Benali managed to score just one goal in a lengthy career at the South coast club.
Over the following seasons he gradually cemented his place in the starting line-up. By the time the promised land of the Premier League had appeared on the horizon he was a first team regular.
He rarely ventured forward preferring to adequately fulfil his defensive duties. When he did make it past the halfway line his final ball lacked direction and this lack of ability was a feature which endeared him to the Southampton faithful.
His only goal came against Leicester City, fittingly at the Dell. He rose highest to nod home a Le Tissier free kick. It prompted the Saints supporters to create ‘I was there’ t-shirts in honour of their cult hero.
The fans displayed a further sign of affection for the defender when they donned the famous Benali moustache at an away game. He was baptised with the nickname ‘Frannie’.
Benali worked under 12 managers in his 20-year stint at the Dell. However, despite the turbulent times and managers signing “replacement” left backs, Benali remained ever present and rarely failed to feature for the first team.
In 1997 his testimonial match at the Dell was a sell-out as the fans came to pay tribute to the Southampton legend.
The player who did finally take over his mantle at left back was another home grown talent. The 2000-01 season saw the changing of the guard as Wayne Bridge emerged as a prestigious talent and replaced Benali in the left of defence.
For the intermittent years between the emergence of Bridge and Benali’s retirement, the veteran defender provided cover for the young star. He then moved on loan to Nottingham Forest in 2001.
However he rejected the chance to make his move permanent, citing that he wanted to reclaim his left back spot in the Southampton side. He was part of the travelling squad that lost to Arsenal in the FA Cup final at the Millennium Stadium in 2003.
His last game came in the inaugural Ted Bates Cup against Bayern Munich in January 2004.
Nowadays, Benali works in the building business while still regularly visiting St. Mary’s to watch his treasured team. His Indian restaurant received acclaim for its fine cuisine. In addition Benali acts as a patron to many local charities.
He will remain in the hearts of the fans for many years to come and will be remembered as a dedicated defender who gave everything for the cause. Undoubtedly as time passes his affection for his boyhood club will remain.
Benali, both as a player and as a man, was summarised well by Lawrie McMenemy.
“He is like a stick of rock,” said the former Saints manager. “If you cut him open there would be Southampton FC running right through him. By his own admission he is not blessed with the ability of Le Tissier, but there are few with a bigger heart.”