The Big Interview: Francis Benali on embodying Southampton fans on field

In Depth

The word Francis Benali uses most often in our interview is “proud”.

Pride is often defined by its negative connotation, describing those who have an inordinately high opinion of themselves, but it is hard to imagine a man less fitting that unfavourable description than Benali.

He is understated, thankful and humble. Yet if anyone has a reason to be proud, it is him.

Benali was born in Southampton, raised in Southampton, worked in Southampton and lives in Southampton. Even mentioning the name of the city makes him talk with an added fervour, as if it has become an intrinsic part of him.

Thanks to his extraordinary charity work over the last three years, Benali now enjoys the freedom of the city. Never mind local boy done good; boy done bloody brilliantly.

• • • •

• • • •

Signing for Southampton at the age of 14, Benali would stay at the club for 21 years, broken only by a brief loan spell at Nottingham Forest. Between 1983 and 2004, managers, players, stadiums and English football itself all changed, but the full-back remained the same.

“I followed Liverpool as a boy as they were successful, but when I had the opportunity to sign for Southampton at 14 I jumped at it,” Benali says. “From that moment on I never had any other desire to play for anyone else at any point during my professional career.

“I married a local girl and had my family and our friends around us. Other than being left out of the side on occasion, I was always completely happy. We were always in the top flight. Why would I ever have wanted to leave?”

• • • •

• • • •

When I tell Benali that almost as many of my Southampton-supporting friends mentioned him as they did Matt Le Tissier when asked to name their hero, he downplays the significance of it. He is also keen to stress that he was not the best footballer.

Perhaps not, but you would be hard pushed to find one more hard-working. And becoming a cult hero is as much about state of mind as ability.

“I wasn’t the best of players,” he says. “But, hopefully, over the years the supporters recognised my commitment, my efforts and my desire to bring success to our club.

“Apart from a loan spell I spent my entire career at the club. I was born and raised in this city as well, so I’m very much a local boy and I went on to play for my hometown team. I think perhaps they saw me as one of them, represented out on the football pitch.

• • • •

• • • •

“What I lacked in any creativity and flair I made up for in other areas. My professionalism, the way I prepared myself and trained led by example as an individual both on and off the pitch.

“It’s a good job we did have a player like Matt in the team to score the incredible goals because we wouldn’t have achieved without him, but my job was the basic workmanlike stuff that had to be done as part of a team unit.

“And through it all, I was very proud and honoured to play for the club in which I was raised.”

In two ways, Benali is an anachronism, a rose-tinted look at English football’s yesteryear. He was a full-back far more capable in defence than attack, but he was also a one-club man.

• • • •

READ: The Big Interview: Paul Parker on the early Prem years & youth development

• • • •

That is unusual now even at the biggest clubs, where success is guaranteed, but at clubs below the elite it is almost unheard of.

I ask Benali whether he believes English football has lost players like him.

“I think it’s harder for some local lads to break through,” Benali says. “It’s certainly more difficult for my kind of player, the worker, because the game is so much more technical.

“In the Premier League, unless you are clearly a special player then it is very hard to break through with your local clubs. That’s not to say that nobody does, because we both know some obvious examples, but it’s definitely harder than when I came through.

• • • •

• • • •

“I do think that’s a shame,” he says, although not with any resentment. “We’re seeing the end of an era with one-club players. This is not in any way to say that players from around the world cannot feel the same, but I always felt that there was that little something extra because I knew exactly how the supporters felt and were thinking about their club.

“You can resonate with that, because you’ve got your hometown shirt on your back and the club crest on your heart. A football club – and supporting that club – were one of the centre-pieces of a city or town for the entire community. Maybe that’s not quite the case anymore.”

For the first decade of the Premier League era, Benali personified a Southampton team that overcame grim predictions every season.

In truth they were, Le Tissier aside, a Division One club in a Premier League age. The Dell was quaint and offered a special atmosphere, but Southampton were repeatedly tipped for relegation. Between 1992 and 1999 they finished in 16th position or lower in six out of eight seasons.

• • • •

• • • •

Yet any lack of natural ability was counteracted by a fantastic team spirit. Southampton regularly embarrassed their high-profile guests, memorably recording three consecutive home league victories over Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, and repeatedly made gloomy predictions look foolish.

“A huge part of it was team spirit,” Benali says. “With our resources, we were often up against it. With our capacity, the budgets meant that each year in the media we were relegation favourites.

“As a squad of players we wanted to prove those predictions wrong season after season.

“The bond we had as a group of players dragged us through some tough times in stages of a season that looked extremely bleak, but the worst never happened.

“I’m just immensely proud to have played a part in that era of the club’s history. It wasn’t the most successful in some ways, but it was crucial for us to stay up and act as a spring board for the club’s success in recent years.”

• • • •

READ: The Big Interview: Jan Aage Fjortoft on impersonating journos & the aeroplane

• • • •

Having retired in 2004, it was always clear to Benali that he needed to find a way to stay in touch with the game. Football is what he knows, and football is what he loves.

He admits that it must be wonderful to play a sport such as darts, snooker or golf that affords its competitors a longer professional lifespan.

Benali coaches at the Matt Le Tissier academy, set up a player representation agency with Le Tissier, and regularly works as a pundit on Southampton matches. It would be no surprise to see him watching his team in 20, 30 and 40 years’ time.

• • • •

• • • •

Yet Benali has found a new vocation, one in which he has excelled even more than football. In 2014 he completed a three-week, 1,000 mile challenge in which he ran to all 20 Premier League stadia to raise more than £100,000 for Cancer Research UK.

Last year, the challenge was greater still. Between October 2-16, Benali visited 44 stadia in 14 days covering more than 1,500 miles.

For those who require those figures to be broken down, Benali ran the equivalent of one marathon and cycled 75 miles every day for a fortnight. He has so far raised £473,000 for Cancer Research UK, and aims to reach the million-pound mark.

For a man who has displayed remarkable strength and courage, Benali is typically modest.

• • • •

• • • •

“The first explanation is that we were touched as a family by cancer” he says. “But I also see it like when I was a player. I was captain of my club, so this is about wanting to give something back to my city.

“But really it just comes down to my character. I was always very driven, very focused, very determined.

“I wanted to test myself. I wanted to ask myself ‘What have you really got? How far can you push yourself physically and mentally?’.

“The challenges I’ve done have tested me in every way possible. I’ve learnt about the power of the mind and how it can overcome physical limitations. The body only takes you so far, before the mind has to take over and carry you.”

• • • •

QUIZ: Can you name every one of these obscure 1990s fooballers?

• • • •

Benali’s explanation is so simple that it almost tricks me into believing it is possible for anyone, but that clearly isn’t the case. The vast majority of us believe in charity, in helping others and beating cancer, but very few of us go the extra mile, let alone the extra 1,500.

His battles with hamstring injuries and incredible fatigue would break almost all of us, yet the hardship only made Benali more determined to succeed.

“People fall into one of two categories,” Benali says. “You either do one of these events and then think right, I’ve done that, but never again, or it fuels a desire and passion to want to. I’ve fallen into the second category. I’m driven to do more.”

• • • •

• • • •

And so Benali came full circle, from young boy to freeman of Southampton.

“It was a ceremony and an award that I didn’t know much about. But to have my family there and hear some kind words said during the address, and the recognition of being a freeman of the city as a man born here was so special. It is something I will always remember for the rest of my life.”

There again is Benali’s pride, but pride accompanied by humility, not arrogance or conceit. For some success comes naturally, but others must work to achieve their goals. If there is any sportsman with more drive to push his mind and body not for personal gain, but to help and please others, I am yet to speak to them.

Francis Benali was an ordinary footballer that made the most of what he had; he has since proved himself to be an extraordinary person who has given all he has.

From Saint to saint, if you will. Not that he would be comfortable with the description.

By Daniel Storey.