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In Conversation With… Francis Benali

Francis Benali joined Southampton as a 16-year-old in 1985 and spent the vast majority of the next two decades representing his home town club. Through a combination of no-nonsense playing style, down-to-earth demeanour and iconic moustache, the full back became a cult hero on the South Coast and beyond.

His popularity is such that a ‘Benali on Tour’ Twitter account now tracks global sightings of his football sticker from New Orleans to Kuala Lumpur and all the way back to Southampton.

Since retiring from the professional game in 2004, Benali has moved in to punditry, agency and has become a prominent ambassador for Cancer Research UK, raising close to £1 million through a series of extreme endurance challenges.

Here, speaking with a writer who used to cheer him (most of the time!) from the terraces, Benali discusses the pros and cons of modern day football, his career highlights and the opponents he faced off against during a 243 game Premier League career.


It turns out that football existed before the birth of the Premier League in 1992. As a top flight player on either side of this landmark, were there noticeable changes when the rebranding took place?

I guess there were some big changes. Some things were gradual and others were more noticeable. The obvious thing was the change around live televised games with companies like SKY coming in to the sport and adding to the coverage. You had names going on to shirts rather than just numbers and I guess it all made for a bigger event and spectator sport.

Certainly, from a player’s perspective at the time, you realised there were changes afoot. I started in an era when there was very little in terms of even warm-ups, let alone warm downs, and the sports science side of things and the nutrition side, the size of the medical teams, fitness coaches etc were nothing like you see in the game nowadays.

I come from an era, or I did initially, where there would be a manager, maybe a coach or two, maybe one or two medical staff and that was pretty much it. They did so many different jobs whereas teams nowadays in the Premier League have almost an army of people specialising in certain fields, which is obviously a good thing.

Even down to things such as preparation. We didn’t even have a canteen on site or anything like that for either before or after training. In the early days, there was none of that. You just rocked up and made your own arrangements for breakfast and lunch. The only time you ate as a team was for a pre-match or if you were on an overnight stop for an away game. So I guess that the money that came in to the sport first and foremost went directly to the clubs and that enabled them to make a lot of changes which has probably improved the sport in many ways.

As a kid, I used to regularly go along to watch Saints training. It was perfectly acceptable to run on to the pitch to collect stray balls for you players. You actually gave me a pair of your old split boots after one session; second only to Ken Monkou’s gift of a signed picture of his dog! This wouldn’t happen now. Do you buy into the opinion that the game has lost its relationship with the fans?

Yeah I do go along with that and agree. I fully understand that there has to be a level of security at training grounds and stadiums but that relationship is something that is probably lost in the game today compared to a large part of my era through the late 80s, in to the 90s and even early 2000s.

As you mentioned you could be a supporter, or a journalist and you could literally just drive in to the training ground car park, walk in and observe the training sessions. You could ask questions or ask for autographs afterwards and it was very much an open door policy within the game at that time.

That has obviously changed nowadays and I guess that goes a long way, not just the training ground scenario, to why the players are very much less accessible than we once were. I guess in some ways that does sort of lose the connection between supporters and players and management because there isn’t that contact that we once did have. I think that is a little bit of a shame really.

You often hear now that ‘The Game Has Gone’ when a bad tackle goes in and the red card comes out. Do you buy into this? Is there actually that much difference in the style of play today? Is it much softer or is this exaggerated?

The game is very different now, for sure. The physical element and the challenges that I would have got away with years ago are just not accepted now or tolerated in the rules. And I think the style of football has changed. We’re seeing players that, because of the professionalism and the extra knowledge in the game now and the specialists within that, are developed for peak performance.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have been a professional myself but I wouldn’t have had the accessibility to staff and technology that there is now. So players and teams in many ways are different physically and the game has adapted because of that.

I think it’s a shame in some ways that we don’t see an element of the physical side that there once was. I don’t mean going out to intentionally hurt players and seeing players picking up injuries but it is comical, and I started to see it towards the end of my playing time, seeing players barely touched and going down very easily trying to win a free kick or trying to get you booked. That used to make my blood boil, especially if it wasn’t a genuine foul. I saw that as an element of cheating; trying to con officials to win decisions and that’s largely what we see now.

The game has improved in many ways from a spectator’s perspective and an entertainment perspective but the physicality that was once in the game is not allowed to be there like it once was. I think that is a bit of a shame.

On that note, if we look at your career, Benali the player is perhaps remembered as a tough tackling defender, maybe lacking an eye for goal. Would this be fair?

The one goal in nearly 400 games probably proves that I guess!

Yeah we’ll get to that goal in a minute! Career-wise though, you were committed to Southampton for a great amount of time. Do you feel perhaps a certain Mr Le Tissier has caused some to overlook your ‘One-Club Man’ status?

Yes, well if you look at the length of our careers I would have been at the club longer than Matt. I signed as a schoolboy before he officially joined the club. Both the same age, bar a couple of months, we came through the same year group and I retired after he’d finished. I guess technically I wasn’t a one club man although I was for the best part of twenty years as boy and man.

I did have a three-month loan spell at Nottingham Forest which could be viewed by some to not qualify me as a one-club player, which is a bit of a shame, especially as I never wanted to leave the club at any stage of my career. That was a point in my career where I felt I had to play football and explore other opportunities. It was good experience for me to taste football away from my hometown club but I’d still say Southampton is my one team really.

And your fellow ‘One Club Man’ would be the best player you played with?

There were so many great players over the years but most definitely, I suppose unsurprisingly, it would have to be Matt. Just an absolute genius.

Is there a particular Le Tissier moment that stands out?

There were so many. The incredible goals, free kicks, penalties. He was such a talisman for us. Although he wasn’t a traditional sort of leader in the description or image that you might have of a leader on a football pitch, he was a leader because you could trust him and give him the ball in any area of the pitch. In any situation. You knew more often than not he was capable of producing something that the rest of the team couldn’t. He often delivered when it mattered most and that made him extra special.

He also delivered an important assist…

Yeah, yeah, he took the free kick, which led to my one and only goal for the team. I was pleased that came at the Dell. It would have been wonderful to have scored a goal anywhere but the fact that it was at home in front of our supporters made it that bit more special and the fact that Matt set me up was a nice touch. I hopefully repaid the favour once or twice over the years but I was pleased to at least get one!

You used to be a striker in your youth and you scored a wonder goal in your testimonial, so what do you think the reason was for the single goal career?

I guess my game evolved from being a free-scoring youngster into, very much as we mentioned earlier, a tough tackling, aggressive defender. I slotted into that more naturally than the creative side of the game and saw that as my first and foremost priority, to try and stop the opposition rather than create a goal. Maybe I should have ventured forward a little more than I did but I don’t have any regrets.

Looking back to the 90s, other than Le Tissier, it could be argued the most important factor in Southampton’s Premier League survival was the stadium itself; the Dell. As players, did you notice the advantage of playing there, or is this home advantage a bit of a myth amongst supporters?

No most definitely we knew the value of playing at the Dell in front of a loyal home support. We knew the difference that could make. One; the supporters but two; the stadium itself and the impact that could have on us as a home team and also the opposition as well.

In subsequent years I’ve spoken to many former rivals who have all admitted they hated coming to play at the Dell. Maybe because it wasn’t as luxurious as their own stadiums but also the closeness of the supporters around the pitch. It could be a pretty tough place to come and play. It was certainly a valuable thing for our survival for many years in the First Division and on to the Premier League.

Were there any opposition grounds that had the same intimidating impact on you as an away side?

Not really. I guess the era of ours it would have been Old Trafford, the old Highbury and somewhere like Anfield. We never seemed to get too much joy from those kind of teams and stadiums. They were, like now, the big games. You realised how special they were though and you’d rather play at those grounds than one or two of the others we played at that were probably worse than the Dell to be honest.

You mentioned how close the supporters were to the action at the Dell and some other grounds. Did ‘crowd interaction’ ever go too far or was it all fairly good spirited?

Yeah it was normally good spirited. I had my clashes and that could be away from home or even at the Dell. It happened once or twice with our own supporters. I wore my heart on my sleeve and if I felt aggrieved with something I’d likely show that or voice that. It was never for the lack of trying or giving 100% even when I did make a mistake. The odd booking or sending off might have been costly but I always hoped I was representing the supporters in the stands, being a local lad. Even though I might not have been technically the best of players I certainly hope I gave everything for the cause.

Looking back at your Premier League career, and your opponents and rivals;

Could you pick out the opponent who was toughest from a physical perspective?

Physically? there were a number obviously. Thinking back, Roy Keane, even as a youngster at Nottingham Forest, was a tough opponent. Strikers like Mark Hughes and {Alan} Shearer were very, very strong. There were a number of other physical players who came with reputations you were aware of. The game was full of them, more so then than it is now.

On the other side of the game does anyone stick out in your mind on a technical level?

Again, many, many players. It was the early days of foreigners coming to play in the Premier League. You had players like Gianfranco Zola and Jurgen Klinsmann. There were so many great technical players. I was trying to deal with players like {David} Beckham, Ian Wright, even Shearer. Even if not the most skilful you always had to be at your best to try and stop them. And {Eric} Cantona, as well. He was a player that, even if he wasn’t playing particularly well, just carried a presence on a football pitch.

And as predominantly a full back throughout your career, was there ever a winger or opponent who was just unstoppably quick?

There were quite a few quick ones over the years! There was a name that’s maybe not known to too many supporters nowadays, a young player at Aston Villa called Tony Daley. He was pretty rapid! A flying winger. You had {Andrei} Kanchelskis at United. I always quite liked pitting my speed against most. Then if I couldn’t match them for speed I’d obviously have to find another way to try and stop them!

On the theme of running, you must be one of a very few footballers who have run more in retirement than you did in your career. Readers may or may not be aware of the endurance challenges you have organised for charity and the money you have raised. Are there any more plans in the pipeline or have you hung up the trainers for now?

No, I’m actually training as we speak for another challenge this year. It will be taking place around the end of April, beginning of May. It will be another ultra-endurance challenge which will test me once again but hopefully raise a lot more money for the charity.

Brilliant, good luck! Lastly, having seen it first hand from its inception, do you think the Premier League is now better than ever, or did it peak in those early years that you were such a part of?

I don’t regret playing in the era that I did. I mean, from a financial perspective if I was playing now it would probably be more rewarding! But I’m very grateful and pleased to have played in the time that I did. I guess there’s always an element of looking at your own time as the best, I certainly sit and watch certain games now and think ‘I’d love to be playing’ just to really see and fully appreciate how good the top players are now.

Dan Fox

Long suffering Saints fan, Le Tissier disciple and extremely limited non-league target man.

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