Francis Benali is a Southampton Football Club legend. A stalwart in Saints’ relegation struggles in the 1990s, the committed defender made nearly 400 appearances for the club in a red and white career which spanned 17 years. A home grown fans’ favourite, Benali’s goal scoring record or rather lack of, added to his cult status.
The left back managed to score only one goal in his entire senior career (a header at the back post from a Matthew Le Tissier cross against Leicester City in December 1997 at The Dell) but his resolute defensive qualities more than compensated for that as Saints made many miraculous relegation escapes throughout his time with the club.
Since retiring from football in 2008, and after a short spell with Eastleigh, Benali has divided his time between business ventures, coaching and charitable activities. After Francis and his ex Saints colleagues narrowly defeated a Combined Services Eleven in a match in support of Help for Heroes at the Silverlake Stadium in Eastleigh, Stuart Appleby caught up with the Saints legend to talk about the day.
Q) With the match ending in a 5-5 draw and then a penalty shootout deciding the winner, the Combined Services side put up a good showing didn’t they? “They were a good side and it wasn’t that unexpected to be honest. I think from past experience going back to our days in the youth team, coming up against any armed forces side is difficult, particularly a combined forces team as you know they are going to be organised and fit. They are disciplined and you’re always going to be in for a tough game. There was some good football played at times and some fabulous goals as well. Hopefully everybody who managed to come along today helped to raise funds for Help for Heroes and the charities we’re raising the money for. I hope they enjoyed the spectacle as well.”
Q) It must have been nice to play a 90 minute match again? The conditions out there looked very good… “It’s a fabulous set up here (the Silverlake Stadium, Eastleigh) and we’ve played a few times here now as the ex Saints. It’s very good of them to help us out and provide the facility for the game because it’s a fabulous set up. The pitch is in great condition and they’ve got all the facilities that make it a very comfortable day for everyone. It’s fantastic and hopefully we’ve helped to raise some funds for the good charities involved.”
Q) Do you still get the opportunity to play a lot of football now? “I don’t play a lot nowadays but I do play the occasional game, certainly games like this really. I play the odd charity game for the ex Saints and that’s pretty much as far as the playing career goes nowadays.”
Q) Matthew Le Tissier reminded us all today of the fantastic technical ability he still has at his disposal. His first goal, in particular… “It was fantastic and it was so early in the game. It went a bit downhill for us after that but players who have got that kind of ability like Matt has (and you have seen it from Paul Merson here today as well), they never actually lose that. “I don’t think the ability or talent that they have got goes, it’s just the fitness side of it. The legs go a little bit and one or two players may put a few more pounds on but that ability to score is always there. If they get in positions on the pitch as they did today then they’re still going to be able to score.”