“The world seemed to stand still for an eternity. When it hit the back of the net, the crowd and my teammates were as stunned as I was… I’d had a few ideas over the years of what I’d eventually do when I scored, but that went completely out of the window.”
Adrenaline fuzzing the brain, Franny Benali’s best laid plans went up in smoke as he catapulted himself into the arms of his nearest teammate, Kevin Richardson, and thrust his right fist into the air in triumph.
A sea of red and white quickly swallowed him up, as every outfield Saint rushed to acclaim this rarest of goalscorers.
All except one, that is, as assist provider Matt Le Tissier ambled across in his own sweet time, waiting for the crowds to die down to greet his best mate, gripping him fondly around the neck and playfully pushing his head, grin nearly as wide as the man he set up to score.
“Now you know how it feels,” Le Tissier, by now approaching a double century of Saints goals, could have been forgiven for saying. But this was Benali’s moment.
Rarely was one goal greeted by such exuberance at The Dell, as the name of Saints’ ultimate unsung hero suddenly boomed around this tightest of stadiums. So often on the supporting cast, Benali had finally landed the lead role.
For the one and only time.
“I don’t have any regrets, but maybe a few less red cards and a few more goals would have been nice,” he reflects, 24 years on. “But maybe the fact I only got one makes it more unique.”
The greatest irony to his solitary strike is that Benali actually started out as a striker alongside some stellar names who racked up more than 500 top-flight goals between them.
“It didn’t help that my mate (Le Tissier) from the same youth team had scored hundreds of goals,” he laughs. “I’d played in the same youth team as Rodney Wallace and Alan Shearer too.
“I started out as a striker alongside those boys and went in the reverse direction. The goals I was scoring at youth level were probably down to the fact I was a big, strong, quick centre-forward for my age, as opposed to being a talented goalscorer.
“As time went on, I knew I wasn’t going to be scoring goals in the first team, and that made me focus on the defensive duties of my game.”
Perhaps Benali took his own assumption a bit too literally. As the seasons ticked by, the goal tally was unmoved. Whether it was his job to score or not, the burden grew heavier.
“From a goalscoring perspective, I sat on a zero. I had more important things to focus on but as time went on, I was very mindful of the fact I hadn’t scored,” he admits.
“It would get joked about by the guys – not in a nasty way – and quite often with the supporters.
“During games I was very aware that sections of the crowd were willing me to shoot and score because I’d never done it. They wanted me to get that goal.”
Approaching a decade since his first-team debut, 1997 was the summer of Benali’s testimonial; a 7-7 draw in which he did actually score – a goal before
– just not in an official, competitive game.
“I scored a right-footed curler into the top corner past Tim Flowers, who was definitely trying to stop it,” he insists. “Maybe that gave me a taste for the following season.”
This was an era in which Saints were perennial Premier League strugglers, often bailed out by their own refusal to lie down, a change in manager, or simply something exceptional from Le Tissier.
By ’97, Saints had survived the first five Premier League seasons – once on goal difference and three times by a solitary point.
Only in 1994/95, Alan Ball’s one full season as manager, was there temporary respite for the supporters as their team finished 10th. Even then, Saints found themselves in the drop zone at the start of April.
The advent of the Premier League in 1992 meant more money coming in and the rich getting richer.
Southampton, who had the smallest stadium in the top flight, were finding it increasingly difficult to compete.
“There was a period where we were struggling with the 15,000 capacity of The Dell once it went to all-seater,” Benali explains.
“We didn’t have the resources of some of the other clubs, even though we’d been in the Premier League ever since its initial concept. In the media, we were often written off from day one.
“There have always been bigger sides and we were very aware of the importance of staying in the division and the money the Premier League brought.
“At the start of every season, we always said we must be a Premier League side come the end of it.”
For all the lost revenue, eventually leading to the move to St Mary’s, The Dell had a unique charm. “Southampton away” was not a phrase rival clubs relished.
“There was a real bond between everyone at the club and the supporters. I truly believe The Dell helped us get through those difficult seasons when we were struggling to stay up,” Benali continues.
“I experienced that transition between The Dell and St Mary’s. it was a difficult one in making St Mary’s our home and settling into a brand-new stadium, as amazing as it was. The Dell offered something to us that was beneficial whenever we played.
“We definitely had to rely on the bulk of points coming from home victories. The proximity of the supporters to the pitch at The Dell… from an opposition player’s perspective, it wasn’t the most luxurious or welcoming. That helped us, especially when we were on top of our game.”
Nobody felt that close connection to the fans as strongly as their uncompromising left-back.
“As a boy that was born in the city and went to school within walking distance of the stadium, it was home,” he says. “I knew everything about it.
“I grew up around it and ultimately wanted to play there, so it was very special. Whenever I stepped out onto the turf, I was always grateful to be in the shirt.
“There were people I knew in the stadium. I knew where they were in the ground. I knew where so many family and friends were, and I could make eye contact with them on the pitch. You could almost speak to them, they were that close.
“It just felt like the norm, to have that connection with the supporters. We knew other teams didn’t like coming to The Dell; the Uniteds, the Liverpools. The supporters knew that as well.
“When the big sides came, there was always an air of excitement. They wanted to see their side take on the household names and get a good result against them.”
The fans had good reason to be optimistic. Sir Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Manchester United left emptyhanded on three consecutive visits to The Dell between 1996 and 1998, while Liverpool took home just one point from five trips between 1989 and 1994.
As for ’97, another narrow escape from relegation preceded the departure of hot-headed manager Graeme Souness, replaced by the softly-spoken Dave Jones.
Whilst the former was a household name with Liverpool and Scotland, his successor was an unassuming character plucked from Stockport County, who had never managed above the third tier but rose to prominence after guiding the Hatters to the League Cup semi-finals.
“There’s always that element of ‘what now?’ when a new manager comes in,” Benali recalls. “Dave was relatively quiet, but you knew what he wanted from you. He was good to work with.
“We were aware of his cup run with Stockport and a few players from that side followed him. One in particular was a player in my position to replace me, Lee Todd.
“It felt like a snub. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take it to heart – I took it very personally. It’s good for competition, but when you’re the one who’s faced with being replaced… my reaction was to think, ‘okay I’ll show you and prove you wrong’.
“I was quite frustrated when I wasn’t playing. It’s more of a squad game now, but back then, even as a sub you were spitting feathers as you wanted to be in that XI.
“Every player thinks they should be in the side. Appearance money and bonuses made a big difference to your monthly pay packet.”
As was often the case, Saints started slowly, winning just one of Jones’s first nine league games and propping up the table at the start of October.
But experienced signings Carlton Palmer, David Hirst and Richardson – all England internationals who arrived in the autumn – helped steady the ship.
“Kevin Richardson was the quieter of the three. Carlton Palmer was larger than life and brought a lot of experience and personality to the club,” Benali remembers.
“That can rub one or two players up the wrong way, but they were certainly a positive influence. They wanted to come and do well.
“Hirsty had a few injury problems, but he had a great record and popped up with some important goals that season. He was a class player. Injuries didn’t help his career, but he had the ability to score goals.
“At the time, we always seemed to have a slow start. We always seemed to be on the back foot, knowing we needed to pull results out of the bag.
“Again, that just built our resolve and resilience. We knew it was a long race, but we left it tight on occasions.
“It still baffles me to this day why we left it late, but the fact we managed to step up when we had to is testament to the team.”
After an impressive revival of six wins out of seven in all competitions, Saints slumped to four straight defeats, and were hovering precariously above the bottom three when Leicester, who defeated Stockport’s conquerors Middlesbrough to win the League Cup eight months prior, arrived on the south coast on Saturday 13th December.
Lucky for some, as it happens.
“They were a good side, very capable of doing well in the cups. Martin O’Neill was a good manager, they had some good players with a good balance to the side. My memories of playing them weren’t always good – I broke my arm in a game at Filbert Street,” Benali recalls. He played on that day, of course.
Good balance or not, Leicester were caught cold by Le Tissier inside two minutes.
Leading at the interval, Saints were awarded a free-kick nine minutes into the second half, 30 yards from goal but right of centre – not a kind angle for Saints’ right-footed No 7 to go for goal.
“I didn’t usually go up for set-pieces,” Benali picks up the story. “I can’t tell you to this day what I was doing in the 18-yard box because I was normally floating in and around the halfway line, or at the very best outside the box waiting to clear up any clearances or knockdowns.”
On this occasion, the defender positioned himself slightly wider than the rest, socially distanced from the crowd scene, in line with the penalty spot.
“Maybe the Leicester players knew my record and thought I wouldn’t be too much of a threat. If Matt was picking me out, I don’t know why! He more than anybody would have known my record,” Benali muses.
“He put quite a bit of pace on the ball, so I just knew I had to try and head it back across goal. It came off my forehead in a pretty powerful manner and went in off the underside of the bar. As soon as it left my head, I thought, ‘that’s a good connection’.
“I saw the line of the ball heading towards goal and there was a split second where I thought it had a chance.
“The world seemed to stand still for an eternity. When it hit the back of the net, the crowd and my teammates were as stunned as I was. It was an incredible feeling and a great moment.
“I ran off screaming, not making much sense. I’d had a few ideas over the years of what I’d eventually do when I scored, but that went completely out of the window.
“The amount of people who’ve said they were there that day, we must have had a capacity of 50,000!
“The fact it came at The Dell and that Matt set me up, given our history of playing together for so long and our friendship, made it very special.”
Two up and cruising, even Benali – the epitome of a team man – couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his one brush with glory slip away once Robbie Savage set up a tense finish with a fine shot from distance with six minutes left.
“Whenever I see him on media duties, he tells me it was about 35 yards out! I probably stepped up my defensive efforts to make sure they didn’t get an equaliser. I still tell him I scored the best goal of the game,” he adds, “and it made sure we got all three points.”
The Hollywood script was complete. No clean sheet, so often his first priority, but Benali had gone one better and scored the winner.
“On too many occasions, I’d walk into the players’ lounge having been sent off. To all of a sudden be talking about scoring your first goal to help us win the game was a very nice occasion for me and the family.
“My father-in-law always used to put a couple of pound on me to score the first goal. Karen, my wife, joked afterwards, 'even when you did score, it still wasn't the first goal. Even at odds of 100/1 we're still out of pocket!'
“I hope the supporters enjoyed the goal as much as I did. There was a little line of t-shirts that said ‘I was there when Franny scored’ that sold one or two.
“The overriding emotion was joy and happiness. There was probably a bit of relief as well knowing I’d at least managed to get one.”
Saints never did slip back into the relegation zone, signing off the 1997/98 campaign safe in 12th place.
Six years later, with The Dell no longer standing, it was finally time for Benali to wake from his dream.
After 16 seasons of proving the doubters wrong, earning the trust of sceptical managers and seeing off rival left-backs, he called time on his Saints career. Three hundred and eighty-nine appearances, one goal.
Where were you when Franny scored?