Southampton legend Franny Benali shares the best of his Saints memories from a near two decade career at St Mary's...
I think there are quite a few – big moments like my debut, my full debut, the ZDS Cup final at Wembley, scoring my goal against Leicester and my testimonial game, which is a night I’ll never forget. But from a purely football perspective, it would be the 4-1 victory over Liverpool at The Dell in the late 80s (1989). I was still a young player in the team and Liverpool arrived unbeaten that season, and went on to win the title. It just felt like every time we attacked we were going to score. We had a really young side that played with absolutely no fear and had complete confidence in beating Liverpool that day. The crowd certainly played their part, as they often did at The Dell, so that’s one that really stands out for me.
Scoring my goal! Other than that, as cheesy as it sounds, it was just an incredible feeling to pull on a Saints shirt on every single occasion that I was able to run out on to that pitch.
Reaching the FA Cup final in 2003, even though I wasn’t playing regularly by then, and reaching the ZDS Cup final at the old Wembley would be up there. But I’d probably say, given our resources as a club, surviving in the top flight and maintaining our status throughout my time as a player. We came very close (to relegation), as many will remember – too close for comfort at times – but that sense of achievement and battling the odds against bigger clubs with bigger budgets was something I’m proud to have been part of.
I think you know where I’m going with this one… maybe I should say somebody different just to shock everybody! He’s left me out of one of his dream teams before, but it would have to be Matt (Le Tissier). Purely and simply a genius, and such a great friend throughout my entire career and beyond. I’ve always admired what he could do and the way he went about things. No hesitation on that one – it has to be Matt.
BENALI ON MATT LE TISSIERPurely and simply a genius, and such a great friend throughout my entire career and now.
I had lots of different roommates – maybe they were all requesting not to share with me! Being the club captain, I would often welcome new players to help them settle in, and part of that would be sharing a room on away trips. In the latter years, it would have been players like Marian Pahars, but before that there was Matt, Jeff Kenna, Gordon Watson... I think they all knew I liked my sleep, so I used to get my head down pretty early and have a lie-in the next day. I liked to be well rested before a game!
Iain Dowie and Tim Flowers were funny, and Neil Ruddock was a larger than life character in every sense! I think if you ask ex-players what they miss the most, playing is one thing, but the camaraderie in the dressing room is another massive part of it. Those three were certainly up there in the humour stakes.
You’ve put me on the spot now! I tried to learn something from all of them. I really liked Alan Ball, who used me as a man marker and really knew how to motivate the players in his squad with that pure passion he had for the game. Gordon Strachan was very similar – he was great to play under. Then there were others like Souness and Hoddle – Glenn was a master tactician – but I’d probably say it was between Bally and Strachan. I always had a soft spot for Dave Merrington as well – he was our youth team manager before he took the first-team job, so he knew all about the lads who came through the system.
Best team talk?
Sometimes it didn’t have to be a serious one, it could be a light-hearted one that was just appropriate for the circumstances. Bally often came out with something that was just right in that given moment, and just to be sitting in front of a World Cup winner always made you listen to what he had to say.
Best personal performance?
Quite often I would base a personal performance on the result of a game. You hear strikers who score a goal but lose the game and say ‘it counts for nothing’, and I often felt like that if we didn’t win. If I was asked to man-mark a player, we won the game and he didn’t score, I would’ve seen that as a success. After any clean sheet and a victory, I always felt I had done my job.
Best team performance?
I think the game I mentioned against Liverpool would have to be up there. It was a young, fearless side and we were virtually playing in a 4-2-4 formation. It was almost like an all-out-attack mentality with a group of players who had largely grown up together, sprinkled with some experience in the side as well. It seemed to be a perfect balance. Performance-wise, that’s the game stands out.
Best opposition team?
That Liverpool team were dominating the top flight of English football at the time, but I think the best would’ve been Man United, who were so dominant through the 90s. We had quite a few successes against them at The Dell, but they were a formidable team. I think when they had the midfield of Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Giggs they were at their peak.
Best opposition player?
They were all tough! Some were skilful, some were physically strong and some were very quick. Some of the central strikers I was asked to mark – the likes of Eric Cantona, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer – were particularly difficult opponents for different reasons.
Best away day?
The big grounds, Old Trafford and Anfield, were the ones you would see the most on TV as a boy growing up. They’re iconic stadiums and were great places to play at.
Best thing about Southampton?
Just the fact that I was able to enjoy a 20-year association with my hometown club, signing at 14 and retiring at 34. I was forever pinching myself that I was being paid to do something that I had a love and a passion for, whilst surrounded by my family and friends in my home city. It was an absolute dream.