Book Review – Francis Benali: The Autobiography: Football Man to Iron Fran

It is a well-known fact that footballers’ careers are relatively short (unless you’re Rivaldo, Sheringham or Paolo Maldini, all of whom played for a remarkable 25 seasons – a whole quarter of a century). So when it comes to hanging up the boots, there is an inevitable and marked void to fill. Unsurprisingly, a number of players have struggled with the transition to post-football life, whilst others kick back and enjoy a well-earned rest. What they don’t do is to decide to take up endurance sport – that is, aside from Francis Benali. And there’s endurance sport and endurance sport. Not satisfied with a ‘simple’ marathon, the former Saints man took on three challenges of truly superhuman effort and all in the name of a good cause. His autobiography, aptly subtitled Football Man to Iron Fran, charts this incredible journey.

Whilst I was familiar with the name Francis Benali, I wasn’t at all familiar with his career or his story, but two things quickly become apparent in his autobiography: one, he’s Southampton through and through, and two, on the pitch he was a very different beast to off it. Moulded from a striker into a full-back renowned for his tenacity, Benali was more accustomed to a red card than a goal. An unyielding and uncompromising defender, he earnt himself something of a reputation, but his willingness to the tackle was simply his manifestation of his commitment to the cause and the Southampton badge. Although, admittedly, it didn’t always stay within the letter of the law.

Growing up within view of the Dell, his passion for his hometown club was something that was ingrained in him from childhood and translated into a work ethic and loyalty that saw him progress through the academy into the first team, turning his dream into a reality. In a modern era when players tend to be snapped up from all over by clubs and hometown talents are increasingly few and far between, Benali’s genuine allegiance and love for his team is sadly ever more rare. Even as the Premier League behemoth raised its head, Benali’s priority remained loyalty over money, staying at Saints, despite losing his place in his latter years, for almost twenty years, boy and man. This in itself is real Roy of the Rovers stuff, worthy of a footballing autobiography, but in fact, it’s his post-football life that is truly remarkable.

As with many pros before him, Benali attests to the difficulty of ending his playing days. It’s something that has been given more prominence in recent years after the struggles of some have been highlighted, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed. With limited opportunities in media, management and coaching, there is a real issue over what happens to the majority of footballers as they try to navigate a new life. Benali’s first steps were in coaching, but it didn’t fill the void, and it was only when he completed his first marathon that he began to contemplate a different path. A very different and a very long path. In fact, a path that was some 838 miles long – almost the length of the British Isles!

Having seen others complete epic endurance challenges for charity, Benali began to wonder just what his own physical boundaries were and came up with the idea of running to all 20 Premier League grounds, setting himself the target of raising £1 million for charity. Mission accomplished after three testing weeks, Benali wasn’t done there. It seemed his physical boundaries were barely in sight after only 838 miles. Naturally, a second challenge was conjured up, tougher and further than the last. This time, Benali set out to cover 1,415 miles – roughly the distance from London to Tripoli, if you fancy it – taking in the 44 Premier League and Championship grounds, this time on a combination of foot and bike. Whilst this pushed Benali yet further, miraculously his physical boundaries remained very much intact, and even more surprising he hadn’t reached his £1 million charity target. To my mind, the first challenge alone warranted the donations. Nevertheless, a third challenge was concocted, which would see Benali add a third discipline to his roster, to create the Iron Fran challenge. A mere 984 miles this time, but 16 of those were to be swum, 784 cycled and 183 run… in the space of a week. Physical boundaries would be well and truly breached this time round, but with genuinely superhuman efforts he got there. And whilst modern-day footballers may be deemed supreme athletes, few athletes of any kind could achieve what Benali did.

The end of a footballer’s career can often be a difficult and unsettling time, physically and mentally, and it is rare that they build significantly on their legacy. Their life on the pitch often proves to be the peak of their powers and their stature, and many former greats slide right out of people’s consciousness once the boots are hung up. But Francis Benali has done the opposite, making a modest name for himself before retiring from football and cementing it after.

Jade Craddock


(Publisher: Bloomsbury Sport. August 2021. Hardcover: 240 pages)


Buy the book here: Francis Benali

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Please Don’t Take Me Home is the emotional tale of Italian immigrant Simone Abitante’s 20-year love affair with Fulham Football Club.

After leaving his native country, Simone falls in love with London and its oldest club, embarking on a personal mission to spread the word and get Fulham recognised beyond Britain by as many people as possible.

Following the Cottagers through the most successful spell in their modern history, Simone takes his nephews to Craven Cottage where – together with new friends and Whites addicts Jeff, Mark and Ben – they experience unforgettable wins, exhilarating highs and devastating lows, amid rivers of beer, true friendship and an unquenchable passion for the beautiful game.

Even after leaving London for Mallorca, Simone keeps following his beloved Fulham, with that famous white jersey serving as a second skin.

Played out against a backdrop of heartbreaks, departures and life-changing decisions, Please Don’t Take Me Home is a footballing story every fan can relate to.

(Publisher: Pitch Publishing Ltd. March 2022. Hardcover: 224 pages)

2019/20: An Incredible Journey. Match Day 24 (Part 1) – Saturday 22 February 2020: Brentford v Blackburn Rovers

“The BIG Weekend!”

Matchday programme cover

At the beginning of the year Paul and I had started making plans to go and see Brentford at their Griffin Park ground before they moved to their new home, the Brentford Community Stadium. Paul had initially sent me a message confirming that he had bought a ticket and his seat number in the Braemar Road Stand for the Brentford versus Blackburn Rovers game on Saturday 22 February. I was all over the Brentford website in an instant and managed to book the seat next to him. Stage 1 of the plan achieved.

Then Sky TV intervened. The game was selected to be televised so what was a 3.00pm kick off was moved back to 12.30pm. So being the good Project Manager that I am I did a quick SWOT analysis. Strength – the game was still on. Weakness – change of kick-off time, so needed to get to the ground earlier, thankfully I would already be in London, but more of that later. However, Paul had to be able to change his train ticket to get down and across London in time. Opportunity – we could go to more than one game and try to get to a 3.00pm kick off in too. Threat – transport between games. However, I had arranged to take my car to London for the weekend. Good contingency planning and mitigation!

So which other game could we attend? The following were all considered at some stage in our conversation.

  • Leyton Orient, Millwall and along with Griffin Park, were grounds in the capital I hadn’t attended. I have been pretty much to all the other grounds in London primarily following Chelsea including stadiums no longer used, such as Highbury, White Hart Lane, and Plough Lane. I’ve also attended games at both the old and new Wembley, but still had to visit the Emirates Stadium and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. In addition, I hadn’t visited Kingsmeadow, the home of AFC Wimbledon’s. On the Saturday of the Brentford fixture, The O’s (Leyton Orient) and The Dons (AFC Wimbledon) were both at home.
  • Harking back to my desire to watch on this journey previous FA Cup winners from the end of the 19th Century. The following teams still existed and had teams playing in the London area, however playing at a much lower level than the 10th tier of the football pyramid that AFC Darwen (whose forerunners Darwen FC who had featured in Netflix’s The English Game drama series). These included, Wanderers who play in the Surrey South Eastern Combination, Clapham Rovers of the Southern Sunday Football League, and Old Carthusians plying their trade in the Arthurian League.
  • There was also the option of non-league teams with Bromley, Dagenham & Redbridge, Sutton United, Welling United and Wealdstone all at home in the National League.

So what did we decide? All will be revealed in Part 2 of Match Day 24!

Griffin Park

This was to be Brentford’s final season at Griffin Park, and they would be starting the 2020/21 season in their new Community Stadium. Chelsea haven’t played at Griffin Park in the League since 1947 with their last visit in the FA Cup in January 2013. Whilst I was living in London, I was going to Chelsea home games and primarily only their away games with the capital. However, I have travelled further afield in my time following The Blues. I think my longest journey has been from London to Grimsby to see them promoted as Champions of the old Second Division (now the Championship). My only tenuous connection to Brentford was that I did play cricket in Hounslow and Griffin Park was the closest football club, and I didn’t have any friends who support The Bees.

Brentford have played at Griffin Park since 1904 and is probably most famous for being the only ground in the English Football League with a public house on each corner of the ground – The Brook, The Griffin, The Princess Royal and The New Inn. The grounds name of Griffin Park comes from the emblem of the Fullers brewery who owned the orchard where the ground now stands. In February 1983, the Braemar Road Stand caught fire and the then groundsman, Alec Banks, was rescued by Stan Bowles who was playing at the club at the time. Brentford also hold the top four tier record of winning every home game (21) in the 1929/30 season in the Third Division South, so it has been a fortress in the past.

Behind the Braemar Road Stand

After securing a car parking spot close to the stadium for a quick getaway for game two later in the day, and then a stroll round the stadium to photograph all four pubs around the ground I met Paul met at the Braemar Road entrance which is the only side with any real evidence that there is a football ground hidden amongst the housing. Griffin Park will no doubt be missed, with its quirky alley behind the Braemar Stand, wall adorned with former Bees Legends and the narrow double-decker stand which today houses the travelling Blackburn fans. This fixture was one of the last seven league games at Brentford for fans to pay their respects to the ground, but little did we know that day that only one more of those would see fans in the venue (v Sheffield Wednesday, 07 March 2020) as COVID-19 struck. Funnily enough (as this is published – 22 July 2020) the day will see the final Behind Closed Doors games in the Championship, with The Bees hosting Barnsley. Depending on results, it could see Brentford start 2020/21 in the Premier League, or it could see Brentford have one final game at Griffin Park as they take play in the Play-Offs. Either way, the pity is that the Bees faithful won’t be there to witness the final action.

Of the game itself, The Bees backed by a vociferous home crowd started the better of the two teams. However, Brentford were done by a ‘route-one’ goal on eleven minutes. Visiting ‘keeper Christian Walton launched a huge kick downfield aided by the wind, which Bees defender Ethan Pinnock completely misjudged and allowed Adam Armstrong to cleverly lob over David Raya to give Rovers the lead. Brentford though responded and Walton was forced into a save from Bryan Mbeumo. Blackburn though were dangerous on the break, through goal-scorer Armstrong, whilst The Bees had had to settle for mass possession and the odd half-chance, with a Mbeuemo header from a corner going narrowly wide. Rovers though were happy to sit back and were content to go in 1-0 up at half-time.

Armstrong puts away Rovers penalty

Just as in the first-half, Rovers caught Brentford cold in the opening spell of the second-half. On fifty-four minutes, The Bees once again contributed to giving away another goal. Armstrong got behind the home defence, with Raya making the save, as the ‘keeper went to collect the loose ball he was adjudged to have bundled over John Buckley. Armstrong stepped up and coolly slotted into the bottom left-hand corner as Raya was sent the wrong way. Brentford now 2-0 down responded quickly, when on sixty-two minutes, Ollie Watkins latched onto a long-ball with Blackburn claiming offside, and he lashed it home to reduce the deficit. The comeback was complete with nineteen minutes remaining when substitute Mads Roerslev got into the box between Bell and Johnson and went down. The referee pointed to the spot and Saïd Benrahma did the rest to level the game at two apiece. With the penalty slotted home, it was time to make a decision. If we wanted to make it to our second game of the day for kick-off, we would have to leave this game early. It’s not something either of us would normally do, but reluctantly with fifteen minutes to play we said farewell to Griffin Park. Highlights show that Benrahma had a chance to win it, when played in, which Walton saved with his feet. However, we didn’t miss any further goals with the game ending 2-2, but by that time we were on the road and heading out of West London for Part 2 of Match Day 24.


Saturday 22 February 2020

Sky Bet Championship

Brentford 2 (Watkins 62’, Benrahma 71’pen) Blackburn Rovers 2 (Armstrong 11’, 54’pen)

Venue: Griffin Park

Attendance: 12,082

Brentford: Raya; Dalsgaard, Jeanvier (Roerslev 54’), Pinnock, Henry (Dervi?o?lu 84’); Marcondes (Baptiste 60’), Nørgaard, Dasilva; Mbeumo, Watkins, Benrahma.

Unused Substitutes: Daniels, Oksanen, Fosu, Valencia

Blackburn Rovers: Walton; Nyambe, Lenihan, Adarabioyo, Bell; Johnson, Travis, Buckley (Gallagher 65’); Downing; Samuel (Bennett 73’), Armstrong. 

Unused Substitutes: Leutwiler, Graham, Davenport, Brereton, Bennett, Carter


Steve Blighton