FORMER Southampton footballer Francis Benali will dedicate the homecoming leg of his epic seven-day IronMan-distance triathlon challenge to two young Saints fans who have been forced to face a tough battle with cancer.

The 50-year-old is preparing to take on his “IronFran” challenge later this month – swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles on a bike and then running a 26.2mile marathon every day for a week – in a bid to smash his £1m fundraising goal for Cancer Research UK.

Helping him through the pain barrier on the final day of his gruelling challenge will be schoolboys Leon Mooney and Finn Martin whose battles with cancer have had a lasting impact on Franny after he met them during a visit to Piam Brown ward at Southampton General Hospital this week.

Nine-year-old Leon, a Year 4 pupil at Foxhills Junior School in Ashurst, was diagnosed with lymphoma just three weeks ago, having gone into hospital to have his appendix removed.

It was during that operation, when surgeons found the youngsters appendix was in fact in perfect condition, that they explored further and found a lump the size of a tangerine in his bowel which later turned out to be Stage 3 cancer.

Mum Sam said: “When they told me Leon had cancer I couldn’t really believe it. I am still trying to get my head around it now.“Everything happened so quickly, it left me speechless. Not in a million years did I think this would happen to us.”

Leon, who lives in Totton with his mum, stepdad Chris and two-year-old brother Kodi, has been in hospital ever since and is having chemotherapy.

Sam said: “We are taking it day by day at the moment but he amazes us with how brave he is. To have had a visit from Franny really cheered him up. I’ve not seen a smile on Leon’s face like that for ages so it made our day.

“As a family going through this you know how important research is – it gives you hope. We think what Franny is doing to help Cancer Research UK is amazing.”

Finn, seven, was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was just three years old after a few weeks of feeling and looking unwell.

He was sent to Salisbury Hospital for checks and following blood tests doctors revealed they were almost certain it was cancer.

Mum Debbie described how her world was turned upside down as she broke the news to husband Andy, 48, over the phone.

Finn spent the next eight weeks on the Piam Brown ward after suffering a reaction to his initial chemotherapy treatment but made it home for Christmas. He has since continued to have more than two years of treatment from home in Warminster, where he lives with his parents and big brother Archie, 11.

Debbie, 48, said: “We did everything we could to make his life as normal as possible and were lucky that he stayed fairly well throughout the rest of his treatment.

“Finn had to learn to walk again but now he can ride a bike and he loves swimming – he is really strong in the water. When he went to school he was struggling to hold a pencil because of the effect of the treatment on his hand, but now he writes beautifully.”

Debbie added: “Being told your child has cancer is awful. It devastates you in every way – as individuals, as a family, financially. But it also makes you incredibly strong.

“It has been a long three years but Finn has amazed us all. He finally finished treatment at the start of the year and got to ring the end of treatment bell on the ward in February which was quite a moment.

“As a huge Saints fan like his brother Archie, meeting Franny was a fantastic experience for Finn. We are all in awe of what he is doing to raise £1m for Cancer Research UK and hope everyone gets behind him because we need better treatments and for more people to survive this disease.”

IronFran from April 29 to May 5 is the third and final challenge for Franny as he hopes to smash his £1m fundraising goal for Cancer Research UK.

He’s thought to be the oldest man in the UK to take on such a gruelling challenge which will see him once again journey across England with the aim of raising vital funds for research.

It’s by far his most physical challenge yet but one he is determined he can complete – despite the fact he’s never undertaken a triathlon before.

He dreamt up IronFran while on holiday with his wife Karen, in November last year and began training shortly after.

His first challenge, Benali’s Big Run, was over three weeks and involved running to every Premier League club, up to 50 miles a day. Benali’s Big Race followed, over two weeks, and involved running a marathon and then cycling at least 75 miles each day between Premier League and Championship clubs.

During the week-long feat he will be supported by Karen, his children Luke and Kenzie, and family and friends. He’s also set to meet cancer survivors, patients and CRUK scientists to help spur him on when the going gets tough.

He said: “Having a focus every day is hugely important to me and I can think of nobody better than Leon and Finn after meeting them on Piam Brown ward this week. “They are two inspirational boys who will both be at the very forefront of my mind when I have to find a way to break through the pain barrier on that final day of the challenge in Southampton.”Franny added: “I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for a parent to find out their child has cancer and then be forced to watch them being so poorly and feel so helpless. Knowing the money we raise will directly fund research which could have a potentially life-saving outcome for a child with cancer is hugely motivating.”

To find out more visit To donate £5 text Fran5 or £10 text Fran10 to 70200