There are a few factors that made this exercise with Saints legend Francis Benali slightly trickier than it may have initially seemed. 

The first is the sheer magnitude of the full-back’s career on the South Coast. Having joined the youth set-up in 1985, the Southampton native made his first-team debut in 1988, going on to play 369 times over a span of 16 years. Dozens of talented players came and went while a number of legends carved their legacies during the Benali era. 

From the old First Division to the modern Premier League, Francis Benali pretty much saw it all. And that means he played with a catalogue of memorable teammates.

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The second challenge is the total team nature of football - exemplified over and over again by the teams Benali was a part of - constantly fighting to defy the odds when some on the outside had written them off. It’s something Benali makes sure to highlight.

“We're talking about particular elements of the game: speed, heading ability, skill, stamina,” Benali explains. “And that's what makes a team. Some players are better or have better attributes or qualities than others and that's the magic of the sport. The uniqueness of gelling a group of players to become a team that can win games of football is that you hopefully bring out those strengths and qualities that everyone has.

Daily Echo: “I had my weaknesses. And hopefully, you play to your strengths and focus on the strengths of every single member of the team - which is what it’s all about really. Trying to be good enough with the things that you're not quite so good at but bringing those things to the table that you are good at. And making that an asset for the team.”

The third and final major challenge we faced revolves around the character of Benali. As someone who always tries to recall those he crosses paths with in a positive light, choosing just one player for each category was a struggle in itself.

"It was a real pleasure and an honour for me to play with every single teammate of mine over the years and work with the members of staff at the football club and represent the city and the supporters," he said during one particularly tough decision.

"Because as a boy born in the city, that's always how I felt. I felt fortunate to be out on the pitch and felt a responsibility that I was representing every single supporter."

But despite the challenges, here is Francis Benali’s ‘perfect’ Southampton player from nearly two decades as a Saint…

The Spark of Genius: Matt Le Tissier

Saints Years: 1985-2002

Saints Apps: 540

"Quite unsurprisingly to every single Saints fan, it would be Matt Le Tissier, without question. An absolute genius. He's been a very close friend and teammate, ever since we joined the club at 16. 

"He was an absolute star in our team for many seasons, a player that could just pull something out of the bag when we needed it. So yeah, to play alongside him and also train alongside him on a day to day basis, and see what he was capable of doing day in day out was just a privilege and an honour. It was quite incredible some of the things he was able to do when it mattered most, which was out on the football pitch.

"If it was a close game, or even if it wasn't - even if we needed a couple of goals - you knew Matt was capable of producing a goal or some piece of brilliance out of nowhere. And that always made us a bit of a tough opponent.

Daily Echo: Benali and Le Tissier lead Saints out in the final ever match at The Dell. Image by: PABenali and Le Tissier lead Saints out in the final ever match at The Dell. Image by: PA

"We always had a real togetherness, a real strong bond, as a group of players over the years. And I think we had a little bit of a mindset of it was us against the world in many ways. You know, we weren't always the biggest team with the biggest resources. But we had a great team spirit, we had a star - Matt - and we had a ground and a fanbase that could make it a very difficult place to go and play.

"He had a crazy way of beating opponents with very little or, or small effort, which maybe sums up Matt quite nicely. He did it with what seemed like complete ease to the rest of us that were witnessing it. It used drive me up the wall as a teammate, trying to stop him in training. It could be really frustrating because he would just make it look so simple. You'd be really trying your best to stop him and he was still capable of making you look quite silly.

"There were countless occasions in training where, you know, he would nutmeg you and things like that and you always felt like he was doing it for fun, almost just to tease you. And sometimes it probably got the wrong reaction from me, the steam would have been coming out of my ears a little bit that he’d made me look a bit daft in training. But he always did it with a good sense of humour. And yeah, it was brilliant to witness, albeit you were on the wrong end of it sometimes!"

Heading: Kevin Moore

Saints Years: 1987-1994

Saints Apps: 185

"I played with some really good defenders that were powerful and strong and had the timing and things like that. Obviously, every single player on the pitch in different positions needs to be good at heading the ball, but from a defensive perspective, especially being a defender, I remember the likes of Ken Moncou and Dean Richards being really strong, powerful headerers of the ball.

"But for that one specific element of the game, I think I’d have to say, Kevin Moore. Bless him. He's no longer with us now, he died well before he should have. 

"He was just…I think there might even be a picture…the header he scored in the ZDS final at Wembley against Nottingham Forest. Sat here now talking to you about it, I've got visions…I remember him leaping so high that it seemed like he headed the ball above the height of the crossbar. I may be completely wrong, but that's how it seemed to me at the time. He had an incredible leap, a great ability for his timing and the power of his heading."

Daily Echo: Kevin Moore above everyone to head in against Nottingham Forest. Image by: PAKevin Moore above everyone to head in against Nottingham Forest. Image by: PA

Speed: Rodney Wallace

Saints Years: 1986-1991

Saints Apps: 151

"A number of names pop into my head straight away. But I had the real pleasure of playing as a fullback behind Rodney Wallace in our early days at Southampton. Rodney was just lightning. He was very slim and relatively small in physical stature, but my word, could he move. His elder brother Danny was pretty sharp as well, Saints fans of a certain age would remember Danny and he was an explosive player. 

"But Rodney had everything. He had good quick feet, he was good with both feet, could score goals and was lightning fast. So he must have been an absolute nightmare for defenders to come up against.

"When you've got that dynamic in your team, it's a useful weapon to have. When I came up against it, you were very mindful of it. I used to think I was fairly quick and would pit my wits against most players. But if they were on a whole new level, then it changes how you’ve got to defend. And if they can play and they've got real talent and ability as well? Then it's a great mixture to have."

Stamina: Carlton Palmer/Paul Telfer

Saints Years: 1997-1999/2001-2005

Saints Apps: 52/148

"There were some fit lads but two names spring to mind from a fitness perspective. I was always pretty much out near the front of any fitness runs in preseason and stuff like that. But there were a couple of guys over the years that I remember for their stamina and their endurance. One would be Carlton Palmer, who played in midfield for us. He had a proper engine on him, he could just go forever. 

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"The other one would be Paul Telfer, towards the end of my playing days under Gordon Strachan. He was, again, just somebody who was incredible at the long-distance stuff and the stamina to go through 90+ minutes. Those guys had it in abundance."

Finishing: James Beattie

Saints Years: 1998-2005

Saints Apps: 235

"I guess Matt has got to come into this category. So does Rod Wallace, Marian Pahars. But there was a period where James Beattie was just such a goal threat.

"I only scored one competitive goal through my career but what was always important - trying to break it down - was that calmness I think. They were the good goalscorers - they had that calmness in the box. The players that sort of snatched at shots and were a little bit more tense tended not to be the best goalscorers. And James had the calmness about him and the ability to put the ball in the back of the net when it mattered."

Daily Echo: James Beattie celebrates scoring for Saints. Image by: PAJames Beattie celebrates scoring for Saints. Image by: PA

Tackling: Jimmy Case

Saints Years: 1984-1991

Saints Apps: 272

"We had a few enforcers over the years, players that could look after themselves in an era of the game when the physical side was quite prevalent. I stepped on the wrong side of that with officials myself - as lots of Saints fans will know! 

"But Jimmy Case immediately springs to mind. He was as tough as they come and was a senior pro when myself and other young lads were breaking through. He was very much the minder for the side - not just us as young lads but every player who was out there in a Saints shirt. He was very much the captain, the leader, and the enforcer of the team. So Jimmy would be right at the top of the list.

"Then it would be Terry Hurlock and Neil Ruddock who had similar sorts of traits. Quite often as it did back then, if games swung in a certain way and there was a physical encounter or things started to get a little bit feisty, if you had Jimmy Case, Terry Hurlock and Neil Ruddock around it made things a lot easier!

Football IQ: Ronnie Ekelund

Saints Years: 1994-1995

Saints Apps: 20

"Matt would quite clearly come into this category. And Matt speaks about the connection he had with Ronnie Ekelund when he came in for a short period of time at the club. And that wavelength, being on a level of understanding, seeing passes within a game that other players don’t see. Matt always recognised that in Ronnie - and he was the nicest guy you could wish to meet as well.

"He fitted in extremely well. I maybe didn’t appreciate the talents he did have at the time but he was a wonderful footballer."

Daily Echo: Ekelund celebrating one of his five Saints goals. Image by: PAEkelund celebrating one of his five Saints goals. Image by: PA

The Team Talker: Francis Benali & The Saints Core

"I tried to be a character and a voice within the dressing room personally when I felt it was appropriate to speak up, or try and motivate the players and help us as a group. So I guess I looked at myself to try and be that person on occasions - when it was needed.

"I played with some really really strong characters and personalities. And I think that often shone through in a leadership sense. You've got to have something about you to reach that level and perform at that level. 

"Quite often, unfortunately, we were sort of scrapping and fighting against relegation. I’ve got lots of memories of how we were almost written off by the outside world. But it was always crucial for us - me personally as an individual within the squad, but collectively especially - to have that belief and confidence in one another that we would pull through and we would survive, or win a game of football, whatever the case was, at any given time. 

Daily Echo: Francis Benali in action for Saints. Image by: PAFrancis Benali in action for Saints. Image by: PA

"Honestly, it's such a difficult one because I could list off a list of names that had that mentality, had that attitude, had the belief. It was a true honour for me to represent my hometown club for as long as I did, and I felt the proudest guy ever to put on a Saints shirt on every single occasion. 

"I think it comes down to we had a core of players that were at the club for a long period of time, lads who had come through the academy system, well it wasn't the academy necessarily in those days. But, there was myself, Matt (Le Tissier), Jason Dodd, Matt Oakley a little bit later. There were players that were around the club for many seasons and many years. 

"Albeit players and management come and go but we had a bit of a core nucleus, there was a bit of continuity. And for anyone coming to the club, they were always aware of what it meant to the supporters in the city and the responsibility we always had as players within that community."