March 13th, 2020: as Covid swept across the world, football in the UK came to a grinding halt following the announcement that Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for the virus.

This might seem unrelated but March 13th, 2020 was also the day scheduled for a gala fundraiser as part of Franny Benali’s ‘Iron Fran’ challenge to raise money for cancer research.

As the Saints legend says, the “room was dressed, everything was ready to go.” But alas they did what “had to be done” and the event was postponed indefinitely. Last Friday, after more than two years, the gala finally took place in the Mick Channon suite at St Mary’s and while no one would have wanted to wait - least of all Benali - it was a huge success when it did happen.

“There’s an ongoing fight against cancer and although we just passed the million pounds I wanted to raise from day one, it’s quite clear that there’s an ongoing need to raise more money and help with donations,” Benali explained to the Daily Echo. 

“The event on Friday will hopefully have raised a healthy sum of money to continue making a difference. It’s thanks to the wonderful generosity of so many people who sponsored either the dinners or the challenges and helped with the fundraising so far. It’s nice to get the event done after so long. But also to raise another substantial amount of money which is wonderful.”

The Iron Fran challenge was the third in a series of physical endurance tests Benali has undertaken to help raise funds for Cancer Research UK. The first saw him complete a 1000-mile run to each Premier League stadium while in the second he ran and cycled to the 44 Premier League and Championship grounds. 

For the Iron Fran, Benali attempted seven triathlons in seven days, culminating with the Southampton Marathon and a heroes welcome at Guildhall following his final cycling leg.

After each challenge, Benali has hosted a gala dinner and auction to thank everyone for their help and continue to raise money for a cause he and the whole community are clearly passionate about.

Some of the items and experiences donated and auctioned included James Ward-Prowse’s shirt from the final day of the season, an expenses paid three-night trip to meet Robbie Williams on his next world tour and a behind the scenes look into the incredible work going on at the Southampton Cancer research centre.

Daily Echo: Francis Benali, his family and guests at the recent ball. Image by: Dave VokesFrancis Benali, his family and guests at the recent ball. Image by: Dave Vokes

Despite smashing through the £1m goal initially set, Benali has no plans on stopping as evidenced by the recent dinner and the constant support from around the community of Southampton.

“We’ve been touched by it as a family and the bigger picture is quite clear. To this day so many people are affected by cancer in one way or another. It just goes to highlight the need to support a charity like this to try and find cures for these various cancers that so many people are affected by. 

“It’s been a number of years since we did the first challenge. We’ve lost people very close to us, dear friends, as many others have with this dreadful disease. It just reinforces that there’s a need to continue doing something.

“They predict that one in two of us will have some form of cancer in our lifetime which is a scary statistic. But I guess the more positive stuff is there’s better survival rates now with the science behind it, the treatments are friendlier. It’s finding not just cures but better treatments as well.

“It’s been wonderful to see over the course of this fundraising, from day one, the efforts that people go to to either make a donation or support you with sponsorship or just give up their time to come and encourage you and support the cause. It really restores your faith in the world and in people and in life a little bit more. 

“You’re relying on the generosity of people to support events like this and make bids on auction items and things like that. We couldn’t have done any of this without the generosity of a lot of people.”

Southampton the club as well as the city have been hugely supportive of Benali’s efforts throughout and the placement of the gala at the stadium was a nod to the help from his boyhood club.

“They help in a lot of ways, supplying auction items, hosting the event there, all the catering was done by the club. It’s a venue we wanted to choose just to give a little back as well because the club have been so good in supporting me. As an ambassador of the Saints Foundation as well, I’d like to continue my support of charity, especially what the club is doing as well.”

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