Beni Baningime admits he was ready to quit football until Hearts revived him and sparked his bromance with Cammy Devlin
So it transpires that a gritty Congolese from Kinshasha and a wee Australian from Sydney make a rather effective Scottish Premiership midfield pairing. Who knew? Clearly Hearts did.
The Beni Baningime/Cammy Devlin axis was engineered by the club’s sporting director Joe Savage and manager Robbie Neilson during the summer, much to the delight of probably every Jambo now. The partnership is flourishing on and off the field and dominates conversation with Baningime at Riccarton.
He leans forward as if to let you into a secret, although in reality his team-mates are all downstairs. “That’s my guy, I say it all the time. He’s a funny guy and a great player,” he says of Devlin through that that inimitable toothy grin. “The first time I saw him play was a bounce game here and I was like: ‘Wow. This guy is a really good player.’
“We have very different backgrounds but we are pretty similar. I’m a little bit calmer, he’s a little bit wilder. We’ve struck up a good relationship and we go out for meals and things off the pitch.
“I’ve got a good relationship with everyone because the team is so tight. I feel I can speak to everyone and that’s probably where our success comes from. We may not be best friends but we can speak without awkwardness.
“In some teams, you can only speak to the people you are friends with. This group is a really good bunch of lads.”
Which leads us to Hearts’ overall influence on Baningime. This former Goodison reserve originating from Central Africa whose voice carries the odd Scouse twang is fully immersed in Gorgie life.
If the bond is slightly unexpected, Tynecastle is already a very necessary and permanent point on his career path. Baningime was so tired of loans and under-23 football in England that he was ready to walk away from football completely. He feels he owes a debt to Hearts.
“This has revived me. That’s the word. It’s a revival,” he says. “There was a time I felt like giving up. I was speaking to God and I said: ‘I want to give up. I’m done.’ It had reached a point in my head where I was thinking no-one would ever give me a chance.
“Many people think I’m just trying to go for the next move. That’s not really my mindset. I’m not in a rush. I want to appreciate everything I’ve been given here. It’s an opportunity I didn’t think would come. I really didn’t.
“For the gaffer to have such faith in me and for the boys to be so great with me, it’s something really special. If I ever do go or whatever happens afterwards, Hearts will always be in my heart. It will be somewhere that I think: ‘That’s where I started my career.’
“Because of Everton and the different places I’ve been, I’ve never really had that opportunity.”
Neilson recently advised the Hearts support to indulge in Baningime’s midfield authority as much as possible because other clubs would be noting his progress.
“I don’t think the gaffer meant I was just going to go straight away. I think he meant what will happen soon,” says the 23-year-old. “There probably is interest which is normal in any player who is doing well. We have spoken about it and there is no rush to try and get out.
“The club know that, unless it’s the right type of move for them and me, then I’m not going anywhere. There is that business side of it. From a professional and personal point of view, from where I am in my heart, it’s definitely here.”
He will again play a key role against Dundee United at Tynecastle tomorrow, probably with Devlin by his side. The ground’s boisterous atmosphere fires his imagination no end.
“It’s unbelievable. In my first game against Celtic, there were 5,000 fans and I was thinking: ‘Yes, this is a proper league.’ The fans are passionate and if you aren’t doing well they let you know, as they should.
“Coming here, not understanding how passionate the fans are, I’m understanding that passion now. It really helps you to thrive because you know you need to put on your best performances.
“Hearts have a great history and expectation so you know that being a Hearts player. We will definitely need them singing for us against United.
“I’ve had good feedback and it's really nice to see what people think of you in a good way. It hasn’t happened a lot because I don’t really go out much. Unless I’m going to Asda trying to do shopping, I tend to stay at home.
“The people I have seen have given me some great comments. Last time I spoke to a fan I don't think Cammy was in the team yet. I can imagine the next time I see somebody they will definitely say something about him to me.”
So he is acutely aware his relationship with his Aussie mate is a popular sideshow to Hearts’ encouraging start. Their first league defeat came last week at Aberdeen.
“Even at half-time in the changing room, we knew we weren't at our best. We got a goal but we were like: ‘Okay boys, we haven’t started yet.’ That’s going to happen but now we need to get that reaction and get back to the way we have been playing.
“It seems like we haven’t won in quite a long time but the performances showed we maybe should be winning. After that, when the goals start coming, we should start cruising again.”
If Baningime does stay long-term, he predicts success. “I do sense that. Part of my success is that team unity,” he says. “With my personality, you just fit in straight away. It’s definitely going to take us a long way. The only thing that can kill us is ourselves because we all respect each other.”