Beni Baningime: I didn't come to Tynecastle for money. Hearts fans left me shaking against Celtic. I've never seen anything like it.
Dynamic and aggressive midfielders tend to be popular at Tynecastle Park. On early evidence, Beni Baningime fits like a glove.
Despite facing teams like Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Lyon and Atalanta with former club Everton the 22-year-old admitted his Hearts debut victory against Celtic left him shaking like a leaf.
Initial signs are he is a typical No.6 with bite, energy and sound technique on the ball. Supporters in Gorgie have long adored such characters from Julien Brellier to Stefano Salvatori, even back as far as Dave Mackay and John Cumming.
It would be premature to bracket Baningime in the same category but based on first impressions this may well be a new hero in the making. Fans responded vociferously to his combative style during Saturday’s 2-1 win as Hearts began their Scottish Premiership return in style.
After finalising a transfer from Merseyside on Thursday, the new recruit was excited turning out in front of more than 5,000 Edinburgh supporters. He hadn’t completed 90 minutes since March, so a full game against Celtic required everything from mentality to endurance. He certainly passed the test.
Fitting in well
“I was telling the boys I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. I knew fans in Scottish football were very passionate, but that was 5,000 and I was shaking at times. I was like, ‘wow’. There’s no feeling like it and I thank them for that support,” said Baningime in an exclusive Evening News interview.
He already knew the Hearts public appreciate footballers of his ilk. “Yeah, they do. I believe in my abilities and I believe I’m a decent player. However, no matter what kind of player you are, you must put in 100 per cent in every single game. That’s my aim every week.
“I have the mentality, and I imagine fans here are the same, where you may not have a good game but at least you work hard. I think I’ll fit in well here.”
Baningime took a considerable salary reduction in order to, as he puts it, start his career north of the Border. An Everton player since the age of nine, loan periods at Wigan Athletic and Derby County in recent years did not yield the game time he wanted. Injuries were also a factor.
Nonetheless, he still amassed useful experience facing some of Europe’s most reputable clubs. “Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Lyon. Just the small ones,” he smiled. “I said to the lads that I’ve never felt anything like it on Saturday, though.
“Obviously the atmospheres in England were great but this, I don’t know why, maybe it’s just me. I’ve been out of the game for a long time and hearing the fans on Saturday I thought: ‘This is why we play the game.’
“It’s like a dream come true coming here. The gaffer and all the boys helped me out with things like tactics and I’m just really pleased I performed well. Everything I’ve gone through, sometimes it’s hard because you think: ‘Am I actually good enough?’
“I was at Everton for a long time so to get a fresh start here, and to start with a win against a good team, really helps me a lot. My last game was five months ago so I’m surprised I lasted that long. My legs were gone for the last two minutes. I was thinking: ‘Just stay where you are. Stay in front of your man.’
If I blew up, I blew up
“I’ve only played 45 minutes maximum in pre-season so that was my first 90. Once you’re on the pitch, there’s nothing like it. If I blew up then I blew up but I wanted to give it my best and somehow I lasted 90 minutes.
“You dream of these games and you dream to play at the highest level. I want to continue improving now. This doesn’t stop. It’s a great win but we have to carry on working.”
He remains philosophical on the pay cut. Igniting his football career is far more important at his age. “I just came here to play football and give the best I can to Hearts. Money will come whenever it does but right now I’m here to be dedicated and start my career at Hearts,” he said.
“After the last three years, I wasn’t thinking about the money. I was just thinking about coming here and trying to impress.”
It was Everton’s then-interim manager David Unsworth who promoted Baningime into the first team back in 2017 when the Congo-born midfielder was just 19. He continued to feature regularly when Sam Allardyce took charge later that season. Thereafter, well, frustration has been pretty much a daily emotion.
“It’s just football, I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault,” he remarked. “I’ve had a few injuries, there were different managers at Everton, sometimes you go on loan and you thought you were going to play but you didn’t.
“I don’t think that’s anyone’s fault. I’m not one of those guys who says: ‘This person didn’t play me.’ I believe in my ability and I believe that, by the grace of God, I can go right to the top if I carry on working.
“Right now, I’m just thinking about Hearts, how I can better myself and help the team.”
He is helping his new team already as anyone who watched Saturday’s fixture would confirm. Baningime’s hearty style is well-suited to his new environment, and his heart seems to be in the right place.