Beni Baningime targets early injury return at Hearts

The predicted recovery time for Beni Baningime's cruciate ligament injury is nine months. The Hearts midfielder intends returning several weeks earlier, so much so that club physiotherapists and medical staff already find themselves tempering his enthusiasm just three months into rehabilitation.

Sunday, 3rd July 2022, 10:30 pm

Enticements are plentiful at Riccarton right now with high-profile European football guaranteed this autumn in either the Europa League or Europa Conference League group stage. Then there is another cinch Premiership campaign and the Premier Sports Cup knockout rounds. In that sense, it is the worst possible time to be restricted to a peripheral role because of injury.

Baningime and defender Craig Halkett both travelled to southern Spain for last week's pre-season training camp, where they continued working towards full fitness on individual programmes. Halkett is much closer to a return than Baningime and should play again later this month following ankle surgery. His injury is nowhere near as severe.

His Congolese colleague has been out since damaging those knee ligaments against Livingston back in March. Baningime’s ultimate aim is to be back in time to feature in one or more of those European ties, the last of which is scheduled for November 3. It is certainly an ambitious target but one which might just be achievable if recovery continues smoothly.

“The physios are the most knowledgeable, Pete [Haring] has been out for a long time and Stephen Kingsley. Liam Boyce had the same injury as me and came back in six months so that's what I'm going for. The boys have been great trying to help me get through,” said Baningime. He is making steady progress at the moment.

“It's coming on all right. I've started doing gymwork so I'll be strengthening my legs for the next few months to get them as strong as possible and then come back. I'm excited for that. Me and Halks are the only ones not fit but it was great being with the boys in Spain. Being at the same place, different scenery, great facilities, it's a lot better.”

Being in among the camaraderie is vital for any injured footballer's mindset and Baningime appreciated the opportunity to take part in last week's trip. At La Cala resort on the Costa del Sol, the Hearts first-team squad were put through gruelling double training sessions but also got some down time to relax and wind down.

Pre-season bonding is a crucial factor in any team's campaign as it sets the tone of togetherness for the weeks and months ahead. It's not a time to be alone on a treatment table or in a gym.

Hearts midfielder Beni Baningime is desperate to return from injury.

“It does make you feel part of it,” acknowledged Baningime. “Even in the Scottish Cup final at the end of last season, you're a part of it if we had done something special. But there's always a part of you wishing you were out there giving everything you've got.

“We have a plan for me to be back after the winter break, around December or January. If I can take four weeks or three weeks off that – or even just one day – I'll take it. That's what we've been speaking about. The physios are having a heart attack but I'll just try to get back as quickly as possible.”

A large grin is never far from Baningime's face during this interview as he demonstrates that his morale appears to be healthy despite this unexpected setback. Asked about medics trying to rein him in as he attempts to drive a quick recovery, he smiles again.

“They have to. I'm getting a bit excited, telling them I'll be back next week. I missed the two Scottish Cup games at Hampden in the final and semi-final but I'm hoping to be back for some European games this season. I have to try and deal with it quickly so I need to get excited for when I'm back.”

There is no doubt Hearts could use Baningime's midfield influence for the season ahead. The former Everton player proved an inspired signing last term after arriving from England. Supporters took to him and he seemed to revel in the responsibility of dominating other midfields in Scotland. Then injury struck just as the season’s climax was approaching. The player likened the whole episode to a nightmare he can't shake off.

He walked off the field that day against Livingston and initial examinations in the dressing room at Tynecastle Park did not suggest a serious problem or any lengthy lay-off. Scans a few days later after swelling subsided uncovered a more detailed and devastating story.

Baningime initially struggled to take in the fact that he could be sidelined for nine months with the kind of injury every sportsman dreads. Then the realisation dawned that he would be heading for an operation and spending several weeks on crutches before he could even think about walking freely again. “I felt I was in a dream. You know when you're having a nightmare and trying to wake up? It's football. I will come back stronger and better.

“Apparently you're supposed to hear a pop when this injury happens but I didn't hear anything. I walked off and thought: 'Okay, I should be all right.' Then the results came back, that's life. I spoke to John Souttar, he's had a few injuries and come back and look where he is. This happens in football so you need to come back and deal with it.”

Others can fill in until he is ready to don a maroon shirt again. However, replacing Baningime is no mean feat. His energy, enthusiasm and control put together make him a hugely-missed component of the Hearts midfield. Hopefully not for too much longer.

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