Beni Baningime on ditching flashy cars, finding inner peace at Hearts, and how Duncan Ferguson has changed at Everton
That combination has allowed the 22-year-old to move on from the stunted career progression at Everton and the hit the ground running at Hearts, where he signed a three-year deal just in time for the start of the new league season and a man of the match performance in the opening day win over Celtic.
It was a display that will have registered back at Goodison Park but it is not one he wished to ram down their throats in a ‘see what you’re missing out on’ kind of mic drop.
Having signed for Everton as a nine-year-old, the boyhood Manchester United fan made his debut in a League Cup game against Chelsea alongside one of his heroes, Wayne Rooney.
“The first time I saw him it was a big deal for me. I remember after I played against Chelsea he followed me on Instagram and you can imagine how that made me feel.”
Then, four days later, it was Leicester for his first Premier League outing. Since then he has been compared to greats and touted for exceptional feats but he concedes that things have not panned out exactly as he imagined in his dreams. Not there, not yet, but this is a young man who believes in God’s greater plan.
“Maybe a lot of people would think I’m bitter towards them but I’d been there for 13 years and I wouldn’t be Beni if it wasn't for them. I was just glad for the opportunity.”
The first-team debut came in October 2017, when David Unsworth was interim boss, and he initially hung onto his place when Sam Allardyce took over. But, after another 11 outings he had played his last game for the Toffees. He didn’t know that at the time, obviously. He continued to graft in the background, and had loan spells at Wigan Athletic and then Derby County, before deciding it was time to call it quits and embrace a new start. Hearts were the right club at the right time.
“It didn’t feel like hard times, if I’m going to be totally honest. I work as hard as I can at football but as soon as I’m away from it I forget about it. That’s how I live my life. When I got the man of the match I went home and spent time with God and spoke to my family. And if I’d had the worst game I’d have done the exact same.
“I feel in football you have to try to stay right in the middle and not think, ‘this is the best game ever’ or ‘this is the worst game ever’. That’s what’s really helped me – that plus my family and God.”
Softly-spoken, with a sanguine, contented presence, the Congolese midfielder is still as driven. He merely believes that his route to the very top has taken a detour through the Scottish capital, where the intensity of the Hearts fans has already elevated his spirits and the first few games have vindicated his decision.
“I just kind of got to a point where I just wanted to play football and if that was anywhere else in the country I would’ve just gone. To not play football for three years….it wasn’t about the money, I just missed playing football. So, Scotland was a great opportunity. It’s close to home, it’s a good league, it's a big club, so it was a no brainer.
“That is what I’ve been craving all these years so to have a manager and a team who believe in you, it’s a great feeling to have.”
The inner peace, he says, comes from his relationship with God. Faith was something he inherited from his parents but he admits that as a young man with talent, cash and plenty of perks, he sometimes found it tough to stay true to his beliefs while dealing with day to day temptations.
“I had been living the life before; flashy cars and the rest, as you can imagine. And then one day I decided I didn’t like how I was living.”
Now, the teetotaller is unlikely to be seen out on the town unless dictated to by a team get-together. Happy, warm and open, he has simply calmed down and found what works best for him off the pitch. Hearts are hoping they can help him do likewise on it.
And, he headed to Scotland with the blessing of mentors like Unsworth – “He has always believed in me and has always said I am going to go back to the top if I just carry on working” – and big Duncan Ferguson, who Baningime says has mellowed.
“He has changed. The intensity is still there, he still wants to win but as a coach he has calmed down a little bit!
“He has always been very encouraging, even in hard times. At least I’ve had people there, at the club, backing me. I’m really thankful to Everton.”
Early signs are that he will prove a superb signing for Robbie Nielson. A combative midfielder with decent technique and the desire to dig deep throughout games, he was hailed as the next Idrissa Gueye or N'Golo Kante when he first arrived on the scene.
There are certainly elements of his game worth admiring.
“But, I’m not Idrissa Gueye, I’m not Kante. It is easy to start getting compared to all these names but I think I’m quite level headed and I don't get too excited which is probably why I'm ok with everything that has happened. If I had bought into all that and thought ‘yeah, I’m the guy’ then maybe I would have come here and thought ‘what am I doing here’ but I don’t.”
No, the newcomer, who faces Aberdeen today, appears to know exactly what he is doing.
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