“Baningime, Baningime, Baningime, Whoah-oh…”
Many a player has come to the Scottish Premier League from the EPL and just, quite simply, not got it. Whether it’s the increased pace of the game, the heightened physicality, or simply complacency, the adjustment is too much for some – particularly in the more industrious midfield berth. Not many make such a sudden impact that fans are literally singing their praises within a matter of matches.
From Joey Barton to Juninho, and even the much-revered, feared Roy Keane, many a midfielder has journeyed north of the border to find themselves bullied off the ball, casting speculative passes to the opposition and, frankly, making minimal if any impact. When John Lundstram and James McCarthy made their journeys to the respective blue and green halves of Glasgow, you’d have been forgiven for having a conversation as to which of those experienced engine room puppeteers would make the most impact but, while it’s still early days, there’s been one clear omission from that argument. Beni Tangama Baningime.
A 23-year-old Baningime, of course, came with a reputation of promise rather than a guarantee – having been used sparingly at Everton and struggling to make his mark on loan at Derby and Wigan. Not to mention, making the move to Edinburgh to a newly-promoted club from the English Premier League may very well be a more challenging move on paper than it is when you look at the transformation in recent years of just how Hearts has been run as a club, and the incredibly stacked squad the Jam Tarts now boast – but the credit their new number six deserves for the turnaround cannot be understated.
“He does all the simple things well” is perhaps the most deductive comment you can make about Beni Baningime, but it’s an excellent starting point – and sums up Hearts’ humble hirsute hero to a tee. Speaking with the Scotsman just last month, Kinshasa-born Baningime said two lines that would endear him to any individual quick to criticise the “flash” lifestyle perceived from footballers’ ostentatious Instagram accounts – somewhere you won’t find the Congolese midfielder who has shied away from social media.
“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.”
While walking the walk will always matter more than talking the talk, Baningime has done just that in every game he’s played so far for the Gorgie side, taking Hearts to a lofty joint third in the table, on equal points to their Leith rivals, one point behind leaders Rangers and a whopping five points in front of Celtic. While it’s early days and Hearts have yet to play the current Champions, they have taken on Hibs and Celtic, emerging with four points from the two fixtures and, arguably, should have had all six. One man who can boast a perfect record from those games, though, is Baningime – emerging from the two games with two Man of the Match trophies.
You’ve probably got this far and thought, “This is all great to hear and he seems like a lovely man, but what does he do on the pitch?” Well, the answer is quite simply, “A little bit of everything,” but all of it with optimum care, urgency, accuracy, precision and passion – Baningime is the epitome of a number six midfielder. The main standout from a frantic Edinburgh derby was that Baningime wasn’t just keeping up with the pace of the game, he set it.
Blocks, tackles and interceptions in abundance are meat and drink for the former Wigan and Derby man. “Putting out fires” is a phrase we often hear about players like Fabinho, Ngolo Kante and Casemiro among others. While those comparisons would obviously be a tad exaggeratory, closer to home, you can pinpoint Glen Kamara, Lewis Ferguson, Scott Brown, Steven Davis, Barry Ferguson and, the nation’s favourite footballer Billy Gilmour as examples of players who have made a living from, of course, being very good at football – but more importantly from tidying up on the pitch and being neat and tidy while doing so.
Minimising the opponents time in and around the box will always result in fewer opportunities to score goals, and that alone is worth Baningime’s place in the starting 11. Add to this that, when he does win the ball, surging runs almost immediately follow. Driving into the opponents’ half on the counter has become a trademark of Beni and very much endeared him to a loyal Hearts support who have had many a year previous watching…well, let’s say much less exciting football. It’s not just on the ball where Beni shines, off the ball runs are another speciality with the all-action man not only making himself available at every turn but busting a gut to be involved with the hunger of someone who simply loves the game.
Finally, passing. Everyone knows the importance of passing. Get it right, you keep the ball. Get it wrong, you don’t. It’s simple, it’s unforgiving, but it’s not as easy as it sounds in Scottish football. The main reason? Well, the same reason many players renowned for their passing fail to impress upon moving north of the border – time on the ball is at a minimum!
The first Edinburgh derby of the season is a perfect example. The tempo of the game can sometimes put a Formula 1 race to shame, and if you can’t keep up, you’re soon found out. While ageing stars of the game will always struggle if their passing options are diminished, the 23-year-old Baningime has the perfect cocktail of power, energy and ability. If he can’t find a pass instantly, a mazy Beni run will likely follow, and he’ll either find a pass or draw a foul to get his team up the pitch and increase that maroon possession bar at the top of the telly.
Now, I won’t pretend Beni Baningime is THE complete footballer, nor the greatest player on the planet, but there isn’t a great deal missing from the former Everton man’s game. A tidy, defensive midfielder who can pass his way out of danger and play box-to-box sounds like an outstanding addition to any team. If I had to pinpoint one thing he could improve on, adding goals to an otherwise well-rounded game would be the way to go. However, when you look at Hearts’ attacking options this season, there are PLENTY of options in that department. Baningime’s main aim for this season should simply be to stay fit and keep doing what he’s doing. When he looks behind him, there’s a plethora of experience between the sticks in Craig Gordon, then a rejuvenated John Souttar leading a solid backline to give him confidence. If he looks further upfront, the likes of Liverpool loanee Ben Woodburn and Barrie McKay bolster a frontline featuring speed demon Josh Ginnelly, veteran Gary Mackay-Steven and one of the league’s most potent forwards in Liam Boyce.
Having played only 15 games in his professional career, the 23-year-old’s hunger to show what he can do seems unrivalled. This brings me to the crucial point – why Beni Baningime is in exactly the right place to show the world what he can do. Would Baningime be a great addition to a Rangers or Celtic? Almost definitely.
He’s a superb player full of potential who will likely command a decent transfer fee when he moves on – maybe even to one of those two teams if not a return to England. However, Baningime’s desire to play football and show everyone what they’ve been missing may just align with the mentality Hearts, as a club, have engrained in them as the shot of adrenaline to push them to success this year. They deserve better. They have the squad to do better – and a Beningime-shaped hole in the engine room makes Heart of Midlothian a formidable opponent for anyone.
After a wrongful relegation, it was obvious that Hearts were languishing in a league they didn’t deserve to be in. While saying the same about Baningime is almost insulting to the Premier League and Hearts, the quality we’ve seen so far is that of a player who you wouldn’t bet against seeing back on Match of the Day in a few years’ time.
Something very special seems to be happening at Hearts this season and Baningime seems crucial to the whole operation. While playing against Rangers will be the ultimate test for the Jam Tarts this season, even a poor result against the Champions won’t define their season. Thus the symbiosis between Baningime and Hearts continues. Rather than shrinking at the challenge, it seems like Hearts, and Beni, will embrace every second of it. Returning to that very same Scotsman interview as earlier, the professionalism of Beni Baningime is clear for all to see.
“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.”
While fans of any team facing Hearts this season for 90 minutes may very well be cursing the name, Beni Baningime is a name for the neutrals to salivate over. With the likes of Virgil van Dijk honing his craft in Scotland before becoming a Champions League winner, quality footballers can’t be taken for granted in Scotland. Now, Beni may not reach that level, not many do, but it’s not outwith the realms of possibility. If he does, well, after a number of false starts, Beni’s time in Scotland may very well shape his future and, unlike a certain new Brentford signing, he doesn’t seem like the kind of player who will downplay the league that showcases his talent, speaking of his gratitude towards Everton in many interviews since departing Goodison Park for giving him the opportunity, as opposed to being bitter at a lack thereof.
Beni Baningime has bags of ability, but perhaps most importantly of all, Hearts have found a gem who has exactly the attitude that makes him impossible to hate. A diamond in the rough and the Congolese midfielder will only be sharpened under pressure through his time in Scotland.
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