BY George Utley

9 Mar

Premier League One-Season Wonders - Benjani

One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, standout season in the Premier League, how they got there, what caused it and why it was never replicated again.

With his beaming smile, meaty physique and the nattiest dreadlocks this side of Harare, Benjani Mwaruwari bundled himself into Portsmouth folklore, becoming a timeless hero of their mid-noughties heyday.

Like all the best things, Benjani’s career began in Africa. Early spells at Lulu Rovers, Highlanders FC Juniors, Zimba Africa Rivers, and Air Zimbabwe Jets earned him a move to Jomo Cosmos in South Africa.

Already a Zimbabwe international by then, his displays up front for Cosmos earned him the prestigious PSL Player of the Season Award in 2001, joining an exclusive hall of fame alongside legends such as Wilfred Mugeyi, Pollen Ndlanya and Surprise Moriri (me neither).

A career in Europe beckoned the target man, who signed for Zurich’s big cricket team, Grasshoppers, before moving to Auxerre a year later. Auxerre’s 2002 outfit were a Championship Manager player’s dream, bulging with talent of the likes of Djibril Cissé, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Teemu Taino, Philippe Mexes and beat-droppin’ shot-stoppin’ techno-DJ-slash-goalkeeper, Fabien Cool.

Their major achievements included beating awesome-era Arsenal in the Champions League at Highbury, and winning the 2005 Coupe de France, with Benji netting in the final.

Strong performances saw the big man linked to a move to Ligue 1 contenders Marseilles, where he could have linked up with Franck Ribery and Samir Nasri in the Champions League.

But something mystical was aligning in the cosmos and, when ‘Arry Redknapp’s relegation-threatened Portsmouth came in with a club record £4.1 million bid, Benji was off to the South Coast. “Portsmouth would be best for me because I speak English but I am still struggling with my French,” the player told his agent in typically humble style.

Portsmouth FC journalist and author, Neil Allen, remembers Benjani’s arrival in the January transfer window of 2006. “He went thirteen games without scoring. But the fans never even got on his back about it, because he was such a cool figure who worked hard and gave absolutely everything.”

“He kept trying and trying and eventually came good in the 2-1 win at Wigan, keeping us up, which had previously looked totally ridiculous and impossible. We went undefeated in 6 matches and Benji saved us with a game to spare.”

Having rescued the club from relegation, Benjani’s first full season at Portsmouth saw him score just 6 goals in 34 appearances in 2006/07. But Pompey finished a dignified 9th, and Redknapp was building up one of the Premier League’s most legendary bands of brothers. The best was yet to come.

Gentlemen, pull on your sentimental socks and your nostalgia pants, as we pay due remembrance to the 2007/08 Pompey squad.

David James; Lauren, Sol Campbell (c), Herman Hreidarsson, Glen Johnson; Papa Bouba Diop, Lasagne Diarra, Niko Kranjcar, Sulley Muntari; Kanu, Benjani.

Bench: Asmir Begovic, Linvoy Primus, Pedro Mendes, John Utaka, Dave Nugent, Milan Baros.

The argument that the club almost paid for the cost of this squad with its very existence takes nothing away from the undeniable facts: the above team is overflowing with absolute legends of the most classic breed.

So many flavours combine to form this uniquely delicious footballing jambalaya. Lower-league heroes, big-club misfits, past-it superstars, future Champions League regulars, and a powerful sprinkling of African spice.

Despite his slow start to life in England, Benjani tore into the 2007/08 season at breath-taking pace, scoring in the first game of the campaign against Derby County and the second to equalise against Manchester United.

He booted in the match-winning hat-trick in the logic-defying 7-4 win over Reading which remains the Premier League’s record highest-scoring game and a great moment in Chris Kamara’s highlight littered media career. By October 2007, the boy from Bulawayo was the league's top scorer.

At 6 foot tall and just as wide round the chest, Benjani was the focal point for Pompey’s attacks. His physical presence and ability to hold the ball up created the space his maverick midfielders needed to operate in.

Neil remembers “a hugely popular figure who began scoring goals here there and everywhere.”

When allowed to turn and work up a head of steam, Benji could terrify defenders as there was little you could do to stop him once he gathered momentum, dreadlocks flowing out behind his massive grin.

At St James’s Park he was on fire, taking on Brazil’s first-choice centre back for a time, Caçapa(!); shoulder-barging him into the North Sea before bending it over the goalie in a 4-1 win.

"Benjani, Benjani, He comes from Zimbabwe/He’s going to score today."

The striker proved the chant right time again during the first half of the season, notching another hat-trick against Derby in January 2008. But those would be the last top-flight goals he scored at Fratton Park.

Harry Redknapp’s Transfer Tips & Tricks

With 12 Premier League strikes by mid-January the Zimbabwean’s form had caught the eye of one of the world’s most implausible men: Sven Goran Eriksson.

The Swedish weirdo was amassing his own collection of increasingly short sighted misfits at a very banter-era Man City, and persuaded the then chairman, exiled Thai Prime Minister Thaksin ‘Frank’ Shinawatra, that Benj was the missing piece of the puzzle.

‘Arry Redknapp tells the story best – in fact since retiring from management he has made something of a career of travelling from punditry studio to punditry studio, totally (unfairly) mugging off Benjani.

Jermain Defoe had already been signed to replace big Benji and, despite begging his manager not to sell him, he was on the last plane to Eastlands. Back in the day you could get away with all kinds of people smuggling if you had a cockney chuckle and the face of a bloodhound.

Being ripped away from Pompey’s dream team didn’t affect Benjani’s early form. He instantly achieved cult status in the North West, scoring on debut in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford, the first time City had done the double over their cursed neighbours since 1969.

His second came inevitably against his old club, Portsmouth. Neil remembers “he told me before the game ’if I score I won’t celebrate,’ and he was true to his word, even though it was his first goal in front of his new fans.”

He was “a lovely guy, softly spoken and very polite,” and secured himself as a firm fans’ favourite.

Injury limited Benj to just one more goal in 2007/08, yet his early season streak for Pompey still left him 5th in the league’s end of season scoring charts with a more than respectable 15.

Only Roque Santa Cruz, Fernando Torres, Awesome-era Adebayor and Cristiano Ronaldo outscored the man from Zim.

Despite his personal achievements he had the inevitable heartache of watching his old teammates make history at Pompey, lifting the 2008 FA Cup in front of the Fratton Park faithful, a decade that feels like a lifetime ago.

While Benjani was on the treatment table for a thigh injury, however, Thaskin’s City empire crumbled spectacularly and a career that was looking on a remarkable upward trajectory turned.

Mark Hughes replaced Sven; the Sheikhs replaced the Thais, and threw £65.5 million at their perceived weakness up front, in the shape of Jô, Robinho and Craig Bellamy.

Manchester City in 2008 was probably the worst club in the world to be injured at, with scouts ordered to spend their newfound oily billions willy-nilly.

The plan from Abu Dhabi was simple: buy everyone. Hughesy struggled to shoehorn a 34-man squad into a game-ready XI every week. Jô, Robinho, Bellamy, Vassell, Sturridge, Elano, Caicedo, Bojinov, Weiss and Ched Evans all got turns up front; in this random chaos of a pecking order Benjani had to settle for a paltry 8 league games.

Another season, another wave of transfers, with Tevez, Roque Santa Cruz and Adebayor all coming in to compete for the strikers’ berth, all with shinier CVs than poor Benji.

Our hero hung in there until 2010, scoring a smelly total of 4 league goals in his 23 starts in 2 1/2 seasons. Understandably frustrated by these stinky stats, he then committed the fundamental error of going to Sunderland on loan.

8 games later Benji was a free agent, leaving Wearside with zero goals and a thigh injury more niggling than the worry that you’ve left the iron on.

Now aged 32, a one-year deal at Big Sam’s Blackburn was the best he could hope for, where there was ever so slightly less mega-talent up front.

Competing for places here were Jason Roberts, David ‘Junior’ Hoilett and, with pleasant symmetry, our old mate Roque S-C.

Despite possessing all the attributes of the archetypal Allardyce forward (questionable acceleration, no touch, bulky, only does headers) Benj rolled back the years in a dominant display over Liverpool. But alas, 3 goals in 18 games spelled the end of Benjani’s top-flight career, and on his 33rd birthday he re-signed for Portsmouth.

The Pompey Benjani left and the Pompey he re-joined existed in different dimensions. The South Coasters had gone into administration in 2010 and been docked 9 points for the privilege; a miracle run to the FA Cup Final had not saved them from relegation to the Championship (a phenomenon known as the Avram Grant Effect.)

When Benjani arrived in 2011, the new Portsmouth owner Vladimir Antonov was wanted all over Europe for asset-stripping a Lithuanian bank. They would go into administration for a second time in 2 years, and suffer relegation again. And again. But that’s a story for another day.

On the pitch, all Benjani could do was add his considerable weight to an already scunnered, sinking ship. “He should never have come back,” says Neil, “he just wasn’t the same player and it petered out quite sadly for him actually, he couldn’t even get in the squad by the end.”

Looking back, Benjani was an honest footballer who was fortunate enough to hit the hot streak of his career at the exact moment Sven’s scouting network really started phoning it in.

To plenty of football fans he’ll live on as the epitome of Man City’s baffling mid 00’s scattergun approach to the transfer market. Pompey fans however will always cherish those fleeting months when their man from Zim ate goals for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

George Utley
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Cover image via. Stats via WhoScored.