Benjani Mwaruwari: Wonderful Portsmouth fans were my inspiration - and the best of my career

There’s the smile, that booming smile, still as infectiously uplifting as his goal-scoring prime.

Friday, 13th September 2019, 6:00 pm
Benjani Mwaruwari celebrates his equaliser at Derby in August 2007 - and a trademark celebration was born. Picture: PA Wire/PA Photos

Those trademark dreadlocks have dispersed, a telltale reminder of ripening age, but it’s unmistakably Benjani Mwaruwari.

The song, the goal celebration, record-breaking Reading, two Fratton Park hat-tricks and, of course, Wigan. The Zimbabwean will forever be revered by the Pompey faithful.

It was more than 11-and-a-half years ago when the hard-running striker caught a flight to Manchester airport and earned Harry Redknapp a treasured after-dinner routine.

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Fratton favourite Benjani admits his Pompey love affair with the supporters will never fade

A reunion spell under Steve Cotterill should be expunged from the records, it was not the Benjani of old, his problematic right knee dictating the painful winding down of a football career.

In his glorious heyday, the £4.1m signing from Auxerre was a cherished fan favourite, a two-year presence whose talent gradually blossomed and an entry in Fratton folklore assured.

He started Pompey life as a misfiring centre-forward, failing to register in his opening 14 matches during days spared of social-media critique.

Yet, such was his outstanding work-rate and positive demeanour, Benjani earned a popular chant rather than vicious terrace denouncement as supporters stood by his side.

Benjani became a massive Pompey favourite during his first spell at Fratton Park. Picture: Steve Reid

Then dawned the Great Escape and a DW Stadium leveller in April 2006 which opened his Blues account in timely fashion.

It set Redknapp’s side on the path to a 2-1 success which preserved Premier League status – and a new hero was born.

‘While I was at Pompey I was putting in a shift for two people. I was up front alone, I was running around, hassling players, using my strength, doing everything I could,’ Benjani told The News.

‘But the only thing not happening was for me to score.

Kanu and Benjani celebrate another Pompey goal

‘I think the fans fell in love with that, they were hoping “Once he starts scoring he will be good because he can put in a shift”.

‘When they were singing that song, you just wanted to die for the fans, to go in there and fight, to get a goal.

‘When things were looking better for me, at home I always knew I could get a goal with them behind me, the atmosphere at Fratton Park, oh my God!

‘There would be games when you start slow, but they would push you, going onto that pitch you would be like “I must push myself – for them”.

‘They are the best fans I came across in my career, so loud. That small pitch, when they sing it comes into your mind, that was so motivating.

‘I also played for Manchester City, such great fans, but I am talking about the atmosphere, and that atmosphere when you come to Fratton Park, it’s different, I loved it. It was the best.

‘The Pompey fans created that song for me and, when I moved to Manchester City, they took over it. Although, as I had scored on my debut, which came against Manchester United, the words were changed to “He comes from Zimbabwe, he scored on derby day”.

‘It’s only here in England where they have songs like that. In France they have a different way of singing, it would be “Benjani” clap, clap, clap. “Benjani” clap, clap, clap.

‘But here I had that song. It was amazing.’

Arriving in January 2006 to bolster Pompey’s fading bid to remain in the Premier League, Benjani’s second match was a 5-0 defeat at Birmingham.

Leaving the following day to represent Zimbabwe in the Africa Cup of Nations, upon his return one month later he found a club second from bottom, five points adrift of safety.

Yet Redknapp’s team would stay up with a game to spare, while Benjani’s Blues presence subsequently flourished in line with an influx of quality new arrivals such as Niko Kranjcar, Sol Campbell, David James, Glen Johnson and Kanu.

He left in January 2008 for Manchester City, having rattled in 12 goals during the opening half of the 2007-08 season, including a hat-trick against Derby and another in the memorable 7-4 encounter with Reading.

There was a return three-and-a-half years later, via City, Sunderland and Blackburn, with Pompey now a Championship side under Cotterill.

That one-season spell yielded a single goal, his final outing as a substitute in a goalless Fratton Park draw with Leeds in February 2012.

The campaign’s end saw his release by Michael Appleton, having totalled 94 games and 20 goals for the Blues.

Although, it seems Pompey followers might not have seen the last of Benjani donning their colours.

For his son, Benjani junior, is on the club’s books, a promising striker attached to Shaun North’s under-15 and under-16 sides.

Benjani added: ‘I don't give my son pressure, if he manages to come through it’s all up to him.

‘For me it is not about pushing him. I want him to discover and see and love the game without me pushing.

‘He is a bit different to me as a player, he dribbles a lot, he scores goals. But if you want to make the most out of the game, you need to have a little bit of hard work. That’s what I am trying to teach him.

‘I told him you don’t have to look at me, just play the game and make sure you're playing it right and fight and fight every time you train and play – and the rest will follow.’

There remain goals in Benjani senior, however, as those watching Vincent Kompany’s testimonial on Wednesday evening will have observed.

In the televised showpiece, he headed home Nigel de Jong’s free-kick on 89 minutes to level for the City Legends, securing a 2-2 draw against their Premier League counterparts.

The 41-year-old, who lives in Ringwood, proceeded to re-enact the trademark goal celebration which first saw light at Pompey.

And Benjani explained how the popular routine was born during a conversation with Blues team-mate Kanu on the eve of the 2007-08 campaign.

He said: ‘The day before the first game of the season at Derby, I was in the dressing room with Kanu.

‘We had watched America’s Got Talent or something like that and a guy from Mexico had won, but didn’t know English so couldn’t express himself.

‘He was asked for a message to his fans in the audience and started to point at them in turn, basically saying “This trophy is for everyone”.

‘So Kanu said to me: “If I score tomorrow, I will do that celebratio. If you score, you do that celebration".

‘Sure enough, I scored our opening goal at Pride Park and started to point at the fans in my celebration. We went on to draw 2-2, with John Utaka getting the second.

‘That celebration remained for the rest of my career, when I scored it was for you, for you and for you. It was for the fans, especially those wonderful Pompey fans.’