The situation seemed hopeless. Despite Harry Redknapp’s best efforts, Portsmouth were doomed. The wily manager had returned to the club in December 2005 after an ill-fated stint at their rivals Southampton, but his attempts to rescue them from the threat of relegation were not going well.
Nine players arrived in January and still their poor form continued.
But then Pompey beat Manchester City 2-1 and everything changed. Redknapp’s men were suddenly on a roll, taking 20 points from nine games to secure survival away at Wigan Athletic on the penultimate weekend of the season.
It was a significant moment for Benjani Mwaruwari’s career in England, too. Signed from Auxerre as part of Redknapp’s mid-season overhaul, the tireless striker did not get on the scoresheet until that afternoon, on what was his 15th appearance for the club.
It was an instinctive finish, heading in a vital equaliser as the ball bounced back off the post, and as far as times to score your first goal go, this was a good one.
But although it was satisfying to score, especially in such an important game, the goal drought had never weighed too heavily on Benjani himself.
“As a footballer you experience a lot of things like that,” he says. “When I came to Portsmouth we had six, seven, eight new players in a short space of time. For us to all gel and play well as a team, you need some time.
“When we are finding that touch it’s difficult for a striker to break through, you know? But eventually, when I got my goal, that’s when we survived and that was a good relief for myself, for the team and for the fans.”
— PompeyNewsNow🎙PO4cast (@PompeyNewsNow) October 5, 2017
Never the most prolific of strikers, Benjani’s strengths lay elsewhere. He was a selfless worker with great physical attributes, and even while struggling to break his goalscoring duck, the Pompey supporters took him to their hearts.
“I think that was because of my attitude to every game I was playing,” he says. “Sometimes when things aren’t happening for you, you need to be there for the other players. So, naturally, I was like that as a player. I used to run around, cover a lot of ground, help others and help the team.
“I think the love from the fans came from there because they knew I would work hard for the team even if the goals were not coming.
“And then, eventually, when the goals were coming, that nature of working hard was still there and I was scoring, so it was a bonus for me.”
Indeed, making his mark in the Premier League was the culmination of lots of hard work and sacrifice for Benjani, who first started playing on the streets of Bulawayo, where he grew up in Zimbabwe.
One of his close friends encouraged his love of football, an Arsenal supporter who idolised Ian Wright. Benjani followed suit.
He started playing for a local team and progressed to one of the biggest in the area, Highlanders Juniors. Although Benjani was passionate about football and clearly had a talent for it, he had no idea how far that would end up taking him.
“I played with Lulu Rovers and then I was signed by University of Zimbabwe, in Harare,” he says. “From there, that’s when I was called into the national team. I played for Zimbabwe against South Africa and that’s how I ended up moving to South Africa.”
On the move
Signing for Jomo Cosmos in 1999 gave Benjani’s career fresh momentum and opened up avenues to European football. Having been named the PSL Player of the Season after scoring 13 goals in 30 appearances, a loan move was arranged to Swiss side Grasshopper Zurich.
“I didn’t have that ambition,” he says. “It all happened so quickly. It was a surprise. When you’re doing something, all of a sudden they come to you and say, ‘You need to move and go to that place.’ While you’re there, that’s when you recognise that football can take you to places.
“The club I signed for in South Africa was owned by Jomo Sono. His aim was to take the young kids to Europe if they were good enough. He already had some connections by the time I joined. I was doing well at that time and when the season ended he had some teams that he prepared for me to go on trial.
“I came to Bournemouth at some point. Jermain Defoe was there. He was on loan from West Ham and he was scoring. By that time he had scored something like 10 goals in 10 games, so maybe that’s the reason why Bournemouth didn’t sign me.”
Instead, Benjani joined Auxerre on a permanent deal in 2002. He describes his four years in Ligue 1, during which he experienced domestic success and played in the Champions League, as the best period of his career.
At the end of his first season, Auxerre lifted the Coupe de France. PSG were leading 1-0, but Hugo Leal’s red card changed the course of the game. Benjani came on for Amdy Faye and played his part in an impressive comeback, sealed with Jean-Alain Boumsong’s 89th-minute winner.
Two years later they repeated the trick against Sedan in front of a crowd of almost 80,000 at the Stade de France. Benjani started on this occasion and grabbed the opening goal in another 2-1 win, seizing on a loose ball to thump home a low shot from just inside the area.
Working for Redknapp
Plenty of scouts were keeping tabs on Benjani’s progress, and his £4.1million move to Portsmouth was completed six months later.
“At that time, everyone was looking to play in the Premier League. When the opportunity comes you don’t waste time, you just have to go and be there,” he says.
“The Premier League is different. It’s power, strength, everything. Without strength and power you have to be exceptional. Look at people like David Silva and Bernardo Silva. They don’t have to be strong and aggressive, but they are exceptional.”
After moving to England, Benjani not only encountered a different style of play but a different style of management too. Redknapp was a larger-than-life character who the Zimbabwean striker enjoyed working with. He made him feel happy and confident, as if anything was possible.
“He was the kind of manager you would die for. Harry comes to you and motivates you. I remember, when I was down, he kept on telling me, ‘Benji, you can do it son!’ He’s a good manager in terms of motivating and giving you hope. His motivation is unbelievable.
“He comes and checks on you every day. He comes to every player and checks their state of mind, are they OK, how their family is at home. He’s more like a father figure. He takes care of a lot of things while he’s around. He makes jokes and talks with the players. He makes you feel confident.”
That constant encouragement was needed to engineer Portsmouth’s great escape, and the club grew from there, finishing ninth the following season. More talented players were added to the squad and Benjani benefited, scoring 12 goals in 23 games before his surprise departure.
“When I was scoring a lot, we had quality as well. Harry brought some quality to the team. You had Kanu, Sulley Muntari, Papa Bouba Diop, Sylvain Distin, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Niko Kranjcar. The team was unbelievable. When you’re playing with those kinds of players it’s easy to score.
“Even if you’re not the best striker, but you have the service from all over – left, right, centre – you are bound to score a few goals. Unlike when I came and it was just fight, fight, fight. When you’re fighting without quality, it’s a bit difficult.”
Man City surprise
Late in the 2008 January transfer window, with Benjani riding high as one of the Premier League’s leading scorers, an offer from Manchester City was accepted. Unsure of Redknapp’s intentions, he didn’t know how to react to the news but soon found that his manager was keen for him to leave so that he could bring in Defoe.
“We might call it a strange move, but in football those things happen,” Benjani says. “City were struggling for strikers – all of their strikers were injured – so they had to look around and see who could come in. It was cover for their crisis and eventually it turned out to be me.
“It’s tricky. Sometimes when you’re doing well you want to stay, but sometimes you want to play for a big team. That move came like a day before the deadline so you’re not sure if they really want you and I didn’t know what was in Harry’s mind at that time.”
It’s Benjani’s birthday today. You remember him.
Harry Redknapp loved working with him at Pompey. Then couldn’t get him on a plane fast enough on Deadline Day…pic.twitter.com/J9dgvh5sLq
— A Funny Old Game (@sid_lambert) August 13, 2019
Everything was moving too fast and there wasn’t chance for Benjani to properly weigh up his options. A deal was eventually completed despite uncertainty from both the player and City, who raised concerns about the damage done to his knee by a previous injury.
Once the rush subsided and the paperwork was ratified, Benjani made his debut in a Manchester derby at Old Trafford. Leading from the front for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side, he’d barely had time to acquaint himself with the magnitude of the occasion before he’d scored a decisive goal in a 2-1 win, glancing in a header from Martin Petrov’s cross.
“Everything happened so quick. I don’t know how to say it. Before you even understand the culture of the club, the history behind it. I was shocked when the journalist said Man City hadn’t won at Old Trafford for 34 years. It was a surprise to me. It was my first game with City.
“Next morning I realised it was a big thing. It was the 50th anniversary of Man United’s crash in Germany. When you gather all those things together you see that football can change in a short space of time. I was struggling six months or a year before I went there, and here I was scoring a historical goal.”
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Injuries and an influx of new players meant that Benjani didn’t have the impact he would have liked to at the club, but that one moment will endure.
Spells at Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers followed before he returned to a much-changed Portsmouth in August 2011. After winning the FA Cup, the club had gone into financial meltdown and were back in the second tier.
“When you play for a team, you always watch and check what’s going on,” he says. “When they’re in difficult circumstances, people are always asking you, ‘What’s going on with Portsmouth?’
“You’re trying to be honest. Sometimes there are problems that you keep to yourself, but there are other problems that people can see.
“It’s always nice to go where people love you. It was like coming back home when you’ve been away for a long time. Unfortunately, when I came back it was towards the end of my career and I didn’t do much, but the fact that I went there, to me it was a good thing.”
Having fallen as far League Two, Portsmouth are on the rise again. Benjani has been retired for six years but is back in England and continuing to follow the club’s progress.
“Now they are in a good way. Let’s hope they will be promoted to the Championship. That’s what I’m wishing for.”
Benjani’s other hope, as he continues to work on his coaching badges, is to take the lessons he has learned and apply them in Zimbabwe. One of only four footballers from the country to play in the Premier League – alongside Bruce Grobbelaar, Peter Ndlovu and Aston Villa’s Marvelous Nakamba – he hopes to see more follow in their footsteps.
“I would love to learn a lot from here, as this is a big country for football, and I want to take some of the knowledge back home. I want to learn the game more and then take it back home to try and lift some youngsters in Zimbabwe.
“A lot of youngsters from Zimbabwe are trying to break through in Europe and I achieved that. We are wishing for more Zimbabweans to come through. If we can achieve that and bring more Zimbabweans to play in big leagues, like Spain, Germany, France, Italy and England, that would be good for me as well.”
By Sean Cole
This interview was originally published in March 2020.