This interview first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Bournemouth matchday programme – 27th August 2016.
It took a lot of money, but Crystal Palace could have hit the jackpot with the signing of Christian Benteke. Goals have followed him wherever he has played, meaning the Selhurst Park faithful can now call one of English football’s deadliest finishers their own.
Forget escaping on holiday to warmer climes, or even England winning Euro 2016. What Palace fans wanted more than anything from their summer were for the rumours to be true.
Whilst tickertape was still being swept from the Wembley pitch back in May, media reports were already being typed furiously linking Christian Benteke with a move to the Eagles. Each weekly update gave fans a tantalising tease of the future if fiction was proved to be fact, but journalists seemed to offer differing opinions – was the move off or was it on?
But last week, the confirmation was there for all to see in black and white, or rather red and blue as the Belgian hitman posed happily as he was snapped in his new Eagles shirt moments after inking a four-year contract.
It took a club record fee to prise the 25-year-old from Liverpool’s clutches, but having coped with that burden during a frustrating year at Anfield, Palace’s new number 17 is now determined to use it as motivation to rediscover the form that sends top-flight defences into a state of alarm every time he gets into the penalty area.
In his first major interview since signing for the club, Benteke said: “I think I will have a lot of pressure on me but I will deal with it and will do everything I can to be a success here; I want to help the lads and the club to have a good season. I’m still a young player but I have a lot of experience now, so I want to take all the good things forward and leave the bad things in the past.
“I met the manager before the Euros and I liked hearing about his project and the way he was going to play, so I wanted to come here. I also spoke with one of my friends who knows Yannick Bolasie and he told me that it was a great club and I would like it here.
“I’m a team player and of course I can score goals but I play for the team. Now I’m here I want to improve everything; that’s one of the reasons why I’m here now because I know the strengths of this team, and I’m sure we will do something good this year.”
Despite the post-signing photoshoot and interviews, for many it would still seem like fantasy football until they could catch a glimpse of the 6’3” powerhouse in action with their own eyes. An EFL Cup second round cup tie against fourth-tier Blackpool might not have been the most glamorous of occasions to parade the most expensive player in Eagles history for the first time, but starved of action for the majority of 2016 Benteke was just keen to get onto the turf and be a frontline menace again; perhaps the only surprise was that he didn’t manage to scribble his name on the scoresheet having done so on his last two outings in SE25.
Following the game against the Seasiders, he said: “It’s been a really nice week and I’ve started really well, especially as we won today. I met the boys a few days ago and they have all been great so I feel really comfortable. I’m very happy to have had the chance to make my debut because I didn’t play any friendlies during pre-season, so to have the opportunity to get my fitness up is a good thing.
“I really enjoy playing here [Selhurst Park]; it’s not an easy place to play but every time I come here I’ve had the chance to score. Now I’m looking to score here for this club because the manager and chairman have put a lot of faith in me for the transfer so I want to give back to them on the pitch.”
Both Pardew and Steve Parish knew exactly what they were getting – a proven Premier League goalscorer. Since arriving on these shores in September 2012, Benteke has scored 51 times in the topflight for Aston Villa and Liverpool, with only Sergio Aguero, Romelu Lukaku, Olivier Giroud and Luis Suarez netting more during that time.
That stat alone shows that the £7 million Villa paid for an unproven but hungry centre-forward is one of the bargains of this era where someone with Benteke’s characteristics command fees of upwards of £30 million. His mixture of muscle and bustle, coupled with an aerial ability that allows him to leap for days, took the league by storm in his debut campaign, resulting in 19 goals in 34 league appearances and runner-up in the PFA Young Player of the Year voting behind Gareth Bale. Villa finally had another star to go alongside the one on their badge signifying their solitary European Cup.
Looking back at those early days in claret and blue, Benteke noted: “It was one of my best periods since I’ve been in England. For every player the first season is either the most difficult or it can be the easiest. No-one knows you which means that you can do your thing, but then when you do something good the next season everyone knows you, so they give you more attention and are more aggressive, so it gets harder. I’ve enjoyed it since I’ve been here; I knew I would be a success in England because I work really hard, and I will continue that to be successful here.”
His route to this country though was far from straight forward. Born in Zaire in 1990, Benteke’s father was an army officer and three years after the birth of his son he decided to uproot his family to escape the Mobutu dictatorship. That led to them joining family in the Belgian city of Liege, the streets of which would provide the foundations of his development as a player before spells at JS Pierreuse, Standard Liege and Genk, where he turned professional.
After just 10 senior outings he returned to Standard Liege where glimpses of his potential were shown by three goals in nine league matches, but his career’s nomadic start continued with two year-long loan spells at fellow Belgium Pro League sides Kortrijk and Mechelen.
Those excursions gave the youngster a stage to showcase his talent and unsurprisingly he drilled in 23 goals during that time, form which saw him the then-teenager handed a maiden Belgium cap in May 2010. Having proven he was ready for the big time, Genk offered him a second chance in 2011, and he seized it in style with 16 goals in 32 league appearances.
A little over a year later he was part of a Belgian invasion of the Premier League as he followed Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard and Jan Vertonghen across the Channel that same summer, and allowed him to fulfil a childhood ambition.
“Since I was a young kid in Belgium playing in the street with my friends and my cousin I said that my dream was to play in England,” he reminisced. “Even between us all in the squad now, we don’t know why there are so many Belgian players here so we just have to enjoy it. If you look at our squad everyone plays for a top team so we’re looking good.”
The talent and strength in depth of the Red Devils were reasons why they were tipped to win Euro 2016 last summer, however they exited the tournament at the quarter-final stage after suffering defeat to Wales, with Benteke only totalling 11 minutes of action.
“We were frustrated because we knew that we could have done better with all the quality we have. Unfortunately we didn’t get to where we wanted to go but now we look forward and aim to be in the next World Cup. I could have played more and I didn’t go there to just sit on the bench, but you have to respect the choice of the manager and be ready when he needs you.”
Making do with a peripheral role was something that Benteke had been forced to endure last season. Signed by Brendan Rodgers to spearhead Liverpool’s attack, the Northern Irishman’s dismissal in October saw the £32 million man reduced to bench duty by Jurgen Klopp. It’s a testament to his goalscoring prowess that Benteke still managed to reach double figures last term, but he believes Palace will benefit after suffering a difficult year on Merseyside.
“I have to take what I can from Liverpool – my experiences there made me stronger and more mature so I will take everything I can from that and put it into my work here,” he added.
“As a player you have to be ready for everything. That situation could have happened to anyone but it happened to me and I have to accept it. The Liverpool story is behind me and now I have to look forward and do what I do best.”
Whilst he doesn’t imply specifically, anyone who has followed Benteke’s career knows what he’s referring to. It’s been a long summer, but soon they’ll all be seeing him scoring goals once again at Selhurst Park – but this time for Crystal Palace