Beni Baningime’s Heart of Midlothian career has been something of a roller-coaster. It gathered pace quickly after the midfielder joined on a free transfer from Everton in the summer of 2021 as he quickly became one of the first names on Robbie Neilson’s team sheet. It wasn’t long before he established himself as one of the best ball-winning midfielders in the league – and then that upward trajectory was cruelly interrupted by a devastating cruciate ligament injury.

It kept Baningime out of the game for 15 months. By the time he returned to first-team football, there was a new head coach in the shape of Steven Naismith. He had a difficult return away to Rosenborg in the second qualifying round of the Europa Conference League. Off the pace, he played a role in both of the Norwegians’ goals in a 2-1 defeat for Hearts. He picked up another injury that kept him out of the team for a few weeks and was replaced at the break.

Since then, though, Baningime has hardly looked back. It’s no coincidence that Hearts’ form improved when he became a regular feature in Naismith’s starting XI from November, and he has started almost every Premiership game since. He is the fulcrum in midfield, the lynchpin that the team is built around – but he might not even be a Hearts player next season.

The 25-year-old has a big decision to make in the coming months. His contract runs out this summer, and he is free to speak to other clubs about a potential move during the close season. Hearts have offered an extension, but Baningime wants to wait and weigh up his options. Football-wise, he says, things could hardly be going better. But there are other factors at play for the Wigan-born player too.

READ MORE: Assessing the Hearts squad: Depth, development and transfer potential

“That's a complicated one,” Baningime replied when asked about his future. “There is a contract on the table but I am just concentrating on the football right now and to get back into the team.

“I am happy here. I love it here. I missed Europe this season because I was injured so that's 100 per cent an incentive. I need to speak to my family. I know there is a contract down and I know the gaffer and everyone here wants me here. It's a choice I have to make. I will think about the decision by the end of the season.”

He continued: “My family are down south so there are a lot of things. I need to wait and speak to my family and see what they want, if they want me home. But when it comes to the football side of things, I am very happy here.

“I'm single. I have always lived at home so coming here was a big thing. I just love being close to my family. My family are very close. Every decision I have to make I have to speak to them about everything. Ultimately, the decision will be made but not right now.”

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Baningime is rarely rushed into making decisions on the pitch, so it should come as no surprise that he is equally relaxed off of it. He is a player who surely fancies another crack at English football at some point or another; the only question is when he will take the plunge.

Unlike Lawrence Shankland, who was offered an extension in January but had to make a decision within a matter of days, Baningime’s situation is more open-ended. Hearts have tabled their offer but there is no deadline in place. More game time would surely help convince the midfielder to commit his future to the club, but he recognises that the competition for places in midfield is fierce.

“There isn't a deadline,” Baningime explained. “It's a case of whenever you are ready. I haven't spoken to the gaffer or the club recently because it has just been game after game after game.

“Every player wants to play. But I am completely happy and I understand there's a lot of competition in the team. Cammy Devlin came in and he’s a great player. Calem Nieuwenhof has been doing well. Macaulay [Tait] has been doing well, and then there’s Finlay [Pollock] and [Aidan] Denholm. I'm not really bothered about that. It's competition.

READ MORE: Calm, composed and collected: How Beni Baningime became a key player for Hearts

“I haven't really spoken to my agent about [offers from other clubs]. I am not sure. Even if there was, I am not really in a rush. I am trying to do the best I can do in a football sense.

“Hearts are a great club and I 100 per cent love playing in the big games and Europe next year too. I love it here. When it comes to the football side it is brilliant, but when it comes to the outside stuff, it's about being at home and being close to home. It's not often I get to see my family, I think the last time I went was during the [winter] break. It's a bit tough but you get used to it.”

Baningime will be hoping to play his part on Sunday when Hearts welcome the Premiership champions to Tynecastle Park. Celtic racked up a commanding 4-1 victory on the last occasion that the two teams met in Gorgie but in their previous meeting in Glasgow, Hearts sealed a deserved - and rare - 2-0 win.

Baningime was key that day at Celtic Park. Supporters can sometimes get frustrated with the No.6 as he can sometimes be guilty of slowing down play and taking the cautious option. Back in December, though, he gambled, took risks, played with a forward-thinking attitude, and got the rewards. The challenge on Sunday, both for the team and Baningime individually, is to repeat that performance.

“It was a great memory winning at Celtic,” he added. “We hadn't won there for a long time so hopefully we can beat them again on Sunday.

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“If you look at the run we went on straight after it, it does give you that belief. The last game we played wasn't great but I think we should always look to be positive. We have got a belief within the team to go toe-to-toe-with them.

“The gaffer gave us a lot of confidence before the game. Celtic are a great team, but you shouldn't give them too much respect. When they do, they will punish you because they have a lot of good players. If you have that belief in yourself, you never know.

“On that day, we were brilliant. You have to [follow that blueprint]. If you look at the Man Citys and the best teams in the world, if you don't go toe-to-toe with them and give them too much respect, they will punish you. There's no shame in losing to them but why not go and have a go and see where it takes you?”