ONLY three appearances into his Hibernian career, Dominique Malonga has already pulled off a major coup.
The 25-year-old’s double that powered Alan Stubbs’ men past Ross County and into the League Cup quarter-finals made the Frenchman the first striker on the lips of the Leith faithful. For a couple of days. The rest of September these lips have luxuriated over the possibility of a loan deal for Leigh Griffiths. Malonga may never be able to match Griffiths’ mercurial talents. The forward, though, can certainly boast a mercurial career.
Even as he prepares to spearhead the Hibs attack tomorrow night at an Ibrox that ranks as one of the mighty arenas of Europe, the football world must seem a very different place compared to how it felt at 19 for a player raised in the suburbs of Paris to Congolese parents. Back then Malonga was representing his French homeland – “a dream I always had” – at under-19 level. That meant sharing a pitch with some “very good players”. Among these talents he recalls Morgan Schneiderlin of Southampton, Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko and Gabriel Obertan, and one-time Liverpool forward David N’gog, now with Stade de Reims.
By contrast, the Scottish second tier seems, frankly, a comedown for a bustling attacker schooled at the famous French training centre, Clairefontaine, “which is as good as everyone says it is”, and who was a trainee at Monaco.
“It is beautiful and Monte Carlo is beautiful and we were very privileged, because in the stadium we had a school and everything we needed,” he says. “It was a great, great, great centre. They don’t get many people going to their games, though. The money is good but the fans are not as good. It is better to play here.”
Hibs are Malonga’s sixth team in seven years, and respect is deserved for his five years in Italy. Two seasons with Torino in Serie A from 2007 yielded only nine league appearances and a solitary goal but, following loan spells in Serie B with Foggia and Cesena, he made a permanent £1 million move to the latter after scoring eight goals in 22 games to help earn them promotion. Finding the net in the next two seasons at the Italian top flight proved difficult and he stepped down again with Vicenza in summer 2012 and notched a healthy 10 goals in 38 league games before a spell in the Spanish second division last season with Real Murcia.
If his career path does not boast the pizazz associated with the English stints of his one-time international team-mates, Malonga seems wounded when such a suggestion is put to him. “I don’t have any regrets,” says the player, who has signed a two-year deal with Hibs. “I look forward and don’t have any regrets. I am happy and I just want to work because I need to. I need to work hard every day.”
Having been denied much of a pre-season, Malonga feels as if he is operating at only “70 to 75 per cent” of his full capacity. This will be music to the ears of a manager who believes the striker’s conviction as he tucked away two headers at Dingwall demonstrated “he has real quality”. Hibs desperately require that in attack after Farid El Alagui was lost to a long-term Achilles injury at the start of the month, having scored six times in the early weeks of a difficult campaign.
Malonga’s three goals in three appearances have led to him being marked out as a bright spot on a grey landscape for the Leith side. Certainly, the player is enthused. “I like it. It’s different for me,” he says. “Not the training. We play with the ball all the time so it’s the same as it was in Spain. It’s definitely different from Italy. Every day there it was tactics, tactics, tactics – it was terrible. That’s Italian football. Here there is more freedom.”
Viva la difference isn’t Malonga’s take on all aspects of his sporting pursuit. He has received requests from the Republic of Congo but hardly seems bursting to go to Africa and play for the country his father left at 20. Malonga’s brother was born in the Congo, but the player has never been to the continent, never mind country, of his roots. He is non-committal about an international career. “I have time to think about it. Now, I just want to play for Hibernian.”
Stubbs, refreshingly, is keen for Malonga to commit to the Congo and play well enough for Hibs to be away for the first two months of next year at the Africa Cup of Nations. “If he does play for the Congo we’ll lose him if he’s playing well, while if we don’t it might not necessarily mean he’s scoring goals. I know which I’d prefer.”