WHAT a derby needs most is someone who doesn’t get caught up in the chaos, someone with the presence of mind to put their foot on the ball and keep their head when others are losing theirs. Someone like Dominique Malonga.
That, at least, is the view of Alan Stubbs, the Hibernian head coach, who believes that his striker can make the difference when they play Hearts at Tynecastle on Saturday. Never mind his body language or his languid approach to Scottish football, the 25-year-old Congolese striker, who signed for Hibs in September, is getting the job done.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
Before yesterday’s match against Rangers, he had scored 11 times in 14 appearances for the Edinburgh club. Among those was a goal in the 1-1 draw with Hearts at Easter Road in October. It will not surprise Stubbs if he comes up with another against the same opponents on Saturday.
“I think a derby probably suits him even more because everything can be very frantic,” says Stubbs. “It can be 100 miles an hour. If, as a football spectacle, it goes out the window, he will still be his normal self. He will be calm, he’ll be cool, he’ll do things at his own pace and he won’t be flustered by anything.
“He knows everything. When the ball’s coming into him at pace, he’s got an awareness and ability to know exactly what he’s going to do next. Sometimes a lot of players are worrying about their first touch, worrying about other things, whereas he’s completely at ease.”
Malonga’s pedigree is impressive. Born in the suburbs of Paris to Congolese parents, he is a product of the acclaimed Clairefontaine Academy in France, where he was a contemporary of Southampton’s Morgan Schneiderlin and Moussa Sissoko, of Newcastle United. After three years with Monaco, he played in Serie A with Torino and Cesena. His playing style, like his personality, has more to it than meets the eye.
“He’s got that little bit of quality that can make the difference,” says Stubbs. “He’s done great since he came in. He’s very different to what we’ve probably been used to in Scottish football. He’s his own person. He doesn’t do anything quick on the pitch. And, off the pitch, he does things even slower. But that’s the way he is. He’s great. The lads love him. He’s got a great personality about him. His English is very good, even though he might say different. He knows everything you’re saying.
“I think he’s been a breath of fresh air. His goals this season… he has scored them with his head, he has scored them with his feet, he has scored a fluke, but he gets chances and that’s what you want strikers to do all the time.
“You want them to be in the right positions at the right times. And, I have to say, more often than not, he is.”
The Hearts game is likely to be his last in a Hibs shirt before he heads for Equatorial Guinea to represent Congo in the Africa Cup of Nations. His country qualified for the tournament courtesy of a 1-0 win against Sudan last month, when Malonga made his debut. “Hopefully he can leave on a really good note and, if he does, we will wish him all the best and look forward to him coming back,” says Stubbs.
Malonga could be away for up to six weeks, depending on how far Congo progress in the event. In his absence, Stubbs will have only Jason Cummings and Paul Heffernan to choose from in attack. Farid El Alagui, who is recovering from a ruptured Achilles, is still several weeks away from full fitness. “It’s still probably a little bit too soon,” says Stubbs. “He’s doing really well, but we want Farid for the rest of the season. We’re not going to hinder his rehab in any way because of Dominique.”
Stubbs suggests that a striker could be on his list when the new transfer window opens on Thursday. Asked if the shortage of attacking options was a worry, he says: “No, not necessarily, because we’ll hopefully look to do something in January anyway. And then, when everyone is back fit – as in Dylan [McGeouch], Jordon [Forster], Farid – plus the window, then we’ve obviously got an even stronger squad. I’m really looking forward to having difficult decisions.”
If this season’s previous two Edinburgh derbies are any guide, Hibs already have the wherewithal to trouble their city rivals. No one in the Championship has come closer to beating Hearts than Stubbs’s team, who were denied victory by Alim Ozturk’s stoppage-time wonder strike at Easter Road.
After that match, Stubbs suggested that they had succumbed only to a freak equaliser. He said that Ozturk could try that trick 999 times more and not hit the target. That the Hearts defender thundered another one in six days later against Raith Rovers does not appear to have changed the Hibs coach’s view.
“I saw some reports saying that he did it the following week, but the following week wasn’t anywhere near the same type of goal,” says Stubbs. “If people want to be honest then let’s be honest. It was a fantastic strike. I’m not going to deny that. But I still don’t think it would happen again.”
Hibs dominated that encounter for long spells. They also held their own at Tynecastle in August, only to lose 2-1 after coming off worst in a chaotic finale. Stubbs believes that his players will unsettle Hearts if they adopt a positive, adventurous approach on Saturday.
It is not a challenge Robbie Neilson and his unbeaten team have had much experience of this season, with so many of their opponents equipped only to park the bus. “That’s why, at Easter Road, we really took the game to them,” says Stubbs. “We gave them a test. We put them on the back foot. We asked questions, and that’s what we’ll be doing when we go to Tynecastle. There’s no way we’ll be going there and trying to get a draw. I can guarantee you that. We’re going there to try and win the game. We’re going to try and be positive and see where it takes us.”
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS