Hibs fans will hope Stephane Omeonga is as skilled at carrying out manager Jack Ross’ instructions as when employing delaying tactics.
The popular midfielder returned to Easter Road last week but only after a fraught experience in which he was poised to sign a loan deal with Italian Serie B club Cozensa. Then a call from Hibs sporting director Graeme Mathie flashed up on his phone.
He knew who it was – the number was still programmed into his mobile from his first spell on loan at the club last season, when he played 17 times and established himself as something of a cult figure.
“I couldn’t have been happier when Graeme called me,” he said. “It was a surprise to be honest, but a really nice one. I have been following the results of the club and I thought the midfield was strong and they wouldn’t need me. The minute I saw his name I knew there was a chance of something happening.”
Negotiations with Cozensa had reached a delicate stage, but he answered the phone. “And I am glad I did,” he said.
He can think on his feet as well as thread a ball through a defence. The 23-year-old came up with an excuse to take a break from the discussions and started plotting his way to Hibs. He now looks set to make his second debut in tonight’s league clash with Hamilton Accies at Easter Road.
Omeonga might feel the love in Leith but it is probably wise if he doesn’t return to the Cozensa, pleasant sounding place though it is, in a hurry. A loan move to Cercle Brugge in his homeland had not gone as planned so Omeonga was especially keen to ensure his next step was right for him.
Cozensa might or might not have worked out. But when he received the call from Mathie, with Hibs having been pressed into looking for a midfield replacement for the injured Stevie Mallan, there was only one place he wanted to go.
He had hoped to return to Hibs for a second spell last summer but Genoa, his parent club, quashed the possibility. They instructed him to head to Belgium instead. Omeonga struggled to fit into coach Bernd Storck’s plans. He suspected there was an ulterior motive for him being there.
“In the Belgian league you need to have six players from the country in your squad, and I got the feeling I was there just to make up the numbers,” he explained. “I was hardly ever involved.”
He was therefore happy to investigate a further move on loan to Cozensa. He travelled to southern Italy and looked set to sign for a club currently sitting in the relegation zone of Italy’s second tier. “I spoke to the manager and the director so the move was really close to happening,” he recalled. “When I told them that I had changed my mind and was going to Hibs, they were pretty angry. People were saying bad things about me on social media and stuff but that’s just football.”
This was a game of considerable jeopardy. He knew he might have ended up with nowhere to go. Loan moves have a habit of falling through for various reasons. What if Ross was not convinced by the player’s merits and cancelled the move?
The Hibs manager had no previous knowledge of Omeonga, who signed when Neil Lennon was still in charge but played mostly under Paul Heckingbottom. Ross admitted he had to think extra carefully about this deal. He did not want someone foisted on him and did plenty of due diligence. What he learned was all positive. Indeed, he initially feared the chance to bring Omeonga back to the club was too good to be true.
“I think people at the club were a bit more ready to go with it,” Ross admitted. “I wanted to look at some other things, weigh it up a bit more, which is just the way I am.
“I had to make sure I was comfortable with it. He brings attributes we don’t quite have within the squad and the bonus is he has been here before so there’s no worries about him settling in with the group.”
Omeonga, for his part, needed to be convinced that Ross wanted him there given what happened in Belgium. He already knew his own feelings for the club. Happily, he established that the attraction was mutual.
“People gave me a lot of love when I was here last season and that was the first time I have really had that in my career,” he said. “It gives you more energy on the pitch.”