In WHAT promises to be a thrilling race for promotion through the Championship play-offs, adjectives such as “gruelling”, “tense” and “testing” are likely to be liberally thrown around as the hype builds.
However, unless the drinking water in Scotland suddenly becomes a major health hazard and team buses regularly fail to reach their destinations in one piece, you suspect that Dominique Malonga will wonder what all the fuss is about.
The 26-year-old endured an experience in Equatorial Guinea last month which proved arduous, slapdash and thrilling in equal measures as he proudly represented Congo in the most hastily arranged Africa Cup of Nations in history.
Morocco pulled out of the hosting of the tournament in November, leaving the Confederation of African Football (CAF) seeking a new venue with just eight weeks until the kick-off date. Equatorial Guinea grasped the baton with vigour. The result was a nation high on energy and enthusiasm, but short on infrastructure and time.
Congo manager Claude Le Roy was the most vocal critic of CAF’s efforts as he angrily commented on his team being sent to a hotel with insufficient space and exposed electrical wiring. His mood was hardly lifted when the team bus broke down on its way to the final group match against Burkina Faso in the small border town of Ebebiyin, leaving the players stranded in stifling 40 degree heat.
In typically genial fashion, Malonga appears to have revelled in every moment – good and bad – of his debut international tournament, in which Congo reached the quarter-final for the first time since 1992.
“The travelling, the hotels – it was terrible,” he said with a smile. “It was really, really hot and the conditions were terrible, but all the players have the same conditions and you just deal with it. It was funny at times.
“The [hotel] stories about open wires and no rooms are true, it was horrible. But, when you go there, everyone smiles and says: ‘This is Africa!’ So that is how I looked at it.
“When we travelled for our third game, the bus broke down, so we were stuck in the middle of nowhere. We were stranded for 30 minutes before we could change bus, but the new bus was also a very bad bus.
“You had to be careful of what you drink, you must drink out of a bottle and make sure it is sealed closed. If it has already been opened, then this could be very bad.
“However, the competition was good. Equatorial Guinea is a nice country, there was a really beautiful beach in the city of Bata, so there were plenty of things to enjoy. Even in difficult moments, we enjoyed the experience.”
Malonga has been back on Scottish soil since the start of the month, making his first appearance for Hibs since the Africa Cup of Nations in the 2-0 win over Rangers ten days ago.
Understandably, he did not look himself at Ibrox. However, at Easter Road on Saturday, the Dominique Malonga who scored 11 goals in 16 games prior to heading for Equatorial Guinea was back.
He held the ball up well, stretched the Dumbarton back-line with clever movement and scored two tidy goals to leapfrog Jason Cummings as the top scorer at the club.
However, Malonga was initially usurped by his strike partner, Franck Dja Djedje, with the Ivorian forward breaking the deadlock with a powerful low shot from ten yards, having latched on to a low cross from the excellent Keith Watson.
“His movement was good and I am happy that he scored the first goal,” Malonga noted, of playing in attack with Dja Djedje for the first time. “It is good for his confidence and it can only be positive for the team to have another striker who can help us.”
Once again, the dead-eye delivery of Watson was pivotal as Hibs doubled their lead. The on-loan Dundee United full-back produced a wonderful, curling cross to find Malonga completely free on the penalty spot, and he made no mistake with a super header into the far corner.
Malonga doubled his money in the second half, surging on to a Fraser Fyvie through pass and belying a narrowing angle to fire past Danny Rogers from inside the box, despite almost being blocked by team-mate Danny Handling, in the process.
Although he spent the majority of January on a different continent, the Paris-born attacker is now just one goal away from becoming the joint-top scorer in the Scottish Championship.
“If I finish top scorer that is good, but the ultimate plan is just to get back to the Premiership,” he continued. “If I can help by scoring goals, it is better, but for the fans and for the people, we must go up.”
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