Dominique Malonga’s latest Italian job is not going to plan. The 27-year-old striker freely admits he took far more satisfaction from being part of “the Hibs family” for 16 months than being frozen out by Pro Vercelli, a situation in which he has found himself since seeking a move away from the Serie B club in the summer.
“If you say to me now, stay in Italy or Hibs, I would say Hibs, for sure,” he told the Evening News in his first interview since leaving Easter Road ten months ago.
Malonga is at a low ebb. He stops short of using the word “regret”, but it is hard to escape the sense that he feels he made the wrong call in departing Hibs, where he was adored by fans and team-mates alike. At this time last year he was playing regularly in a team which was busy hauling itself back into Championship title contention with a nine-game winning streak. There had been speculation about Malonga’s future from the start of last season after he came close to leaving in the summer transfer window, but after he re-established himself in Alan Stubbs’ starting XI in the autumn, it was widely felt that he would at least see out his contract, which was due to expire in the summer of this year. His January departure came at a time when Anthony Stokes and Chris Dagnall were arriving to provide fresh competition for an attacking berth and when he had the opportunity of a relatively lucrative two-and-a-half-year contract at Pro Vercelli, a side based between Milan and Turin, his fiancée’s home city.
Asked if he regretted his decision in light of his current predicament, Malonga pauses and laughs ruefully. “Leaving Hibs was probably the hardest decision I have made in my career,” he said. “I knew if I left it would feel like unfinished business for me because my main goal when I arrived was to go up with Hibs. I really regret that I didn’t do that. It was so, so hard to leave when I did. I told the gaffer and the players that at the time. I loved everybody at Hibs – it was a true family.
“To talk now, probably it was..... It’s hard to say it was a bad decision. Nobody’s perfect. I made a decision I had to make at that moment. I made the decision and I need to move on and go forward. My main regret is that I feel like there was unfinished business. I feel like I left my team alone and I feel so bad about that. But football is also like business and you have to make decisions about contracts and things like that.
“There were a lot of things in my decision. I was not bothered about Stokes coming in or anything like that. I had no problem with that. If I trained good and showed up well in matches, I had no worries about what I could do. I was confident. Stokes is a good player and he was good for Hibs when he came but I was not worried about that.
“The main thing was my contract and my family. My contract was up in six months and my family are from Italy. It was such a hard decision to make because I loved the guys, I loved the city and I loved the fans. I had two-and-a-half-year’s contract on offer in Italy but it was a really hard decision to make. I was playing a lot of games at the time for Hibs. To think again about that time.... it was a really hard decision.”
So what has gone wrong in Italy, where Malonga had spent the bulk of his career prior to arriving at Hibs in September 2014? The Congo internationalist played regularly when he first arrived at Pro Vercelli, scoring three goals in 11 starts (16 appearances in total) in the second half of last season. He wasn’t enjoying his new environment, though, and things have deteriorated since he asked to leave in the summer. He continues to train with his club but is firmly cast as persona non grata in the eyes of management, who haven’t allowed him any game time this season.
“I’m not happy here,” Malonga confirmed. “I’m not playing at all, but the reason is beyond sport. I don’t know how it’s happened. I can’t tell you why I’m not playing but, believe me, it is not because I’m not playing good or not training hard. It is other stuff. There is a lot of stuff going on. I would be playing every game otherwise. They gave me a two-and-a-half-year contract and I wanted to leave in August. They were not happy with that, and I don’t know what’s happened since then. I wanted to leave in August because I am not happy here. If you’re not happy, you need to go. Money is good but it’s not everything. If I’m not happy, I want to leave. Simple as that. Probably because of that, they want to punish me because they think I am a really good player in the team.
“I train hard every day and I feel good. The players are with me but the coach, the directors and the president are not. I don’t know why. It’s a really complicated situation – I can’t say everything that is going on. I need to stay calm though because if I lose my mind, it’s not good for me.
“I’m not too worried because I hope to be leaving in January. I’m still training hard every day and I’m pretty sure that in January I will leave and start enjoying my game again. I don’t know at this time where I will go but I will probably not stay in Italy.”
Asked if he could return to Scotland in January, he laughed: “You never know, you never know. If I come back to Scotland, for me it will be Hibs. We will see. I really don’t know where I will be. My agent is looking for things. I don’t think he will call Hibs, but we will see.”
Malonga is philosophical enough to know that Hibs have moved on since he left and that there is no guarantee Neil Lennon would want him back at a time when he already has several strikers on the books. However, he refuses to rule out a return to Easter Road at some point in the future, even offering up the possibility twice himself without prompting. “When you stay in Edinburgh you know Hibs is a great club but it is only when you leave that you realise just how great a club and how great a family it is,” he says. “Hibs was one of the best times in my career. It was a pleasure to play for Hibs, I was really proud. You never know, maybe I will play for Hibs again. The fans are the best. I love them. I really miss Hibs and the Hibs family.”
Indeed “the Hibs family” have helped keep Malonga’s spirits up with a regular flow of tweets of adulation. “Every time, it is the same message: ‘We miss you, King Dom’,” he laughed. “They send me videos of my goal against Aberdeen [in the League Cup]. I don’t respond but I love them all and I really appreciate the messages they give me. I’m really happy that they still get in touch with me.”
In addition to his club troubles, Malonga has also lost his place in the Congo squad, although this is of little concern to the Paris-born forward at present. “Congo don’t call me any more,” he said “The last time I went there, we lost against Kenya [in June] and didn’t qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations, so they changed everything. Now they play with young players and players who play in Congo. I’m not too disappointed because the most important thing is to play with my club first. You lose fitness when you go with the national team because they are long trips. I believe if I didn’t go to the African Cup of Nations [in January 2015] I would have scored more than 20 goals in my first season at Hibs. Now I just want to enjoy my game with my club.”
Malonga’s languid style meant he divided opinion in Scotland, but a strike rate of 22 goals in 54 appearances ensures he will always be remembered fondly in the eyes of most Hibs supporters. “I feel like I played my part,” he said of his time at Easter Road. “I can do better, I know that. But I did my part and I really enjoyed my time there. My best moment was probably the goal against Aberdeen because a few days before I didn’t have a very good game [away to Livingston]. I was not in a good moment and I had just come on the pitch a few minutes earlier but I felt I showed my character that night. I also enjoyed the games against Rangers and Hearts. You never know – maybe one day I will come back.”
Malonga, of course, left Hibs less than four months before his colleagues went on to make history by winning the Scottish Cup. He followed the final against Rangers as close as he possibly could while in the company of family in northern Italy before firing off a rare tweet, just minutes after David Gray’s winner, which read: “GRAAAYY!!! I don’t care about it.....”
“I didn’t watch the game on TV because I was with my family but I was following it on Livescore and Twitter,” he said. “When Rangers were up 2-1, I thought ‘come on’, then when Stokes scored and Dave Gray scored, it was so great. I was really happy for Dave and for Hibs. I was out in the street when I saw he had scored and I tweeted about it because I was so happy for my guys. It was unbelievable. Even though I wasn’t there, I had a lot of emotion.”
Malonga’s last goal for Hibs came in his penultimate outing – a 2-0 victory away to Raith Rovers in January which kicked off their glory run. “I did my part,” he laughs. “I did my part!”
Malonga is disappointed to see his old strike partner Jason Cummings also enduring a period on the sidelines after suffering a loss of form. “I spoke with Jason a couple of weeks ago because he’s my guy, my little bro,” said Malonga. “Hopefully he will play more soon. I keep in touch with John Doolan, he was a really good coach. I feel bad because they got the sack at Rotherham. I think Alan is a really good coach so hopefully he finds a new challenge. I text some of the other guys too. I need to come to Edinburgh to see them because I feel like they are my family. I love them. I will come to a game at Easter Road to see everybody. When I come back it will be special.”