Dominique Malonga can only dream of what might have been.
Had it not been for the vagaries of the Spanish play-off system he could well have been facing the likes of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo in La Liga.
The bitter memories of just how cruel football can be came flooding back as the Hibs striker and his team-mates arrived in La Manga to prepare for their own tilt at promotion, their base but a ferry ride away from Murcia where Malonga plied his trade last season.
On loan from the Italian outfit Cesena, Malonga played his part as Murcia finished fourth in the Spanish Second Division behind Eibar and Deportivo La Coruna, who achieved automatic promotion, and Barcelona’s B team who, under the rules, were barred from the play-offs.
Malonga said: “Effectively we were the highest placed team in the play-offs for La Liga and I’d scored a few goals to help the team get there. In the semi-final we played Cordoba who had finished seventh. It was looking good after the first leg in Cordoba, a no-scoring draw, but they beat us 2-1 in the Nueva Condomina.
“It was unbelievable but they beat us and then they went up after scoring a goal in the third minute of injury time against Las Palmas. The game ended in a draw but because the first leg in Cordoba had ended in a no-scoring draw they went up on the away goals rule.
“It’s hard to take when a team who finishes seventh goes up but that is the rule. In Italy the eighth team is in the play-offs and for me that isn’t fair but it’s the rule. I thought we were the most talented team in the play-offs – we had players like Kike at Middlesbrough – so it was a huge disappointment to lose in the semi-final. It is hard now when I watch Cordoba because I think it could have been Murcia in La Liga.”
Malonga’s stay in Spain came to an end as Murcia hit financial problems so great they suffered an administrative relegation – but again the Congolese forward can only wonder how things might have turned out had they found themselves rubbing shoulders with Barca and Real.
Murcia’s loss, however, was Hibs’ gain as the 26-year-old made a surprise switch to Scotland where his 16 goals – despite arriving in Edinburgh after the season had started and a month away at the Africa Cup of Nations – helped Alan Stubbs’ new-look side clinch second place in the Championship to keep their hope of promotion very much alive.
The French-born star said: “I had an option to stay in Murcia but they had problems with money and went down. I had an option to go to other teams in Spain and Italy but it wasn’t right for me so I waited and wanted to go to Hibs for the challenge.
“I am really pleased I took the option of going to Scotland. I am very happy to play for Hibs.”
Despite the bitter disappointment of only 11 months ago, Malonga insisted he is determined to use that experience to Hibs’ benefit as they wait to learn whether it will be Rangers or Queen of the South next Wednesday in their first play-off match.
He said: “I see similarities with Murcia last season and now Hibs because I believe we are the most talented in the play-offs but you need more than just that. You need luck as well, but I think we’re ready. I feel I know exactly what we need to do. It’s two games first and you need to win. We have prepared well and the atmosphere is good in training. I think we can go through four games and go up.
“I don’t care who we play. Queen of the South have a bad pitch but it’s fine. With the ties being over two legs it means if you lose the first game you still have a chance. These games can be so dramatic and we all watched the 5-5 game between Sheffield United and Swindon on Monday night and it was unbelievable.”
However, Malonga’s memories of Murcia are not all bad, his son Matthew, who is now 16 months old, was born in the Spanish town.
He said: “This is a familiar part of the world to me because I played for Murcia last season on loan from Cesena.
“I had a wonderful time in Murcia and I have happy memories because my son Matthew was born when I was there. He was delivered in the hospital in Murcia so it was a special time for me.”
But while enjoying the sunshine and the first-class facilities available to Stubbs’ squad, Malonga revealed that Hibs’ training schedule has been such he hasn’t found the time to look up pals even though they live only a few miles away.
He said: “I haven’t had the chance to meet up with any of my old friends from Murcia. I haven’t had time to see them. I just sent a couple of messages to them. I am trying to enjoy my time with my Hibs team-mates.”
Although he has been something of a football nomad, his career having taken him through the French clubs of Tours and Monaco, to Italy with Torino, Foggia, Cesena and Vicenza, in Spain with Murcia, and now Scotland, Malonga has settled in Edinburgh, with the arrival of Matthew having had a huge impact on his life.
He said: “I am really pleased I took the option of going to Scotland. I am very happy to play for Hibs. I have settled in Scotland and becoming a dad has changed my life. When you’re not a dad then you are like a baby to your girlfriend but now it’s different.
“Everything you do is being watched by your son so you must be careful. Maybe you don’t care about what you are doing but your son watches you. He watches your every move. It’s a wonderful experience.
“Myself and my girlfriend Paola enjoy life in Edinburgh. She is Italian but we feel at home. We live near the Meadows and we like nothing better than to take Matthew out for a walk there. But I’m also feeling good here in Spain too with the sunshine!”
Malonga’s languid style, he has been described as the most laid-back man at Easter Road, makes him stand out, as Stubbs has noted he’s not the traditional British centre-forward, but, amid the lurid green, yellow, pink and white boots worn by his team-mates he is again, unique in that he’s taken to wearing black boots.
He explained: “I used to play with blue boots, pink boots but I now I just like to play with a pair of black Adidas boots. I like it, it’s old fashioned.”