There will be no hiding place for Alan Stubbs’ players if they fail to clinch promotion to the Premiership at the second time of asking – says Dominique Malonga.
The Easter Road club were left shattered when they fell short of an immediate return to the top flight, losing in the play-offs to Rangers despite having finished second in the Championship.
They did so despite spending the whole season playing catch-up to Capital rivals Hearts, Stubbs having arrived in the wake of Terry Butcher’s sacking to face the monumental task of not only having to put together a squad in super-quick time but of restoring the battered pride of the entire club. But as he prepared with his team-mates at their Spanish training base in La Manga for another tilt at the title, the Hibs striker claimed there would be no excuses this time round if they did not go up, claiming that although Rangers again begin the campaign as favourites, Stubbs has got the squad to finish top.
And he feels the Hibs support share that belief, pointing to how the fans shrugged off the bitter disappointment of seeing their play-off hopes vanish to give the players a rousing show of support as they wearily trooped round Easter Road, Jason Cummings’ last-gasp goal not enough to overcome the Ibrox club’s 2-0 advantage from the first leg.
Malonga told the Evening News: “I think what we saw was special. I know we lost, but we did well and I think the fans recognised that. You’d have expected them to be done but while they were obviously disappointed, they gave us a wonderful reception.
“I think the fans know we have a good team and know we deserved more. It was a good feeling and now at the end of this season we want to give them the Championship. Maybe also a cup, but most definitely the Championship because they deserve it.”
Malonga firmly believes the break of 18 days Hibs had to endure between their last match of the regular season and the first play-off game in Glasgow definitely counted against them even though they spent some of that time, as now, in the south of Spain.
The striker said: “It’s not an excuse, but I do think it was unfair. Rangers and Queen of the South played while we couldn’t even have a friendly for fear of picking up injuries. We came here [to La Manga] but 18 days is a long, long time. But for me if we don’t go up this year it’s bad. For me personally I think we have good players, a good coach, good staff and good fans. We have everything to do well, we have no excuses. This year we want to be No. 1.”
Malonga himself was a late arrival, the season already five games old before he made his debut, scoring from the penalty spot in a 3-2 win against Cowdenbeath, the first of 16 he would claim although he missed a further month on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations with his country Congo.
And international duty, as Congo kicked off their bid to qualify for the finals of that competition again in 2017, cut short French-born Malonga’s summer break as he made the long trip to his parents’ homeland in early June for their opening game against Kenya, now managed by former Hibs manager Bobby Williamson.
The 26-year-old, however, insisted he is better prepared for the coming season than he was when he joined Hibs towards the end of last summer.
He said: “After the Rangers game I relaxed for maybe four days but you can’t let your fitness drop, I took my family to Tenerife for a week but Craig Flannigan [Hibs head of sports science and fitness] had given me some programmes so I trained every morning, running and in the gym before joining them for the afternoons.
“Then I went to Congo and we worked at a very high intensity for a week, training every day. I got 25 minutes of the game against Kenya and after that I went on holiday for two weeks.
“It was my choice, I’m just delighted to go with my country and play. I am proud of that, it’s my work. The game against Kenya was played in a small city called Owanda, the first time the international team had every played there so the stadium was full.
“Normally in Africa a home game is a must-win but the other game in our group, between Guinea-Bissau and Zambia, was also a draw so we were happy enough with the result.”
Malonga will be hoping to get the call again from Congo boss Claude Le Roy for their next qualifier in early September but until then, he insisted, his entire focus will be on ensuring Hibs get their season off to the best possible start.
He said: “I’m okay, I’m ready to go. Last year I worked with a personal trainer before I joined Hibs but it is not the same as when you are with the team. The best thing is to be with your team-mates. We had tough sessions at East Mains before coming out here and it’s been tough here as well.
“Craig is really good, everyone has been training very well. We have a wonderful group of players and there’s a great atmosphere among the boys.”
While Malonga has returned, fellow striker Franck Dja Djedje has departed having cut short his Easter Road deal after only a few months in Edinburgh to head for Qatar.
But Stubbs has snapped up former Celtic, Hamilton and Hearts hitman James Keatings to add further firepower given that Farid El Alagui, who missed seven months of last season after rupturing his Achilles tendon, is nearing full fitness.
And, of course, there’s teenager Jason Cummings who enjoyed a remarkable first full season, his 21 goals earning him the title of the Championship’s leading marksman, leaving Malonga to contemplate what he believes will be a friendly rivalry between the strikers.
He said: “We’ll see what happens but hopefully I can score a lot more goals. I came late to the club, missed another month or so with the Africa Cup of Nations and scored 16, maybe I can get 20, perhaps more.
“But it is more important that the team wins, that we go out to play every game and look to win it. Everyone knows what the Championship is about and what is expected of us as a team.”