Few players can ever have experienced as turbulent a start to their Hibs career as Stephane Omeonga.
Within days of joining on loan from Genoa, the 22-year-old Belgian midfielder had been substituted at half-time on his debut against Motherwell before seeing his new manager, Neil Lennon, depart the club under a cloud after things got heated in the wake of that 1-0 defeat at Fir Park.
Reflecting on a first appearance for the Easter Road side in which he struggled to impose himself against a fired-up Well side, Omeonga admitted he didn’t anticipate being thrown straight into the starting lineup. “I was not expecting that to begin with,” he told the Evening News.
“I was in the starting lineup two days after I arrived. Motherwell are quite a physical opponent and they play different to the football I came from.”
Upon being unveiled to the media last month, Omeonga said that he “wanted to be settled” after having three coaches in just four months – Davide Ballardini, Ivan Juric and Cesare Pirandelli – in the first half of the season at Genoa. Remarkably, just days later, he found himself facing another managerial change after Lennon departed Hibs following the well-documented ructions at East Mains. “I’m used to the coaches changing,” he smiled. “I just saw Lennon for about three days so it’s not like I had worked under him for a long time. For me, it was just another challenge. It’s just football.”
Since his chastening start at Motherwell, Omeonga has made four substitute appearances, including in each of Hibs’ last three matches – victories over Raith Rovers, Hamilton Accies and Dundee. He feels each outing is helping him acclimatise to the demands of the Scottish game.
“The coaches have managed me well and I have come on in a few games to get used to Scottish football,” he said.
“I think I will do better with each game I play and each training session. I said when I first came that I thought I could fit in to Scottish football and I still think that.”
Omeonga is yet to start a game under Paul Heckingbottom, but he has been encouraged by his regular chats with the former Barnsley and Leeds United manager since he took the reins from caretaker duo Grant Murray and Eddie May a fortnight ago. “The new manager has been very good with me,” he explained. “Since the first day he came, he has always talked to me. I haven’t started a game for him yet but he always talks to me and tells me he sees that I am training well and that when I have come on in games I have done pretty well. There are a lot of games coming, I just have to be professional and be ready to start any of those games if selected. All the managers I have had have told me I can play a lot of different roles and that is one of my strengths.”
Despite all the upheaval of his first month at Hibs, Omeonga is still smiling and full of optimism. Asked if he still feels he made the right decision in coming to Scotland to continue his development, the Belgium Under-21 international, buoyed by his contribution to his team’s morale-boosting run of three consecutive victories, replies emphatically. “Yes. I didn’t play three games in a row when I was at Genoa so this is good for me. A lot of people say ‘but you don’t start for Hibs’, but for me this is an experience. There are three more months and there are plenty games to come.
“I’m just enjoying it and making sure I’m ready for whenever I get the chance to go on and help the team. I like the atmosphere at this club. The players are kind with me and they make me feel comfortable. The manager and the coaches as well, everything is going great. The city is wonderful. I’d been told it was nice and now I have had a look for myself – it is very nice. I feel settled.”
Omeonga’s enjoyment of life at Easter Road has been enhanced by the reception he has received from supporters, with the Belgian having had his name sung to the “Do The Conga” tune previously reserved for Easter Road cult hero Dominique Malonga. Omeonga made a point of tweeting his gratitude to the fans after Friday’s 4-2 win at Dundee. “It’s great,” he smiled. “It’s a new thing for me. It’s the first time I’ve had supporters sing my name. I want to score and make assists so I can repay them for giving me the feeling that I’m welcome here. The first time I heard it was when I was warming up at the St Mirren game – doo doo doo, Stephane Omeonga! I was buzzing. It’s cool. When you hear that you just want to go into the stand and greet everybody. It’s a beautiful feeling. I thank the supporters for that.”
Omeonga can go a long way to repaying the Hibs fans by helping the team to back-to-back victories over the coming days. The Edinburgh side travel to top-six rivals St Johnstone for a vital Premiership match tonight before hosting Celtic – who will be under Lennon’s charge following Brendan Rodgers’ departure – in Saturday evening’s eagerly-awaited Scottish Cup quarter-final. “The two games that are coming are, for me, like two cup finals,” said Omeonga. “If we win against St Johnstone, that would be a big step towards staying in the top six. And if we can beat Celtic and reach the semi-final of the cup, that would be beautiful. We are working hard to do that.”