NO ESTABLISHMENT honours have come his way, but it feels as if Shaun Maloney already has letters after his name. For Scotland, the attacker has become Shaun Maloney MVP. For new club Chicago Fire, it is Shaun Maloney DP.
The move across the pond at the close of the January transfer window has made for a sea change in the 32-year-old’s professional and personal life, but he wants only continuity when it comes to the pull of the old country.
Maloney’s designated player (DP) status with the MLS club that enticed him from Wigan Athletic means more than simply that his earnings are exempt from the salary cap which operates in the set-up. It means the cerebral and sensitive soul has to be alive to the publicity-hungry nature of soccer in a crowded sporting environment dominated by American football, baseball and basketball.
Maloney could hardly walk along any main street in Scotland without being recognised. And regaled, no doubt, with his most valuable player (MVP) ranking earned courtesy of his central role he played in all seven points won by Gordon Strachan’s side ahead of this evening’s Euro 2016 qualifier at home to tiny Gibraltar. His brilliant winner to spear the Republic of Ireland in November followed on from a goal in the 2-2 draw in Poland and the shot that led to the decisive own goal in the victory over the Georgians. The playmaker has, then, never had it so good in his 38-cap international career.
Maloney feels he has it good too in the fact he can walk around downtown Chicago, where he is renting an apartment with lake views – “the lake’s the size of an ocean so it’s hard not to have one,” he says – and know there is little prospect of registering as a sporting celebrity to any passerby. “We’re probably the fourth sport and the fifth team down the pecking order – but you’ve known me for a while, you’ll know that suits me fine,” he says. “It’s such a huge sports-orientated city, though.”
It’s the third most populated conurbation in the United States and the home to NFL’s Chicago Bears, basketball giants the Bulls, storied baseball sides the White Sox and the Cubs, and ice hockey mainstays the Blackhawks.
Yet, Maloney isn’t able to blend into his surroundings when he goes to work. “The press requirements have been more than I’ve been used to,” he says. “That’s just part of the responsibility of being a designated player. But the access is totally different anyway. Fifteen minutes after the final whistle, they’re in the dressing room. You don’t really get ‘asked’ to do the press, it’s just expected of you. It’s a different culture. The league and the team are trying to get as much exposure as they can because of all the other sports they’re up against.”
With close on 15 years’ experience of top-level football thanks to his two spells at Celtic and time with Wigan and Aston Villa, Maloney isn’t just a magnet for media attention in his new team. His manager, Frank Yallop, other coaches and his team-mates look to him as a source of wisdom and knowledge. Chicago Fire are bottom of the table and still searching for their first point following three games and appear in need of all the help they can muster to find a spark.
“It’s a different dynamic and you probably don’t realise it until you start training with your team and socialising, then you see the responsibility on you,” he says. “I think that is part of the role that I got brought in to play. Things off the park, and stuff like that. I am used to a certain standard of recovery and preparation so I think they look to your opinion on things like that. Obviously you have to be careful not to overstep the mark, because the coaches are there. I wouldn’t really get involved on tactical instruction, that is completely down to the manager, but they do expect to learn. That is why I was brought in – they expect a certain level of experience, vocally at least.
“I am not too bad at that, in terms of speaking in training. Although I am quite quiet when I come and speak to you lot [in the press], once I am in training and matches, while I wouldn’t say I am overly vocal, I can speak when the time is needed.”
Maloney says his club are “trying to change the culture from last year and it hasn’t happened as quickly as we’d have liked”. They have a dozen new players to assist in that, but such a turnaround has not been the issue. “What has probably helped us is that in the last couple of weeks we have had a fitness coach in,” he says. “We didn’t have one in pre-season which is a pretty important time [to work with] a fitness coach because that is when you are bedding in. We had two or three weeks without them so I think we are probably about two or three weeks behind.”
Maloney’s fitness in terms of injuries used to be the issue that held him back for club and country, it seemed. He links his transformation from support player to leading light for the national side to his first season at Wigan under Roberto Martinez. In the opening half of that 2011-12 campaign, he struggled to win a place in the Lancashire side. In the latter part of the same season, he forced his way into the team and helped save them from relegation, scoring important goals in wins over Liverpool, Manchester United and Newcastle.
He was a mainstay of the side the following season, helping propel them to a remarkable FA Cup final victory over Manchester City, but he could not prevent Wigan losing their top-flight status despite a series of outstanding individual displays.
“That was a big turning point in my form at that time,” he says. “After that I stayed fit, which was probably a big part of why my form improved. Then with the manager coming in here [Scotland] and his style of football and the way he wants to play, that has probably benefited not just me but some of the other players like [Ikechi] Anya, [Steven] Naismith. They have flourished, but you could go through the team as the way he [Gordon Strachan] plays suits the forward players we have here.”
Maloney hopes to flourish in his Stateside adventure but wants to come back and live in Scotland when his playing career concludes. If he continues to contribute to his country’s Euro 2016 as he has up until this point, home will be where his heart is treasured.
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