MACEDONIA and Shaun Maloney have appeared made for one another. Injuries may have deprived the Wigan attacker of many an international appearance in the eight years since his senior Scotland debut, but whenever a fixture with the Balkan nation has come round Maloney has been in tow for his country.
On Tuesday, Scotland and Macedonia will meet for the fourth time. The 30-year-old is set to be the only player in blue to play in all four September encounters dotted across the past six years.
The beginning of the end both for Scotland’s hopes of reaching the World Cup finals and Craig Levein’s international tenure were signalled by the 1-1 draw at Hampden with Macedonia a year ago. “We are in a better place now,” said Maloney, speaking before the defeat by Belgium that did not undo the remedial work carried out under Gordon Strachan courtesy of the win away to Croatia and the narrow loss at Wembley. “We have a better shape without the ball. The manager does work on that a helluva lot and it is beginning to pay off.”
The journey Maloney has been on these past two seasons means he is personally in a better place and better shape. The playmaker is in the midst of his most concerted period of international involvement across a 30-cap career. That has been integral to Strachan’s Scotland exhibiting a greater poise in or out of possession, the latter scenario Maloney considers inevitably forced on them against the “far superior” ranked countries they have faced of late.
“The manager is very strict on shape and organisation but a lot of managers are,” Maloney said. “It has certainly come into the game more in the past few years. I don’t feel it limits my freedom because I don’t think I’ve ever played in a team where you can have total freedom, I don’t think it works – and it’s a bit unfair on your team-mates. I quite enjoy doing my part, helping out defensively. It just means at times, like in the England game, when you’re trying to do that job you have a massive gap to make the ground up in their final third. That’s just part of working hard and doing your job, though.”
Maloney’s diligence and thoughtfulness as a footballer and a man makes him a player Strachan is willing to hang his hat on. At Celtic, the schemer enjoyed the best season of his career under the man now his international manager when, in 2005-06, he helped the club win a league and League Cup double and was voted the SPFA Player and Young Player of the Year. Such was Strachan’s regard for Maloney, he brought him back to the club after an unhappy 18-month exile at Aston Villa following a contract dispute. The pair’s relationship is one of mutual respect and understanding.
“I just think generally the manager sticks by you if he sees you give 100 per cent and do it to the best of your ability,” Maloney said. “He will ask you to do things that are difficult on the pitch. Like we are trying to get better in terms of possession and it’s not just a case of kicking the ball forward when we are defending and trying to clear it. He’s going to ask you to dribble out in your own third, so there is a certain bravery. He certainly demands and any player who is going to give his all he’s going to stick by. I think we’ve got a right few in the squad – if not the majority – who are going to do that.”
Maloney has, in the past, seemed guilty of demanding too much from himself. Highly intelligent, his analytical approach can lead to an unhealthy level of introspection. In footballing middle age, he appears more relaxed and that can perhaps be attributed to seemingly having conquered injury problems that brought lengthy periods on the sidelines and afforded him too much time to think.
Last season was, in terms of game time, the most productive of Maloney’s career. Wigan’s remarkable FA Cup win made it a roaring success on the trophy front, too. But the Lancashire club failed in their most pressing objective: surviving in the English Premier League. Their demotion was expected to lead to the departure of Maloney, whose performances were the most garlanded of any Wigan player. But while fellow Scot and Republic of Ireland internationalist James McCarthy followed manager Roberto Martinez in moving to Everton for a whacking £13 million, Maloney stayed put.
Linked with all manner of moves back to the Premier League, the player puts a brave face on adapting to life in England’s second tier under new manager Owen Coyle. He has to do so since it is apparent that owner Dave Whelan adjudged the value of Maloney in a promotion-pushing Wigan as greater than the £5m, tops, selling the 30-year-old would have brought in. The transfer window did not prove as much of a distraction for Maloney, wanted by Hull City, as might be assumed then.
“I think my chairman was pretty adamant that I was going to stay and I have to respect that. I spoke to the manager at the start of the season and he pretty much relayed the same thing. I don’t think I would ever act disrespectfully towards the chairman in particular to try to push anything. Our chairman was adamant that there would only be certain players going. With James it was that if a team came in and matched the valuation, he was going to go. However late it was, it got matched, so he went. I think we all knew what the squad was going to be after the window. But with the parachute payment and things like that, our chairman was pretty adamant that this first year and next year the club are going to make a massive push to get back.”
“It’s not that bad,” Maloney offered unconvincingly, when it was put to him it would be hard getting his mind on a grueling 46-game season in the Championship when he had watched McCarthy being allowed to move back to the glittering top flight that both moved to England to perform in.
“You are painting it as though...,” he tails off. “In the end I am pretty pleased for him [McCarthy] because it was starting to drag out. Mentally I am fine, our chairman has made a pretty big financial effort to get us back into the Premier League and you just get on with it. For any player who has been linked with other clubs you can be pretty unsure of your future, but it’s not that bad. You see what’s written and it doesn’t really affect you that much. You still play the same, train the same. If something happens, fine, if it doesn’t, it’s still a pretty good club I’m at. There’s a manager there that I know, and there is a lot of the squad there from last year. Yeah, it’s still a pretty happy place to be.”
Maloney might be forgiven for being wary over how much he has to “get on with” in England’s second tier, given his fitness record. He accepted it would be demanding of his body with “so many Championship games” and a Europa League group campaign to contend with. “It will be physically difficult to juggle both but that is why we have a big squad. There are some pretty decent games in there as well, which is something to look forward to.”
When Maloney looks back on his career to date, one aspect that won’t take up too much of his time is his goals at international level. There has only been one in his 30 appearances, many of which have come from the bench it should be noted. His solitary strike came courtesy of a free-kick in a Euro 2008 qualifying victory over the Faroe Islands in June 2007.
“I should be looking to get a little bit more. It’s certainly something I realise,” he said, though he does not see the sorry strike-rate as related to his being too unselfish on the pitch. “It’s just normal, if somebody’s in a better position you just pass it, if not you try it yourself. The last couple of games have been a bit more difficult in terms of getting into those positions because we haven’t had the ball that much.
“I’ve certainly missed chances in the games I haven’t scored. I don’t have that desperation to score. When Kenny [Miller] scored at Wembley it felt similar to having done it myself. I don’t search [for] that real feeling. I think just generally playing for your country you have that feeling. The anthem’s a pretty good part of that. And then the odd feeling like we got in Croatia with that massive underdog win sort of makes up for the lack of scoring a goal.”