Scotland’s Euro 2016 failure still haunts Shaun Maloney

Shaun Maloney will let the manager decide when to end his international career. Photograph: SNS
Shaun Maloney will let the manager decide when to end his international career. Photograph: SNS
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There must be a hair shirt hanging in the wardrobe of Shaun Maloney that is practically worn through.

No player takes failure harder than the 33-year-old, and no failure proved more difficult to stomach than Scotland missing out on the Euro 2016 finals.

There was only one comfort Maloney could draw from the gut-wrenching exit from the competition that came with Poland’s final-seconds equaliser at Hampden in October – his belief that what allowed Gordon Strachan’s men to appear the equal of sides that are heading to France in the summer is what can end a two-decade, nine-qualifying-tournament run of misery in a World Cup tilt that begins in five months.

Maloney has played in six of Scotland’s failed finals quests. Such a soul-searcher is he that, before he could assure himself the direction of travel remained the right one, he had to go through all manner of agonies not helped by his presence on the line as Robert Lewandowski bundled the ball over, the subsequent sleepless night and torture of seeing endless reruns of the moment in his wired state and then, to top it all, the Scotland rugby team enduring similar anguish in their World Cup quarter-final against Australia ten days later.

“It did hurt a lot. It is one of these things you find yourself thinking about weeks later – or at least I did. I watched the Ireland play-off [after] the World Cup with our rugby team when they got beat in the last seconds. When we conceded that goal against Poland in the last seconds you didn’t know the Ireland score but that one moment was as bad as I’ve felt in a long time, perhaps ever. It was a really low moment for everyone watching, writing and playing. It was just one of those moments that affected me for quite a few weeks after.

“That night of the Poland game I didn’t sleep particularly much and with the news channel showing things on repeat, I kept seeing that goal. I was pretty close, I ended up in the back of the net with the goalscorer and you just think… an inch more, or not even a second earlier... it was the fractions of him getting there before me. It all goes through your head and then when you watch it again and again... that’s what sport’s about unfortunately, you don’t always win, but that particular night was really tough to take, I think for all of us. The mood even in the country the next day was pretty sombre.”

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Just when Maloney might have been pulling himself together, a South African referee, Craig Joubert, denied Scotland their greatest rugby triumph. “It just all came flooding back [with that]. The positive thing you could take from our matches against Poland and Ireland – with Germany there was still a big gulf even though there was just a goal in the scorelines – was, like the rugby when they went for it, we just went toe-to-toe with teams. As we have to do. I don’t think it makes any sense for us to try and be defensive and keep giving up the ball. I think in the long term that’s not going to improve us as a nation.

“We finished fourth but we need to continually search for the form and bravery that we showed away in Poland and with Ireland at home. These were games where it felt like we were really brave in possession and continually tried to keep possession and go forward. We maybe lost that in certain parts of the second half of the campaign but we have to do that.

“I think the manager has spoken about the physicality of the squad and the country and we’re not going to produce big, fast, counter-attacking football. We need to be better technically and I think that’s the way we were going and we need to get back to doing that.”

Maloney is convinced the coaching structure and the players are there to allow Scotland to do that in a World Cup group that contains England, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Malta. The forward, who has shaken off an ankle injury to take his place in the squad for Tuesday’s friendly against Denmark, never felt he had a decision to make about whether he should look to be part of the push to end the country’s finals exile.

“I’ll leave that up to the manager. The manager will always be the one. I’ve been in squads over the years when people have made their decision but it was not something that I really wanted to do. I just think at some point you don’t get picked for your country because the manager doesn’t think you are good enough. I’ll leave it like that, I think. Coming here is a big reason why I enjoy playing football and why you work hard when you get in to try and make the last game of this gathering. Until the manager makes the decision I’m more than happy to make myself available.”

Maloney may have had a chequered injury record, but he does not feel the forthcoming qualifying campaign is likely to be a tournament too far for him or the clutch of over-30s that now populate Strachan’s pool. They do so because the national manager makes plain there is no band of younger players that can improve upon what his older heads can give him.

“I hope it is not [a campaign too far],” he said. “That comes down to the individual: how you train, how you live away from football. That determines how you are physically when you get to my age. I’ve trained with players in the last couple of days that I’d not trained with before and I was really impressed. There is no massive gap with the senior players and the ones coming through. When you’re here you just have to try as hard as you can to keep your place and the younger players have to see that you are a certain type of professional that they want to aspire to be and you hope that carries on with the nation when you stop playing.”