Shaun Maloney always stressed he will remain available for Scotland until the time comes when he is no longer needed.
Worryingly for the winger, this moment looked to have arrived in August. When Gordon Strachan named his squad for the opening World Cup qualifier with Malta there was no sign of Maloney, one of the mainstays of the previous campaign as well as several others before it.
Was this the end of a Scotland career spanning 11 years and 47 caps? Infuriatingly, after such long service, it seemed as though it could be, just three appearances short of a Roll of Honour appearance.
As would be hoped, manager Gordon Strachan made a special effort to explain the situation to a player he has always rated. The Scotland manager sought to point out that this wasn’t a full stop being applied to Maloney’s Scotland career.
It was just that he was suffering the effects of missing part of Hull City’s pre-season training programme due to injury.
Strachan stressed there would be further opportunities to come to reach the half century of caps. But despite this attempt at reassurance Maloney admits fearing it was all going to end with a half-time substitution during an inglorious 3-0 defeat to France in June.
“I spoke to the manager and he told me why he was doing it,” reflected the 33 year-old this week. “I’d missed a pretty large chunk of pre-season and he was being honest with me.
“I just always felt that for me at some point you don’t get picked and that’s just the way I saw my international career going . That hasn’t changed.”
But the more he pondered the situation, the less sanguine he got.
“You do worry that you might not play again,” he added. “But it’s just one of those things. You have to come again at your club and then, hopefully, if you do get selected try to do enough to make sure you merit another selection.”
It felt as if we were all writing obituaries for Maloney’s Scotland career just a few short weeks ago. It’s been 15 years since he made his senior debut for Celtic. It took only four years for him to break into the international fold, the winger making his debut v Belarus in 2005. How would he have reflected on his Scotland chapter had he been tasked with summing up his time in a dark blue jersey?
“I know we haven’t made it to a major championships but it’s difficult not to be proud of what I’ve achieved,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.
“Yes, there have been lots of disappointments but there have been some highs too. Sure, the disappointments outweigh them but I’m still really proud. I don’t think I could have expected to play so many times for my country when I was a younger player.”
“I think the biggest disappointment for sure was the last qualifying campaign,” he added. “It just felt so close, as close as I’ve ever been in my Scotland career.”
Strachan’s attempts to explain Maloney’s absence from the last squad weren’t made any easier by the player scoring a goal in Hull City’s win at Swansea during a start to the season when the club were hitting heights.
Maloney came on as substitute that day and is still trying to break into the starting XI. Nevertheless he has been re-called by Strachan for the upcoming double-header against Lithuania and Slovakia.
It’s a popular move since Maloney has become something of a mascot for the Tartan Army. They view the player as having done as much as anyone to end the long exile from a major finals, including scoring five times in the last campaign. If and when Maloney features in these two fixtures he will be chalk up a seventh qualifying campaign with Scotland.
He has already been involved to a certain extent in the current one from the comfort of a Sky Sports studio, where he was invited to analyse Scotland’s performance in the 5-1 win over Malta.
“I was pretty envious watching the team,” he said. So he is delighted to ditch the padded chair and make-up to return to a familiar scene and a very ancient quest – to quality for a major finals.
Maloney is aware he says it every campaign. But the longer this exile goes on, the more determined he is to be part of a team that succeeds in quenching the thirst to qualify. “It would be great to get to a major finals after all these years, it would be an amazing achievement,” he said.
“But it really doesn’t feel like a personal thing. As the years go by you tend to see the press, the fans and the players. It’s getting close to desperation stakes for the nation to make a tournament.
“I’m part of the squad that needs to try and deliver that.”
He is as badly needed as ever as Scotland seek to overcome the blow of losing such an influential figure as Scott Brown, pictured left, on the eve of the campaign. The captain quit the international scene and Maloney’s experience will be valuable in the weeks and months ahead, providing he remains in the squad reckoning.
While a quiet, reflective individual off the park he is happy to be saddled with this responsibility. He and skipper Darren Fletcher are the most experienced in a group into which Strachan has been trying to blend younger players.
“Although I am pretty quiet off the park I can be pretty vocal on it, even during training,” pointed out Maloney. “It’s difficult in matches because of the crowd and things like that, you can barely hear the manager when you’re playing.
“I think you just have to set a certain tone in training. Obviously the captain, Darren, is very experienced. When you are one of the more senior players you probably take on a bit more of a vocal role in training than you would do at a younger age.
“It probably does come naturally to me on the training pitch. I don’t know if that’s a generational thing. You were definitely encouraged to be vocal on the training pitch from a young age. When it comes to matches I don’t obviously shout and scream but when it’s needed I’ve got no problem with that.”
“Broony’s obviously had his certain style and it’s great to have in your team, very aggressive,” he added. “But I’m probably the opposite.”
Maloney’s desire is illustrated by his actions on the pitch and his constant wish to be involved. He thought it was all over. Thankfully it isn’t now.