A return to the English Premier League for Maloney became inevitable when the Midlands club agreed a £1 million fee with Wigan Athletic for a player who is out of contract in the summer. For Scotland manager Gordon Strachan, as much as any admirer, the switch will surely be welcomed.
In the first half of this season there seemed something unbecoming about the hugely-gifted 31-year-old having established himself as Scotland’s most valuable performer in the Euro 2016 qualifiers while languishing with – and flitting in and out of – a side threatened by demotion to the English third tier.
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Leicester aren’t exactly among the glitterati of the EPL as they prop up the set-up. However, Nigel Pearson’s team offer Maloney a final opportunity to show his prowess on a stage that has been treated to too little of his match-winning capabilities since Martin O’Neill took him to Aston Villa from Celtic eight years ago this month.
Of course, in electing to join Leicester, Maloney has all but ended the prospect of becoming the first player in the modern age to play for Celtic in three separate spells. As Ronny Deila as good as acknowledged last weekend, the Scottish champions are understood to have been very keen to make that happen. With a diligence and devotion to his profession dovetailing with a dazzling artistry, Maloney is the identikit of a Deila player.
The cerebral, quietly-spoken Maloney, though, had little appetite for a second return to the club he grew up supporting and with whom he first developed his trade. In part, that is believed to be a result of the hurt he feels over how little impression he made in a second spell that followed an unhappy 18 months at Villa.
When Roberto Martinez gave the forward the opportunity to join Wigan in the summer of 2011, he is understood to have been relieved at the chance of a clean break, so much was it affecting him psychologically that he couldn’t get going – either in terms of steering clear of injury or steering a path into the Celtic side as one of Neil Lennon’s go-to men.
Maloney was always exactly that for Strachan, and it is perhaps no accident then that his Scotland career has blossomed under the man who helped his club career to flower. Until a year ago, indeed, a series of serious injuries gave rise to the feeling that the best of Maloney witnessed in the context of Scottish football would remain the 2005-06 season at Celtic. Back then, Strachan claimed the league and League Cup in his first campaign because of the playmaker’s excellence. Maloney himself claimed the player of the year double from both his fellow players and football writers.
When Strachan brought back a homesick Maloney to Celtic Park in January 2008, he said he felt he had “unfinished business” with a player always looking to enhance his talents with hard graft. As well as having designs on representing his country at a major finals, Maloney may feel he has unfinished business with the Premier League.
It isn’t that he needs to prove himself in that company. He almost single-handedly came close to rescuing Wigan from the drop two years ago. In that run, some of his free-kick strikes and individual performances either side of the FA Cup final win were sensational. It will gnaw at Maloney, though, that before this week his last experience of the English top flight will be banishment from it. Looking at Maloney’s future in a more parochial, selfish way, the hope for 2015 is that his club environment can keep him ticking over for the qualifiers that will determine whether Scotland can end their 18-year exile from a major finals. The seven points from four Group A games gathered by Strachan’s side in their quest for Euro 2016 all have Maloney’s stamp on them.
His brilliance was to the fore as he bagged the only goal in the November victory at home to the Republic of Ireland. The previous game he netted a superb strike to help earn a point in Poland and, for the competitive opener, his shot precipitated the own goal that secured the win with Georgia. In terms of his craft and commitment, Maloney’s career deserves to deliver a colossal achievement. If his relaunch at Leicester lets him continue to be such a game-changer in the international arena, that will arrive in ten months’ time – after being ten years in the making.
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