Shaun Maloney hopes for second German triumph
In the 61st minute of a tense and so far goalless contest, in which Scotland have admirably withstood considerable pressure from their German hosts, Darren Fletcher slips a neat pass into the path of Shaun Maloney.
The little forward composes himself quickly and slots an unerring finish beyond the German goalkeeper. It proves to be the only goal of the game and Scotland celebrate a famous victory against the odds.
But this is not simply the stuff of wishful thinking. It is exactly what happened 11 years ago, almost to the day, when Maloney combined with Fletcher to give Scotland’s under-21 side one of their most notable wins.
It took place in Ahlen, 45 minutes from Dortmund where the senior side lost 2-1 to their German counterparts in a European Championship qualifier the following evening, prompting Christian Dailly’s celebrated expletive-filled post-match rant.
This weekend, Fletcher and Maloney return to the imposing Westfalenstadion as potentially key figures in Strachan’s hopes of getting the Euro 2016 campaign off to a positive start against the world champions.
“That was a long time ago,” muses Maloney, now 31, when he is reminded of his heroics for the under-21 side.
“I have good memories of it, though. I remember Darren and myself both came on as subs with about half an hour to go and managed to link up for the winner. I wouldn’t say it’s a good omen, because it was a while ago and none of the German squad involved then will play against us on Sunday.
“But it was a brilliant night for the under-21s at the time. We were going through a purple patch and a good bunch of players came through and made it into the senior squad. I remember we all went to watch the big game in Dortmund the following night.
“That has always stuck with me. The stadium is fantastic. The crowd is a bit smaller for internationals than that is for club games but the atmosphere is amazing. The hospitality was great, they were really nice to us considering the under-21 result the night before!”
Scotland topped their under-21 qualifying group ahead of Germany in 2003, but missed out on a place in the finals when they narrowly lost to Croatia in the play-offs. It is a period of Maloney’s career he recalls with fondness, not least for the influence of a German coach.
Rainer Bonhof was in charge of the under-21s when Berti Vogts was at the helm of the senior side and made a far more positive impression than his counterpart did on Scottish football. No player was picked more often for the under-21s under Bonhof than Maloney, who earned 18 of his 21 caps at that level during his reign.
“Everyone loved Rainer and we were sorry to see him go a couple of years after that win in Germany,” said Maloney.
“I’m not sure there was one single thing he spoke to me about but I learned a lot from working for him. He encouraged me to spend as much time as possible in training on my set pieces which helped improve me as a player.
“He was the first manager I’d ever known to be calm at all times. In training, during games and at half-time, he was always the same. He was very demanding but not in the same intense way as other managers I’d worked under. He was a totally different character and I loved it.
“I found his way of managing really enjoyable and I seemed to play well under him. He was the first foreign manager I worked under and it was a cultural change from what I was used to.
“At Celtic, I was playing under Martin O’Neill at the time and he was so intense on the touchline. But Bonhof was relaxed all week. We had a good group of players and a lot of us flourished under him.
“As I say, it was a different culture and something I only found again when I worked under Roberto Martinez at Wigan.”
Maloney now finds himself under German tutelage once more under Martinez’s successor at Wigan, former Manchester City player Uwe Rosler.
“He has had a few conversations with me about Sunday’s game,” smiled Maloney. “I missed a couple of games for Wigan with a little illness recently and I’m not sure how keen he was for me to join up with the Scotland squad. But he’s been fine with me about it.
“He is a proud German and he let us know how happy he was that they won the World Cup. But he hasn’t said anything about not bothering to go back to Wigan if we beat them this weekend!”
Maloney believes such a victory would rank alongside any result achieved by Scotland in their recent history, perhaps even eclipsing the night in Paris when James McFadden’s strike famously defeated France.
“It would be as big a result as this group of players has had,” added Maloney. “It is similar to the France game, they were flying high at the time, and I remember the first leg of the play-off game when we beat Holland 1-0, that was also a huge result.
“In the last 15 or so years, maybe longer, this would be as big a result if we managed to play as we can and get a win. We’ve all been thinking about the game over the summer since Germany won the World Cup.
“I remember watching them beat Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals and you were just in awe and a bit of shock, really. There was a 20-minute spell when it was a good as you will see on a football pitch. Germany were just devastating and it did send shockwaves through everyone watching the tournament.
“It will be a really hard test for us. But the closer the game comes, the more belief we have that if we stick to our game plan, with the way we’ve been playing recently, we can get something. The odds are stacked in Germany’s favour but we have to execute our game plan and be as confident as we can.
“We won’t read much into Germany losing 4-2 to Argentina the other night. It was their first game after the World Cup and I’m not sure what their mindset would have been like. When it comes to the qualifiers, they will be switched on and ready to go again. They certainly don’t have anything to prove and will be at full tilt on Sunday.
“It is hard not to be a fan of German football. Spanish football was the standard we all aspired to for a while there, but the Germans have taken that possession-based game, added physicality to it and taken it on to another level.
“As the World Cup finals went on, I wanted Germany to win the trophy, but not from a selfish point of view because we were playing them in the Euro qualifiers. It was more that I enjoyed watching them and they were the best team.
“But it is quite motivating to be playing them now. I feel very fortunate to be involved in a game like this. You are highly motivated any time you play for Scotland, but when you play against the world champions, that is heightened.
“Coming into this campaign, we are in as good form as we could hope for. I was involved in campaigns in the past under Walter Smith and Alex McLeish when we got very close to qualifying. Looking back, those were opportunities missed. But we feel very positive right now, with the way we’ve played in the past year or so, and couldn’t ask for any more at the start of this group.”