Shaun Maloney looks to solve Gareth Bale dilemma
Having been involved in what, to most people’s eyes, looked a decidedly questionable penalty incident, most had imagined Maloney would take aim at Gareth Bale after the final whistle and accuse the Welsh winger of going down too easily to leave Scotland’s World Cup qualifying hopes in ruins.
Not Maloney, however. Perhaps we should have known better than to expect the Wigan Athletic player to be so obvious. Instead, he absolved Bale of blame, admitting he had clipped the player in the box.
That’s the way it tends to be with Maloney, one of the few players to pause after hearing a question so he can give himself the chance to offer a considered reply in return. He describes the aftermath of the defeat to Wales as “soul destroying”, and hasn’t changed his view on the penalty: “I said after the game that I felt contact and that’s what I thought.”
He seems too sophisticated to talk blithely about revenge. However, Maloney underlined how motivated Scotland are to win when the teams meet again at Hampden on Friday, in order to begin making amends for a disastrous start to the campaign. “The start to the group has been as bad as we could have thought,” he said.
Scotland need a serious up-turn in fortunes if they are to have any hope of reaching Brazil 2014. “We have changed managers, so I think that will change the style of football,” said Maloney. “The new manager will obviously have his own ideas. We are now at the stage where our chances have been written off to a certain degree.”
If Scotland are to prosper, much is likely to depend on Maloney. It was once feared that the thinking man’s footballer was in danger of becoming simply the forgotten man. Now, he is being proposed by some, among them Everton’s Steven Naismith, as Scotland’s answer to Bale. It is true; they both play in a similar position, while also being versatile. Maloney is older, by seven years, though he is still just 30. He has the good grace to smile when informed of Naismith’s comments. “I think Steven was being overly-flattering, by a fair stretch,” he said.
But he is now, at last, among the first-picks for Scotland, having recovered from the niggling injuries that seemed to have disrupted his development in his mid-20s. Ten years ago, he was among the Celtic players beating a Uefa Cup path to Seville, although he only featured as an extra-time substitute in the final itself. Gordon Strachan’s arrival as manager two years later coincided with a burst of productivity from Maloney, and he was named both young player and player of the year in 2005-06. He is well-placed to assess Strachan, with whom he has been re-united at Scotland.
Did Strachan get the best out of him as a player, he was asked. Again, there was a pause. “It’s difficult to answer,” he said. He did, he recalled, enjoy his way of coaching the players. “I had just come back from a pretty serious injury,” he added. “The next season or so I spent with him, I learned a lot.
“I started playing a different position as well. There were certainly things he taught me that stayed with me in my career. I think the majority of players who worked under him will have learned that he wants to play a certain type of way. He is very demanding. The work-rate he desires from every player is pretty difficult to continually re-produce. But that is something he demands. And that is each day in training, not just in games. He trains the way he plays, and that can differ with other managers.”
Maloney played out wide against Estonia in Scotland’s first match under Strachan. At Wigan, however, he has tended to be used in a more central position. When with Celtic, the question of where he was best employed was often posed. Even now, Maloney himself is not quite sure whether he has – or even wants – a settled position. “For my club, I have been a central striker, and central, left and right midfield,” he said. “We have played numerous formations at Wigan and I think my manager likes me to play more centrally if possible. I do enjoy that, but, to be honest, I am just enjoying playing in the Premier League in general.”
You don’t have to be a connoisseur of the game to have kept tabs on Maloney’s career of late. Just turn on Match of the Day. There he can often be spotted turning a full-back this way and that, and being praised by pundits. Wigan are involved in their annual battle with relegation but there is also an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley against Millwall to look forward to, and what appears a more than reasonable chance to reach the final.
Given that he has played against Bale, he seems well-placed to offer an opinion on the question that is dominating the run-up to Friday’s game; how do you stop him? Maloney was also asked where he stands on the Bale issue. Is he the best in the world after Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo?
“I probably haven’t seen enough of him,” said Maloney, declining, once again, to respond with an easy answer, or at least the one that you might have expected. “I have only played against him a few times, so it is difficult to judge. In terms of our last game against Wales, he was outstanding. You can tell he is at a certain level that is above the majority of players on the pitch.
“It’s hard to stop him when he is in full flow,” he added. “You need to try and stop him getting the ball in positions where he can find space. It’s easy to say that, though.”
Wigan defeated Spurs 1-0 earlier in the season, so at least he knows that it can be done.