FEW players get to play at Wembley once, but in a whirlwind four days Wigan Athletic’s Shaun Maloney and James McArthur will twice run out into the home of English football.
As two prominent players for the current FA Cup holders, the pair will line up against Premier League champions Manchester United tomorrow for the annual Community Shield match before returning mere days later to do battle with the Auld Enemy, as England host Scotland for the first time in 14 years. It is a quick turnaround, but for the recently relegated Wigan stars it is a welcome escape from the rough and tumble of the English Championship.
Dragging a chair into a quiet corner of Wigan’s bustling office after training, Maloney explains: “I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be physically demanding but I think it’s amazing to play United on a Sunday and England on a Wednesday. This doesn’t happen every single year so you’ve got to enjoy it as much as you can. I think people discuss too much about players playing on a Saturday or Sunday and then a Wednesday.
“On Sunday, right enough we might not have the ball for long periods, it might be a little bit harder than normal and Wednesday’s going to hurt but in every sport there are times when it hurts and you have to do it.
“The last Scotland-England game was the play-off in ’99 so that has been 14 years where we haven’t played England and those of us in the squad are fortunate the game has come up.”
The former Celtic playmaker admits that the Shield represents a bit of a bonus match; a pleasant footballing interlude to remind the people of Wigan that they too are a big draw alongside local rugby league side Wigan Warriors, who recently battered through to another Challenge Cup final at Wembley. This small town in Greater Manchester could hold the unlikely honour of holding two of the biggest prizes in British sports.
However, McArthur sees this as more than just another pleasant day out.
“Sunday is an opportunity for us to win another trophy,” The midfielder says. “I know United will be heavy favourites but if you look at our FA Cup final, Manchester City were the same.
“I don’t think you ever get used to playing somewhere like Wembley. It’s a magnificent stadium. The pitch is unbelievable; the atmosphere is amazing. It’s an actual football ground, with everything on top of you. Hopefully Wigan can do the unthinkable and win there again.”
Coming off the back of a 4-0 demolition of Barnsley in their first game of the season, both players admit to being in high spirits. The training ground is busy and there is a nervous energy. At points it feels like the lead up to a game that was never meant to be.
Earlier in the day manager Owen Coyle explained that there were nine fit players when he first came to Wigan and he has a tough task bouncing back to the Premier League. First up is a game not of his making against familiar figure David Moyes, whom he knows will “not be treating this as a friendly.”
Of course, in comparison, the international meeting on Wednesday could be as friendly as a Spanish royal visit to Gibraltar. The Tartan Army may also be expectant after the recent victory over Croatia. Maloney empathises with the fans.
“I have had bad results with Scotland but I don’t think I have felt as low as I did after Wales at home,” he said. “To go from that to the Croatia game was a big step. That was a little bit of sunshine in what has been a stop-start international career for me.” What if Wembley gets too much? “It’s difficult to detach yourself from that feeling and against England that will be magnified, but there are times where the manager will want you to do certain things and it won’t involve chasing down the keeper or running 80 yards; it will involve holding a certain tactical position. There is also the other side of being brave: wanting to take the ball when there’s many a man round you.”
Much will come down to Gordon Strachan’s coaching. Both players give him great credit for the victory in Zagreb. McArthur appreciates his gruelling double-sessions and his willingness to joke once the hard work is done; Maloney likes how he gets his points across.
In the next week both men could be haunted by the same elite players as some United starlets flash past them again in the white of England. Maloney singles out Michael Carrick as the footballer’s footballer. If Carrick returns for England he will certainly be worried.
McArthur agrees. “You have to get in amongs your Carricks and stop them playing because they are top players. He is one of the men I admire a lot, Carrick. I voted him player of the year last year.”
Perhaps the last word in the build-up to the grand days out in the capital should go to Maloney, who laughs at the suggestion the games should be easy, such is his and McArthur’s form.
“There will be moments in both games, like Croatia, where our goalkeeper will need to make a save or we’ll need a bit of luck. We can certainly win both games but at the same time we can certainly lose them.”