AS SCOTLAND resume their push towards Euro 2016 qualification this weekend, the last man they would wish to see losing any momentum is Shaun Maloney.
The attacking playmaker has unquestionably been his country’s player of the campaign so far, his four goals in Group D bettered only by Germany’s prolific Thomas Müller.
I’ve compared it to the English Championship but within that you have top players such as Kean, Kaka and now Steven GerrardShaun Maloney
The pick of Maloney’s bunch, of course, was his stunning 74th minute winner against Republic of Ireland at Celtic Park last November when he finished off a brilliant short corner routine to earn Scotland their most significant victory yet on a road they hope will lead all the way to next summer’s finals in France.
As they prepare for Saturday’s crucial rematch with the Irish in Dublin, the 32-year-old will again be a key part of manager Gordon Strachan’s strategy.
It is also an opportunity for Maloney to prove that his move to Major League Soccer with Chicago Fire earlier this year has not in anyway diminished his ability to shine on the international stage.
Strachan’s assistant Mark McGhee made the candid observation earlier this week that football in the MLS, where Maloney and Irish striker Robbie Keane both ply their trade, was of a standard comparable only with League One in England.
Maloney feels McGhee is being overly-critical, although he does accept his new club environment is less demanding in many ways than he was accustomed to during his time with Celtic and in English football.
But with Chicago Fire having won only four of their first 13 league games in a season when billionaire owner Andrew Hauptman has demanded they reach the MLS play-offs, the club’s marquee signing Maloney is not without pressure to deliver.
“I feel what Mark said about the MLS was a little harsh,” reflected Maloney. “It’s really difficult to pitch it at a level, in terms of comparing it to British football.
“I’ve compared it to the English Championship previously, but within that you have some real top players such as Keane, Kaka and now Steven Gerrard.
“It’s difficult to pigeon hole it as a standard in comparison to other leagues because you have these players coming from the highest clubs in Europe and then you have different levels of players alongside them.
“I can understand if it comes across a little bit negative to Mark, but it is quite difficult to put it on a standard with another British league.
“Mark has watched quite a few games and if they haven’t been great, then fair enough.
“But some of the matches there are more physically demanding than I’ve been used to previously.
“The standard of player differs vastly through each team. I don’t think it has affected me for the last four months.
“I’m training as hard out there as I would in Britain. There is a different level of pressure, I guess. My team is not doing particularly well at the moment.
“Our owner has made a pretty big push to try and make the play-offs this year, so there’s pressure there. That sort of pressure brings its own intensity to your game.
“I’m not sure if going to the MLS has added anything technically to my game. But, maybe, it’s making me aware I have to take a bit more responsibility on and off the pitch. I’ve been a little bit more vocal when asked my opinion, which both the owner and the manager (Frank Yallop) often do, although I don’t have a problem giving my opinion when asked.”
If the timing of Maloney’s goal against Ireland was perfect for Scotland last November, it also proved pretty handy from his personal perspective as he weighed up his next career move.
“I think Chicago Fire had paid attention to it,” he said. “Because at that point I think they were trying to sign me. I think the owner and manager had seen the goal. I didn’t sign until January, though, so I don’t think it had much of a bearing on my wages.
“At the time of the goal, I was really aware of the moment in the stadium and what it meant. I haven’t really been in a stadium that reacted like that for a while – probably the FA Cup final at Wembley in 2013, when Ben Watson scored our winner for Wigan from my corner kick in injury time, was the last time.
“It was a similar feeling when that part of the stadium erupted, so I was pretty aware at the moment how everyone was feeling.
“I haven’t looked at the goal again on Youtube, I don’t tend to do that much. I’m sure I will at some point in the next few years. I haven’t even watched the game again, although we’ve seen parts over the last few days.”
Maloney’s goal – he exchanged passes at a short corner with Ikechi Anya before latching on to Scott Brown’s back-heeled pass and curled a shot into the corner of the net – was devised on the training ground by Scotland coach Stuart McCall.
“We haven’t worked on attacking set-pieces for Saturday yet but probably will do later,” added Maloney.
“You hear managers constantly speaking about how important they are to defence and attack.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if another set-piece is influential to the outcome in Dublin.
“But I can’t see us repeating the one which worked at Celtic Park. Even when we’ve played other teams since then, they are aware of what we have done previously because there’s so much video footage available. So I can’t see anything like that one working again.
“It was a really tense affair last time, which was understandable. It was one of those games with so much pressure on and there isn’t much between the sides.
“It felt like a really good game to be a part of in terms of the atmosphere and trying to find a way to score a goal. I don’t think this weekend’s game will be too dissimilar.”