After the turn of the Millenium the Martin O’Neill juggernaught was picking
up momentum and the experienced, powerful side looked like it could
steamroll anybody. Apart from the obvious joy of watching Henrik Larsson,
Chris Sutton and (later) John Hartson battering into European defences, it was an
optimistic and exciting time for young players breaking through, with the
likes of Ross Wallace, John Kennedy and Stephen Crainey peeking in, desperate to become a part of the history that was undoubtedly unfolding. One such talent was Shaun Maloney, emerging as a tricky striker with a low centre of
gravity, a sweet right-foot and a killer instinct in front of goal.
By 2002 Maloney had made his debut and created a small buzz for himself having scored 4 goals in one League Cup game against Stirling Albion. And with a similar theme, the ferocious drive for success exhibited by this group of young starlets was
epitomised in astonishing fashion on the 28th of April that year. Against Hearts
at Tynecastle, with an eye on the Tennant’s Scottish Cup Final O’Neill had
rotated, fielding a fringe side in a moot SPL fixture – Celtic were already
Champions. After a difficult start, the encounter became something of a
faceoff between two of the brightest young prospects, Simon Lynch and Shaun
Lynch had already stuck two past Anti Niemi in the Hearts goal when Maloney
stepped up to curl in a fantastic free-kick that would soon become something of a
trademark, and later added a second. With both on for a hat-trick, things got interesting when Celtic’s Steve Guppy was felled in the box in injury time, and a penalty was given.
Young starlet announces his arrival
The consequences were clear. There are no friends in the cut-throat world of football career opportunity, and the boy who walks away with the match ball goes down as the star, the next big thing. With a powerful and popular first team, there was also a demand within the support for a homegrown posterboy to represent the exciting new era – the stakes were high. Maloney’s strength of will (or selfishness) shone through, wrestling the ball from Lynch in a microcosm of the subsequent careers of the two. The hunger, or greed to be the one who takes that Hollywood free-kick or match-winning penalty. It’s an ugly trait that the best forwards have – as long as they have the bottle to back it up.
With the headlines already in his eyes, Maloney was unlucky, striking the post denying either player a hat-trick. But that ruthless streak was clear, and while Lynch
bounced around the mid and lower tiers of British football, Maloney’s competitive edge would eventually take him to much higher places.
The next season, the famous side of 2002-03, Celtic had their strongest first team since the early 70’s, and consequently for fringe type players, the premium on pitch-time was at a record high. Nevertheless, with Celtic fighting on four fronts Maloney
was given the platform for his breakthrough season appearing 30 times,
scoring 5 and setting up 12 – rewarded perhaps in the highlight of his career coming on during extra time in that famous UEFA Cup defeat to Porto.
The following season, while asserting himself in Celtic’s starting eleven (or thereabout) and looking like the finished article, he was dealt a cruel injury blow – damaging his cruciate ligament in another example of the “curse” that has blighted a handful of Celtic youngsters. Until that point, the 03-04 campaign had been one of success for Maloney – already featuring in over twenty games contributing 6 goals and 8 assists, so the timing was particularly unfortunate and he missed not only the latter half of that season, but almost the entirety of the 2004-05 season as well.
This period was also Martin O’Neill’s final season and a half in charge, and Maloney returned in time for Gordon Strachan to convert him from his original role as a poacher-cum-creator to an inverted winger. With Shunsuke Nakamura employed in a similar role on the other flank, the two encapsulated Strachan’s footballing philosophy in a hugely successful season. 2005-06 is widely regarded as Maloney’s peak, flourishing in his new wide-role. His new manager also drummed in a new ‘team first’ ethic, the importance of tracking back and defending – a significant point in Maloney’s maturation from selfish young egotist to reliable professional.
Cutting in from wide-left on to his favoured right, Maloney’s excellent technique and ability to linkup with the strikers came to the fore. His quick wit and intelligence allowed him to squeeze out of tricky situations and to accelerate into the box where he could do his damage. A notable amount of goals and assists would come from the few left-sided free-kicks and corners that Nakamura would pass on, though that selfish, sometimes petulant streak of demanding every set-piece and penalty kick lingered.
That season Maloney scored 16 goals and laid on a somewhat ludicrous 28 assists, picking up every major personal honour (SPFA Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year, Celtic Fans’ Player of the Year, and Players Player of the Year) along with the Premier League title and Scottish Cup. The season was summarised in sensational fashion, with this goal against Rangers:
Hero to Villan
The 2006-07 season and Strachan’s second in charge should’ve seen an even better contribution from Maloney. Even though the goals and assists ratios of the season before were stunning, there was still the feeling that even better was to come from the then 24 year old. But the old injury curse reared it’s ugly head with little niggles striking at every opportunity, but equally a new young talent had burst on to the scene – Aiden McGeady. Maloney could not break back into the side that half-season, and with his contract soon to expire (having not signed a new deal earlier), old boss Martin O’Neill, then at Aston Villa, pounced with a £1million deal.
His exit left a sour-taste for Celtic fans, having watched the kid progress from zero to a multi-award winning star. The club also stuck by his side through 18 months of no gametime and injury hell. The feeling was Maloney left for the glitz and fame (and the money) of the English Premier League, and while many felt he had served his club acceptably, he could surely also have paid back the club that gave him so much by garnering a lucrative fee (which Stiliyan Petrov later did in similar circumstances).
The alternative argument centres around another hot prospect at the time, whose meteoric rise thanks to stellar Champions League performances usurped Maloney’s position as the priority player to keep. That player was Liam Miller, also in his final year of contract and courted by Manchester United. With the board offering the prodigy vast sums to stay, by contrast multi-award winning POTY Maloney wasn’t offered anywhere near similar terms and it was there the bone of contention lay, and damning for the board, a deal wasn’t reached with either player.
Maloney struggled to break into an expensively assembled squad at Aston Villa, making fleeting appearances back in his original position as striker. He scored 5 goals in 30 appearances there, most notable of which was a brace against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in a 4-4 thriller. But he could not make an impact and soon returned to the club that made him.
At the start of the 2008-09 season he returned in a £3million deal – good business for Villa and at a new time of financial austerity for Celtic. The transfer hasn’t always been well received with fans, still bitter that he left in the first place.
His return also marked a new spell of disappointment for Celtic, with Strachan failing to win four SPL titles out of four, and worse, a disastrous season under Tony Mowbray in the 2009-10 season. Ever since his return Maloney has also been able to maintain a consistent level of fitness, managing in his first season 30 appearances out of a possible 52, only 17/54 in the 09-10 season and finally 26/52 last season.
It seems that every time Maloney approaches some kind of first team regularity, he sustains yet another injury and is put back to square one and it’s a struggle for fitness again. It’s been this pattern since his return, and this season he’s now so far from the squad that it’s unlikely he’ll be able to usurp anyone in the wide areas (or even up front). The more consistently fit Kris Commons and James Forrest are certainly ahead in the pecking order, with Paddy McCourt waiting in the wings. Joe Ledley and Charlie Mulgrew have also been used on the left of midfield, albeit in a slightly different system.
With news that Maloney is departing yet again to the wealthy English Premiership – this time Wigan, it’s a move that suits Celtic. Currently at the upper end of the pay-scale, Maloney doesn’t make financial sense with respect to the amount of games he’s fit and able to play. Turning 29 in January, he’s also surely on the decline, if not yet in technique but physically. Yet he will add to the Wigan squad. When fit, he still has the quality to unlock talented defences, and while his dead-ball skills are not up there with former team-mates Nakamura or Charlie Mulgrew, he still has a respectable delivery.
It may be harsh to say that Maloney hasn’t lived up to the promise over his career. He’s been unlucky – with injuries and with the timing of his big move South. While he’s improved as a player and matured as a person, it’s as if little has changed from that moment he wrenched the ball from Lynch – and it’s again an apt reflection of his career – always chasing glory, not letting sentimentality get in the way, but ultimately not having the luck.