Player Profile: Shaun Maloney – Forever chasing glory

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
Maloney.

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 injury

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.

Successful Transformation

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.

Muted return

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.

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About tictacticuk

Football fan and commentator of all things Celtic FC.
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10 Responses to Player Profile: Shaun Maloney – Forever chasing glory

  1. Brian says:

    I agree with some of your article but not the underlying theme.

    How can you possibly say he is “chasing glory” when he has left a team who will be challenging for the title for a team who will be scratching around the bottom 6 all season.

    This move suited all, he wasn’t going to feature much and Wigan decided to take a chance on his fitness.

    He goes with my best wishes

    • tictacticuk says:

      Thanks for reading

      The ‘glory’ I refer to is overwhelmingly on a personal level, I was hoping to convey that clearer but alas the piece is slightly rushed.

      His career is all but finished at Celtic – can’t get a game and just when you think he can he gets injured. He’s chasing the glitz (money) and glamour of the biggest league in the World.

      Oh yeah, and the other theme of the article is his attempts at glory normally go pear shaped so his attempt at glory this time may be in vain considering what he’s leaving behind 🙂

      Thanks again

  2. sean says:

    Great article. Feel sorry for maloney in some respects. However he has killed his own career should have never left for villa. Was a great player but to be honest has acomblished very little given the talent we seen for that one glorious year.

  3. Great read. He really did ruin his career by going to Villa. Interesting that two of his ‘biggest’ moments involved games against Rangers, his debut at Ibrox and his goal from around 40 yards against them. I suppose he’ll be seen as a one season wonder, and he was great that season – 2005-06. Another player whose promise went unfulfilled at Celtic, but he is mostly to blame for this.

  4. Wildrover says:

    Very nice summary. He certainly fits into the Martinez system but, like you say, he’s on the way down. Career has been a bit of a parallel to Eoin Jess’ in some ways. Jess was more consistent and less injury prone though.

    Really enjoy reading your post match analysis, keep it coming !

  5. renasko says:

    Fair read. Nicely done. It’ll definitely be interesting to see how Shaun gets along in his second spell in the EPL. Wigan are an attractive side, so I hope they manage to stave off relegation, at least for a while, and he can get back to showing off his Celtic-honed talents.

  6. Craig Cairns says:

    His goal against Dunfermline in the 8-1 (?) stands out for me.

    And his dive at Tynecastle on New Years Day 2006. Haha.

  7. LeBron+Wade says:

    Was directed to this from your tactical analysis on stv. I found that to be brilliant and a real breath of fresh air in the mostly outdated, cliched and stagnant coverage of scottish football. Sometimes it makes me shudder how we discuss football in this country: to me, we seem to be missing the point quite a bit.

    Quite enjoyed this piece on a player I’m ambivalent to. When he was in the team at the beginning of Strachan’s reign I thought he was magnificent and I held him in higher esteem than McGeady, even as Aiden continued to blossom – I saw Shaun as being a better team player, with greater vision and understanding of the game around him, and at least in that stage of their respective careers he was more consistent than McGeady.

    Alas, I feel the journey down south de-railed his career and the way in which he left, when the manager here, Strachan, clearly adored him left a bitter taste. Him and Nakamura were a dangerous tandem and offered us something that we ALWAYS seem to lack in Europe – flair and creaticity (it’s my opinion that our greates fault in Europe is teh struggle to create chances, and this in turn puts a lot more pressure on our already panicky defence, leading more often than not these days to disaster).

    Anyway…I always wonder how Shaun feels about his career path, I think he seems a thoughtful fellow and I can imagine the decision to go to Villa will eat him up for a long time. In hindsight I quite regret the way it’s turned out for him.

    As I’m a pedant, just have to pick you up on a few things….you’re speaking about Liam Miller as if it was a choice of who to offer the big contract to, when in fact Miller was offered his deal in late 2003/early 2004 in O’Neill’s time, before leaving for Manchester United, in what was always believed to be a bumper deal. Maloney’s situation didn’t come about until late 2006/early 2007, as he left in the January window of 2007 under Strachan. Wee Gordon said they made Shaun an incredible offer and Lawell was quoted at the time as saying that he was confident Shaun would stay, and went so far as to go back three years to the Miller situation and say he was the only player that the club had lost. So I don’t think your comparison there works, or at least it’s a bit misleading as you seem to be suggesting it was one or the other.

    You also say that Petrov later left the club and brought in a big fee, when in fact Stan left in the summer window of 2006, half a season before Maloney.

    Anyway, glad I came, it’s good to read some thoughful stuff on Celtic and I hope you keep up the good work. I NEVER comment on anything on-line, but I enjoyed this piece and the tactical analysis of tomorrow’s game I just wanted to say thanks. I’ll have the site bookmarked from now on!

    • tictacticuk says:

      The comparison with McGeady I don’t think will ever end . McGeady undoubtedly had that flashy flair that caught the eye (and undoubtedly boosts price tags) but in terms of pragmatism there is (or was) a school of thought that Maloney was the more effective – less running into dead-ends, more intelligent use of possession, more lethal in front of goal, etc.

      It’s a difficult call to make, probably not worthwhile considering now 😛 But I’m tending towards the Mcgeady camp. The fact that it’s such a close run is testament to how much Maloney really was worth at his peak (considering McGeady’s price tag)

      Ultimately, it was the constant injuries and the spell away that cost him. I don’t blame him for having a pop at England, but Villa, considering their ambition was probably the wrong club. He needed games at that level and never really got them and that and the injuries stifled his progression.

      Ahhh the pedantry.  Don’t mind it! Unfortunately am not infallible and need putting right from time to time, the Petrov thing was a silly wee mistake, I think removing the word “later” would solve that, and I guess the point broadly stands.

      The Miller(/Maloney) situation was more complicated and, I think initially I was more leaning towards what you’ve said – or in my mind, Maloney held us to ransom somewhat. Someone got in touch via twitter to clear things up, and I edited my post to say what it does now – that Maloney was provoked by the Miller offer and wanted a similar deal. Now, perhaps I didn’t take onboard their precise point, maybe I didn’t do the right homework and been too trusting, or maybe I’ve been given dud information, etc but the timeframe matches your story.

      In this respect, I have to sustain your objection (in US. Court parlance)! Maybe I was correct in the first place!

      Regardless, it was an acrimonious parting that not only undermined the fine contribution that Maloney had made until that point, but it also blackened his name for the second spell and many fans never forgave him.

      Thanks so much for such a positive and constructive post, I really appreciate people taking time to read what I sometimes feel is a pretty indulgent blog (not many fans get such a platform to air their views) I’m extremely appreciative of people getting in touch, providing discussion and constructive feedback.

      I’m already nervous for tonight, thanks again and hopefully we get an acceptable result!

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