An interview with Shaun Maloney, by Callum McFadden for WFi.
You came into the Celtic first team in the era of Henrik Larsson and Martin O’Neill in the early 2000s. How did it feel to train with those players and then play alongside them?
“Believe it or not, I actually did not train with them regularly before I made my debut against Rangers in 2001.
“I trained only once before making my debut and that was the day before the match itself.
“I was taken out of a reserve game at half-time and told that I would be training with the first team the following day.
“I had only played for the reserve team twice prior to that so everything moved quickly for me at Celtic at that time.
“I had trained twice with the first team prior to Martin O’Neill arriving at the club but that was down to luck on my part because two youth players would be ball boys at first-team training.
“On two occasions when I was doing that under John Barnes due to an injury in a training match, I was asked to fill in.
“Those were the first opportunities that I had to train with the first team but I was just an extra body so it was not until the day before my debut that I trained with them on merit.
“Only training with them once before playing meant that I did not have a massive build-up to match day and meant that I was not too fazed by who I was playing with or against.”
Can you talk me through what your debut was like given such little buildup in training?
“Well, it was between myself and Mark Fotheringham as to which young player would be on the bench for the game against Rangers.
“We were roommates in a house in Barrhead but thankfully, on the day, it was me who made the squad for the game.
“Despite that, Mark and I still had to put the kit and the boots out pre-match because we were a part of the ground staff like all YTS players.
“Then, the match itself did not feel too alien to me because I had travelled with the first team as part of the ground staff before so I had experienced that environment before.
“Even when I came on, due to my age and inexperience at the time, I did not fully understand the magnitude of everything that is associated with playing in games against Rangers or how special winning against them 3-0 was.”
You quickly establish yourself in the Celtic first team under Martin O’Neill and you play in the run to the UEFA cup final of 2003. What was Martin like as a manager for a young player like yourself?
“First and foremost, Martin had played the game to such a high level and as a two-time European Cup winner, he commanded respect from everyone in the dressing room.
“As a manager, he was hard but fair. His instructions were clear and his demands were obvious to everyone within the team.
“If you performed well then you would earn the right to stay in his team and if you did not then you knew that you were out.
“He had such an aura as a person and I have never experienced another manager or coach with that aura since.
“The environment he created at Celtic was ultra competitive. Every training session was life or death. You had to be at the top of your game every single day because the demand to win was always there.
“It did not matter if it was a training session, a friendly, or a competitive game. You had to win.”
As a forward player, how much did you learn from Henrik Larsson, Chris Sutton and John Hartson in particular?
“Henrik was of such a high standard that he was a level above everyone else at the club. He was genuinely one of the best forward players in the European game during his time at Celtic.
“He still had time for younger players and was gracious with his time. He was great with me with advice in training when it came to making runs for example.
“Chris and John were similar too. They were both very good and wanted to create a partnership with you that would help the team on a match day.
“Outwith those three, Paul Lambert was also an amazing player in his position and someone who I learned a lot from. He could talk you through a game and was also a European cup winner like Martin O’Neill was.
“Tom Boyd was similar at the beginning of my career. He was the perfect captain.
“Steve Guppy also had a big influence on my career. I ended up rooming with him and Steve was great with me.
“He set a positive example to younger players because he got absolutely everything out of his career through hard work and dedication.
“He would spend time with me after training to work on my technical skills.
“Looking back, I was very fortunate to have many top players and characters to learn from in a sink-or-swim environment.”
You picked up a serious in Martin O’Neill’s last season in charge. Every player wants to impress the next manager so did it worry you that Gordon Strachan replaced Martin while you were still working on returning from injury?
“It had a big impact on me for sure. I had a full off-season where I knew that I had to work extra hard to regain match sharpness and overall fitness to impress Gordon Strachan when he arrived at the club.
“I was actually on the verge of leaving the club on loan when Gordon arrived due to the lack of games that I played in the previous season due to my knee injury.
“I had interest from two SPFL clubs and one English championship club but, thankfully, I was able to force myself into Gordon’s plans in pre-season and stay at the club.
“Eventually, I earned my place in the team and never looked back during that season. I thrived by playing regularly rather than coming on partway through a game for Larsson, Sutton, Hartson or Bellamy, who were all top strikers who were at the club when Martin was in charge.”
Remarkably, you won the PFA Player of the Year and PFA Young Player of the Year in that very season. Your form led to interest in you from several clubs and you linked up with Martin O’Neill again at Aston Villa in January 2007. Was Martin the big factor in getting you to Villa?
“Yeah, he was, but I never wanted to leave Celtic. Even up until deadline day when I left for Villa, I still wanted to be staying at Celtic.
“I wanted to sign a long-term contract with the club but it became apparent that both sides were not going to meet and I left for Villa.
“I was young at the time but I regret not being more hands-on during that time because if I had the chance to sit down with Gordon and the owner of the club then I do not think I would ever have left.
“I wanted to stay and the club wanted me to stay but once an agreement was not reached, Villa bid and I joined up with Martin again.
“Villa is a massive club who have won the European Cup in their history. I was fortunate that I was joining another big club under a manager who I knew had faith in me.
“I enjoyed my time at Aston Villa as a whole and playing in the Premier League was a great experience too.
“Physically, it was more demanding than playing in Scotland due to the speed of the game and the amount of running that you had to do within a game.
“That was partly due to us facing teams such as Manchester United and co who dominated possession whereas, at Celtic, we dominated possession in every domestic game that we played in.
“Playing against teams like the Manchester United team that won the Champions League in 2008 was great.
“They had players such as Rooney, Ronaldo, Tevez, Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand and Vidic.
“The level of opposition was high every single week and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Aston Villa. I am so glad that I experienced Villa at that time because we finished 6th in one of the best leagues in world football.”
You returned to Celtic in 2008 after 18 months at Villa Park. How did your second spell at Celtic compare with your first spell at the club?
“I wanted to return to Celtic at the first available opportunity because all I ever wanted to do as a young boy was play for Celtic.
“I grew up as a Celtic fan and, as I said earlier, I never wanted to leave the club when I did in my first spell.
“I loved the pressure that comes with being a Celtic player. I love the history and heritage that the club has and I missed that when I was away.
“Playing for your team is like no other feeling in football. I missed that and wanted it back.
“Overall, my second spell was one of transition. I also really struggled with injury, which did not help matters.
“I was injury free when I returned for the first six months then I did not have regular spells where I was able to play more than fifteen games without another injury.
“Unfortunately, the injuries I suffered were serious and I was not able to become a big part of the team which was difficult because that is not how I wanted things to go especially at the club that I love.
“We also had great moments where we took the league to the last day in 2009 and won the League Cup in that season. We should have won that league.
“Then, Gordon leaves and Tony Mowbray comes in. I loved Tony and for me; he was the right manager at the right club but at the wrong time.
“It was a period of real transition and, unfortunately, Tony loses his job less than a season after taking over, then Neil Lennon comes in as interim manager then as permanent manager.
“Neil had some great moments as Celtic manager and I have so much time for Neil. However, I knew that it was the end of the cycle for many of our players when Neil came in and you have to accept that and move on.
“Although my second spell was tough at the time, I do not regret coming back to Celtic because I was at the place where I most wanted to play football.”
You joined Wigan Athletic from Celtic and worked with Roberto Martinez for the first time. You scored some memorable goals, particularly against Manchester United, to save the club from relegation and win the FA Cup in 2013. Can you sum up what your time at Wigan was like as a whole?
“Roberto was brilliant to work for. The way that he set the team up and trusted us to play good football made us believe that on our day, we could beat anybody.
“In terms of the Manchester United goal, I am actually a Manchester United fan. They were the English club that I followed growing up and, being from Aberdeen, Sir Alex Ferguson was like a God to us.
“I would travel down to watch United at Old Trafford as a kid from school with the family but the goal that I scored against them was one of my most important because it kept us in the league that season.
“We needed to win or we were in big trouble but it was an incredible night. We were very good throughout the game and we deserved our victory. It was a performance that epitomised our approach under Roberto Martinez.
“It was not a realistic ambition for us to think that we could win a major trophy in England such as the FA Cup given our budget compared the most of the teams in the Premier League.
“However, that is what we achieved and it was the stuff of fairytales. We beat a top-class Manchester City team managed by Roberto Mancini at Wembley, which is such an iconic ground. It was the perfect day in many ways.
“Ben Watson’s header to win the game is one of the best headers that I have ever seen. If you watch the goal back, the angle at which he connects with the ball and where it hits the back of the net is extraordinary.
“It reminded me of the goal that Cristiano Ronaldo scored against Roma in the Champions League for Manchester United a few years prior.
“The best thing about winning that day was the fact that we went toe to toe with Manchester City. We created chances, we had similar possession and we deserved to win the game.
“They had players such as Yaya Toure, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Vincent Kompany which makes it all the more pleasing when I look back because they were world-class players.
“Lifting the cup was a moment of pure joy. My family were at Wembley and that moment was the happiest that I have ever felt on a football pitch.
“No one expected us to win that trophy but we did it and it brought memories back of watching the FA Cup on TV as a kid with my dad.
“To be a part of the history of the FA Cup when you think of some of the iconic moments that have come before in the competition like Gascoigne’s free kick or Cantona’s volley is magical.”
You represented Scotland on 47 occasions and scored seven goals. What are your personal highlights from your time with the national team?
“It was a huge privilege to play for my country whenever I had the opportunity to do so.
“I have done every role as an international player. I’ve travelled and not played, I’ve come off the bench in games and I’ve started in key games too.
“It was such a huge source of pride for me and every cap meant the world to me.
“I love living in Scotland and I’ll always call Scotland home, so to be able to pull on that jersey was something that felt amazing every time.”
Following your retirement from playing, you moved into coaching with Celtic then the Belgian national team. What did you learn from those coaching roles in particular?
“I learned so much from working at Celtic under-20s when Brendan Rodgers was manager.
“That gave me a good grounding before Roberto called me and asked me to join him at Belgium.
“I learned so much from working with him because at Belgium, he was working with world-class players and as such, the tactical side of the game was incredibly detailed and the demands were very high because of the standard of player he had.
“Working with elite players was great for me as a young coach too because they are engaging and trust you to help them find new ways to beat opponents.
“Creating connections with them was important as was developing my sessions to tailor them to what the team needed.
“It was a massive privilege for me to work with Roberto and I loved working with young players as well as with experienced players like Kompany, Alderweireld and Vermaelen because you learned from them too.”
You most recently managed Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership. How would you reflect on your first experience as a first-team manager?
“The opportunity to manage Hibs arose in late 2021 and I was excited by the opportunity and my initial meetings.
“It was a huge learning experience for me during the four months that I was in charge and one that I know will make me stronger and wiser.
“I loved everything on the football side of things because the players were fantastic.
“They bought into everything that I asked from them and showed huge courage to go to the historically hardest stadiums and against the best teams in the league and try to impose our style on them.
“I knew that I had to do this from the very first match as I saw these months as building blocks towards moulding a team that had a mentality and way of playing to compete and beat the best in our league.
“I also changed the training periodisation which I knew the players would find difficult at the beginning.
“However, it brought big improvements in the team physically in a short period which was most evident in the performances of Kevin Nisbet.
“Unfortunately, just a matter of weeks later, Kevin suffered an ACL injury which weakened the team to such an extent that I knew immediately finishing in the top six was in doubt.
“I also wanted to bring the overall environment close to the elite levels I had experienced at the different clubs and federations that I had worked at previously.
“All players were extremely open to new ideas and I am very appreciative to them for the effort and time they gave to me and my staff.
“To experience the semi-final of the Scottish Cup within four months as a coach, and the outstanding performance, despite the game itself resulting in a difficult defeat, was another sign to me that with the right attacking profiles, along with the development of the younger players, we would be able to go toe to toe with the strongest clubs in the country the following season and seasons to come.
“Hibs is a club with great history and the supporters were always respectful and knowledgeable about what I was trying to achieve as I saw first-hand at the many supporters’ functions I attended.
“I want to pay a particular thank you to the away fans as they sung my name even in the difficult moments. They always backed the team as was shown by the way they applauded the team for their performance after a sore semi-final loss.
“I was clear on the foundations that I wanted to put in place at the club both on and off the pitch.
“I knew we would improve the team defensively with the profile of players we brought in and also the players already at the club adapted very quickly to a completely different defensive structure and principles.
“We drew a lot of games but I knew the direction I wanted to take the team. With the attacking profiles that I wanted to sign for the club, I am absolutely positive would have allowed the team to compete against the best teams in the league in the biggest stadiums.
“However, I left the club when I did and I hope that the club and the fans can go on to be as successful as possible in the future because there are many good people who support the club.
“One of the aspects of my job at Hibs that filled me with great joy was meeting with and bringing members of the former players association into the training ground to be around the place and be around the club in a meaningful way.
“I had the great privilege of spending time with the likes of Pat Stanton, Mickey Weir and Paul Kane who were incredibly passionate about the club and I loved when they would recount the tales from their biggest domestic matches and great European victories over clubs such as Napoli.
“I was aware from my playing career that Hibs was a special club but the legends of the club were able to further enlighten me into the moments of historical significance from their playing career and from the players and managers from yesteryear that they grew up watching.
“I miss the moments with the former players association members because we would have lunch together at the club every Friday after training. Speaking to the greats of the club and learning from them and their passion for football was an honour. I will cherish those memories.”
You left Hibs in April 2022. What have you been up to since your departure and what are your plans for the future?
“In the time I have had since leaving the club, I have learned a lot by spending a huge amount of time with my staff reviewing all aspects of our time at Hibernian.
“I have also just arrived back from a month travelling around Europe to study the methods and structures of FC Barcelona, FC Girona and AS Monaco, which was fascinating, and I am very appreciative of the access and support from these clubs.
“I definitely want to return to management and my next job will not be down to the size of the club or the size of the support or the country that they play in.
“It will all be down to the people that I work with. It is vital that our values and ideas are aligned so we can build a successful environment together.”