Shaun Maloney States His Regret at Leaving Celtic
The enduring image of that day was young Shaun on the touchline, nervously chewing gum like a speeding clubber as he waited to come on to the field of play to make his competitive debut for Celtic.
Appearances under O Neill were hard to come by for the young player, although he did play a sizeable part during the run to Seville, including a substitute appearance in the final against Porto and a vital goal against Stuttgart at Celtic Park.
When Gordon Strachan took over the reins at Celtic Park however, young Shaun's career took off. However after a highly impressive first season with the Hoops his second season was blighted by injury and then marred by rumors that Shaun would leave Parkhead to join up with MON at Aston Celtic, a notion that was rubbished by all due to the lack of opportunities that Maloney was afforded during Our Favourite Martin's tenure.
That notwithstanding, Shaun left Celtic during the January transfer window for a fee of £1.1M. In reflection however Shaun realises that he made a mistake and cites the rushed nature of the deal as a mitigating circumstance of his Judas-like departure
"It's easy to say so now, but I probably shouldn't have left Celtic in the first place — it was mostly my own fault," Maloney says. "For about six months prior to leaving Celtic, I hadn't dealt with my contract situation very well. It was eating away at me, it wasn't getting sorted and I didn't cope with it properly. We couldn't agree terms and it all came to a head on the last day of January 2007, when Villa came in with their offer.
"I felt like I was backed into a corner and I had a choice to make: I see out the last five months of my Celtic contract or I go to Villa. In that situation, staying at Celtic didn't lie easily with me. It seemed a massive gamble — I had five months left on my contract, but what would happen if I got injured? I believed that going to Villa was the only decision I could make."
"It was the last day of the transfer window. I got a call saying that Villa wanted me to do my medical, so I did that at Newcastle, where they had a game that night. I knew Villa had been interested but I still didn't think it would happen like that. I saw Martin after that game and signed."
Shaun realised quickly after the move that he had made an error of judgment in his decision.
"I'm not sure it sunk in properly — it all happened so quickly," he says. "I drove down to Birmingham to start the next day with Villa. I'd never been to Birmingham before, and I'd never seen the Villa stadium. So it all felt new, a bit like being away on an international trip from Celtic for a few days. Then it started to hit home and I started to struggle and wonder about my decision. I never felt comfortable at Villa, and I didn't play great, either. It was a bit like when I was with Martin O'Neill at Celtic. I was a sub, and I would come on and do OK, and that was my role. I didn't enjoy it, but to be honest, I didn't do enough to be a regular in Villa's starting XI. It just wasn't the place I wanted to be."
"Martin has obviously done brilliantly with them, so you can't take that away from him. But it wasn't where I was going to play my best football."
A much publicised fall out with MON in the wake of a 4-0 defeat to Manchester United proved the catalyst for Maloney's return to the Club he admits he should never have left.
"We lost 4-0 that day but at 2-0 I had a one-on-one with their goalkeeper when my shot went by the post," he says. "It was my last game for Villa. After that I lost all relationship with Martin for about three months. It was bad on my side and it was probably bad on his side, too. I'd known him for so long, so to not be able to speak to someone you'd known for that length of time just wasn't right."
"You've interviewed Martin, haven't you? He doesn't give much away at the best of times. But that Old Trafford match signaled a change in fate for me. I wasn't part of his plans anymore and it took quite a while to sort out. We finally sat down and talked and in the end it was fine. I get on fine with Martin, I respect him, and a manager has to have his place. But I knew I had to leave Villa."
Maloney had originally wanted to leave Birmingham to go back to Celtic in July 2007, but O'Neill talked him round, asking him to do a full season at Villa before deciding on his future. Things only got worse for the player, though, before his return to Celtic was finally secured in July 2008.
Maloney expanded on the reasons why he felt he had no option but to move away from the Club who had stuck by him through injury and had nurtured him into the player he is today.
"I left Celtic because I thought it was the only option open to me, but I should have done it all differently," he says. "I should have been a lot more hands-on with the actual contract terms, like I was when I came back. My new deal was all done within a couple of hours. It was just me, a Celtic director, and Peter \ who sorted it out. Quick and no problem. If I'd done it better the first time around, things might have been very different. I might never have left in the first place. But, hey, it happened."
Now that he has returned to Paradise, young Shaun feels that he has made the correct decision, not only for his career but also in his personal life. He was also quick to point out the polar differences between the two managers who shaped his career.
"I think Gordon is a very good manager," he says. "He loves coaching, he loves being out on the training pitch. I think a lot of the players enjoy training. Strachan is a very good coach — we start early in the week talking about how he wants you to play on a Saturday. One of his big things is, when he puts a team out, every player knows what he is supposed to do. He is very organised."
"Gordon and Martin are very different. Martin was more a manager than a coach. Martin did most of his talking on match day, whereas Gordon talks a lot throughout the week. Gordon takes a lot of sessions — Martin didn't do that — and he talks a lot about what he wants you to do. They are two very different people."
And now, as Shaun returns to fitness, and hopefully a happy ending of assisting Celtic to four league titles in-a-row, he reflects on the magic of Dr Muller-Wohlfahrt, the innovative Doctor who famously ensured that the golfer José María Olazábal, would make a Lazarus-like return to competitive action after an injury had all but finished his career in 1997.
"My hamstring had become a problem — I'd torn it twice in nine weeks — so I went to see this guy," Maloney said. "I'd heard about him, read more about him on the internet and was happy to seek his help. He explained a lot to me about how all the body's muscles interact and he traced my hamstring problem to something in my back. Some people think his methods are unusual but they have worked for me, so I'm glad I went to see him."
As are we Shaun, welcome back!
Yours in Celtic