Just how good is new Hull City signing Shaun Maloney?

Hull City completed the signing of Scotland forward Shaun Maloney from Chicago Fire on Thursday for a fee reported in the US to be around £1.5m.

It was a move, first mooted by Radio Humberside’s David Burns on August 1st, that has been close for weeks but has taken some time to “get over the line” – to use one of those naff transfer window clichés to which we’re all sadly becoming accustomed. Hull City were able to “get it done”, “tie it up”, “get the player in the building” and what have yer’.

So what about Shaun Maloney? The diminutive Scotland international is 32 years old and only joined Chicago as a “designated player” (basically a player whose wages don’t count towards the MLS salary cap) from Wigan Athletic in January.

His time in Chicago hasn’t been as fulfilling as both parties hoped. That’s also a fine description of his entire career. He’s a very talented player known for his ability to run with the ball, shoot from distance and take brilliant free kicks but in part due to injury, poor judgement and being seen as a bit of a luxury by managers who played inflexible formations – he’s never hit the heights his enormous potential suggested he might.

Maloney was born in Malaysia (There’s an interesting interview on his childhood here) but moved to Scotland as a youngster, dictated by his father’s employment, and joined Celtic as a trainee. He broke through at Celtic under Martin O’Neill but took a while to establish himself and just as he was starting to really bed in – playing a part in Celtic’s run to the UEFA Cup final in 2003 – he injured a cruciate ligament and missed a season and a half of football.

He returned and got himself ready for the 2005/06 season which still stands up as his career high. Then manager Gordon Strachan played him on the left of midfield and trusted him to play for the team while maintaining the freedom to affect games. He scored sixteen goals that season and achieved the unique feat of being named Scotland’s Player and Young Player of the Year. Strachan continues to be a huge fan of Maloney which probably explains why his form for Scotland these days is so much better than at his clubs. The manager spoke glowingly of him in June when Maloney rescued a point for the Scots in Ireland:

“You can talk about systems but a very good player has got us a point. And a very good player, ten minutes from the end, no taller than me, is back in the right-back position heading the ball away from James McClean. Shaun is the most conscientious football player I’ve ever met and he deserves every bit of praise he gets. If any young football player wants to watch anyone, it’s him.”

That word “conscientious” was also used by Martin O’Neill when he took Maloney to Aston Villa in January 2007. O’Neill said then “Shaun is one of the most conscientious young men I have known in the game.  “What he lacks in height, he makes up in a lot of ability and a lot of courage. He is a smashing lad. But I am not signing him because he is a smashing lad. He is a quality player.”

The move to Villa followed a contract wrangle at Celtic. Maloney eventually signed a pre-contract to move down south at the end of the 2006/07 season but Villa paid £1m to take him early. He never really settled amid suggestions of homesickness and an inability to nail down a place in O’Neill’s rigid set-up. He regretted the way he left Celtic saying “In my final few months at Celtic I was negotiating a new contract and now regret the way I handled those talks. There’s no doubt it had a negative effect on my game.” His contrition towards his former club was useful because he’d re-join them after eighteen months in Birmingham for £3m.

He was dogged by injuries during his second spell at Parkhead including a particularly nasty Achilles injury and despite a very healthy return of goals and assists – he just didn’t play enough games. On his return to full health, Roberto Martinez took him to Wigan for £850,000 and after taking a while to settle he really came to fruition as a Premier League player in 2012/13. He helped Wigan win the FA Cup and, despite their subsequent relegation, enjoyed some of the best form of his career. He only signed a new two and a half year contract with Wigan in January of that season but by May, Martinez was talking of his struggle to hold on to a valuable asset:

“Shaun Maloney should be playing for teams fighting for titles. He’s got the quality of any player playing in that position. Shaun could have been born in any other country in terms of his technical ability. He is someone who can find space – he finds it so natural to turn – and players who can drive into space are a real strength to break things down. I wouldn’t be surprised if a club with more tradition and bigger power looks at him but that’s a compliment to us.”

Martinez was obviously suggesting that Maloney’s technical ability was unusual for a British player but his use of the phrase “Shaun could have been born in any other country” is a funny one because, of course, he was!

Maloney had blossomed under Martinez who he credited with his new found confidence and health “I’d been plagued with injuries for a couple of years before I came to Wigan, but since I’ve been here, I’ve seen a different side of the game under the manager. In terms of tactics and the work we do in training, I haven’t really experienced anything like it.” When Martinez left for Everton, Maloney again struggled with injuries as Wigan took on a Europa League and Championship campaign. He was eventually sold last January when Wigan embarked on a fire sale of high earners ahead of a second relegation in two years. Maloney was heavily linked with Leicester City, his former manager at Everton and a third spell at Celtic but instead joined Chicago.

Maloney failed to light up the Windy City but it’s hardly surprising given that the Fire have been in severe decline for most of this decade having been one of the most consistent achievers in the early years of MLS and one of the leading teams in the Eastern Conference for several seasons afterwards.

He arrives at Hull City with a reputation as a player as great ability who can change games in the blink of an eye with a probing run or a strike at goal. With that talent comes a history of suffering injuries and taking time to settle in at new clubs – and occasionally not settling at all.

Maloney needs to play for a manager who has the faith in him that Gordon Strachan does. A manager who will find him a position from which he can influence games in the attacking third but who also instills in him the discipline to work for the team. For all his faults, I think Steve Bruce is as likely as anyone to do that and I’m quite excited by what the wee man can achieve in black and amber.

By Rick