Big interview: New Hibs boss Shaun Maloney on his tennis sliding doors moment, 'the call that changed his life' and love for Scotland
Hibs manager Shaun Maloney grew up on the Scottish tennis circuit at the same time as the Murray siblings, albeit a few years older, and he also had a choice to make. He took a different option.
“They were really happy times. But, I also realised pretty quickly that I wasn’t at the level required to go further but I love the sport. I still love watching it and I love playing, although I don’t get too much time for that.”
When it came to deciding between football and tennis, though, football had a slightly greater pull and, he felt, an enhanced promise of success.
“Maybe it was a little bit of both. I was definitely better at football. So when they started to clash, I had to choose and I loved football. As a Scottish boy, from a generation where football was everything at that young age, I had to give tennis up and it was definitely the right decision to concentrate on football.
“I don’t think, physically, my size would have been particularly advantageous. I’m not sure there are too many tennis players my height on the circuit now!”
But, at 5ft 6ins, Maloney still managed to make a big impression in football, while the Murrays have both made it to No 1 in the world at singles and doubles.
A sliding doors moment, it is amazing how, having veered off on separate paths, life has continued to throw up ways in which they can relate, though.
While he has followed their careers, getting to as many tournaments and exhibition events as his schedule allows, taking in Wimbledon and the World Tour finals at the O2 in London, he has delivered in the dark blue of Scotland and, now, has taken the helm at Easter Road.
He says he hasn’t heard from the Hibs-supporting brothers since arriving last month but says there is an open invitation to both Andy and Jamie.
“They are always welcome at the training ground. I am definitely going to try to get both of them up some time, to come and see the players and staff because I think their experiences would be so useful to hear about.
“I know it is really, really different but have you seen the documentary on Andy fighting back? It is incredible and shows the dedication and the mentality he has to come through the injuries he has had and get back playing.
“Even results-wise at the beginning, that must have been so difficult, when he was used to getting into finals. He continually put himself back in that place where it is so hard when you get beat but he kept going back for more and eventually he achieved greatness. It is strange to think this guy came from the same country as the rest of us. It is inspiring.”
The respect is magnified by Maloney’s understanding not just of elite sport, but of battling injuries at that level.His was an, at times, a seemingly-unrelenting battle with injuries, from cruciate ligament damage, ankle surgery, Achilles issues, hip and hernia problems. They eventually forced him to hang up his boots but not before they had enjoyed a long and arduous tussle, during which he picked himself back off the mat time and time again.
“I think that was probably why that Andy Murray documentary really resonated with me. Even before that. I was never at his level in my sport so it gave me so much pride seeing a Scotsman doing that but then I watched that documentary and it really resonated in terms of the rehab, the surgery, what your family goes through to try to support you in those moments. It’s not easy.
“Now that I have stopped playing I feel immense pride in the mentality I had to come back and keep fighting after injuries. I had a lot, so to continually try to fight back and try to achieve something post injury, that’s one of the things I'm most proud of. To come back and get back into the national team, that’s where I have a huge sense of pride.”
An outwardly calm, softly-spoken and polite figure, behind the facade there is a passionate, strong-willed and determined character, who has backed himself with a granite-like strength that is not altogether surprising in a man who, although born in Malaysia, was reared in Aberdeen at time when the city still had a football swagger.
Too young to recall the real glory days, the Alex Ferguson era was still raw enough in the collective memory to pass effortlessly from one generation to the next, fuelling big dreams and an easy dismissal of inferiority complexes. As he kicked a ball about the playground, the Pittodrie side were still a team vying for titles and trophies, before money washed over the Scottish game like a tsunami and cast everyone adrift from Rangers and Celtic.
But, it was at Celtic that he started to take a more analytical look at his career and start setting himself targets.
A fan of the Parkhead club from the age of seven, “not because of any family connection” but because of the 1990 Scottish Cup final, which was notable for the Pittodrie side’s 9-8 triumph in the penalty shoot-out.
“For some reason that was when I started to support Celtic. But I didn’t really grow up dreaming of winning in a cup final. Things only started to change when I met some ex-players, some real greats, real Scottish greats, like Kenny Dalglish, who was an inspiration. He was at the club in my first year, when I was 16 years old. And, coming from Aberdeen I had Sir Alex to look up to, who was at Manchester United by then, adding to his greatness.
“Honestly, it was only in my early 20s when I suffered a serious [knee] injury, that I started to think about what I could achieve. That was a major turning point for me, in terms of where I really wanted to go with my career. I started to really understand what I wanted and set my mind to actually achieving that.”
By the time he hung up his boots, after spells at Celtic, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, Chicago Fire and Hull City, he had a cabinet full of League winners’ medals, domestic cup baubles, and a UEFA Cup final appearance. He also had his precious Scotland caps.
As chat flows easily and the Hibs boss willingly casts a net through childhood memories of idyllic walks to the beach as a toddler in Malaysia, where his father worked as a helicopter pilot and flying instructor, or swimming club fun in an outdoor pool, in the kind of climate we can only dream about on a cold, winter day in Edinburgh, it is recollections of pulling on the dark blue that light him up from within.
There were top performances, as well as unforgettable goals. The first cap was a defeat to Belarus in 2005, the first goal, a lovely free-kick against Faroe Islands two years later, after he had defied injury. But there were so many more memories including the winner in Scotland's home Euro 2016 qualifier against the Republic of Ireland.
Playing on the international stage was always the carrot during his rehabilitation spells.
“I wanted to play as much and as often as possible. I will cherish every single cap that I got for my country, playing for Scotland and trying to achieve something with them, I found that the most amazing inspiration.
“I was part of the generation that didn't make a major tournament but that was always an ambition and it was amazing to see them achieve that last year.”
By the time Euro 2020 came around last year, his feet were firmly planted in another camp. Although there was a huge part of his heart still rooting for his homeland, life had moved on.
Via a year of coaching at Celtic and working concurrently on his masters in coaching from the Johan Cruyff Institute, where he indulged his attraction to positional football, he was working to elevate his own reputation in the game, while trying to help Belgium to fulfil their potential.
But he admits that the initial call-up to Roberto Martinez’ backroom staff, in 2018, was unexpected, despite the pair enjoying a strong relationship at Wigan.
“I was incredibly fortunate to get a job at that level, that early in my coaching journey and I will forever be grateful for that call. It has completely changed my life and I knew it could so I vowed in that moment that I would give it everything and really dedicate myself to trying to deliver at the highest level I could for the players. I made a real effort to connect with every player no matter where they were around Europe.
“I have always been open to new things, new training methods and even more so as a coach. Working with Belgium certainly helped that. You learn so much coaching different cultures and it was such a privilege coaching Belgium.
“These guys are a different level but every player was extremely respectful, humble and they made me feel very comfortable. They demanded a lot but I found that a motivation rather than any big pressure.
“I knew I was at the very start of the journey and I didn’t know everything – I will never know everything – but it was such a big opportunity that I had to say yes immediately. It wasn't so much bravery, I don’t think that’s the word, because I knew I wasn't trying to do sorting couldn't, but I knew I would make mistakes in drills or that some would work better than others but I had to be myself.
“I was fortunate because I had Roberto and Thierry [Henry], although he left six weeks later, but that first camp gave me an introduction and I just threw myself into it.”
Working with a team ranked No 1 in the world was an honour but with the prestige came the expectation to deliver. But at the delayed Euros, they came up against eventual winners Italy at the quarter-final stage.
“I had some great moments with Belgium and some tough moments. Even at the Euros, there were highs but defeat was hard to take.
“But finishing with 10 wins out of zero in qualifying for the Euros, winning our Nations League group with England in it, and then seeing individual players grow and develop was special.”
The defeats hurt but even some of the victories were mixed blessings, as they included skelping Scotland.
Someone who gets the feels every time he lined up for the national anthem as a player, standing in the opposition technical area as it blasted out was strange.
“We played Scotland a few times and that was always uncomfortable to a certain degree. I love the anthem. It wasn’t just my first cap as a player, and every time I hear it, it means something to me.
“But I got a similar feeling for Belgium after a period of time. I loved the country and the more time I spent there and more cities I visited, and then there’s the players I got to know. It’s always the connection with the players.”
The frequent travel meant time away from wife Stephanie and son Jude, which is already being addressed now that he is back working in Scotland. Both popped along to check out Easter Road last week and, admitting that it was a lovely chance to share that with his family, he is looking forward to the day his one-year-old is capable of heading down to the training ground for a kickabout. The focus now, though, is the players he has at his disposal as he tries to mould them and imprint on them a playing philosophy that appeals to both him and owner Ron Gordon.
But the injuries during his career and the unexpected Belgium involvement as coach have taught him not to plan too far ahead.
Analytical and reasoned, he was immediately at peace with his decision when he finally stopped battling his injuries and switched his focus to coaching and that seems to be the way with Maloney. He is a man with purpose, who is flexible enough to evolve and learn. He undoubtedly has long-term goals for Hibs, and beyond. But he has the presence of mind to simply focus on what is in front of him and do that to the very best of his ability, with the kind of grit, determination and drive that the Murrays could relate to.