Shaun Maloney: Belgium's elite brain on his journey from Celtic academy to Cruyff Institute

By Clive LindsayBBC Scotland Sport
Belgium's Shaun Maloney and Roberto Martinez
Shaun Maloney has worked under Roberto Martinez as a player and coach

While his home nation make heavy weather of reaching the Euro 2020 finals, it's been plain sailing for one Scot who is now guaranteed a place at a tournament being partly hosted in Glasgow.

It's not long since Shaun Maloney gave up on his dream of playing at a major finals, but two years after hanging up his boots with Hull City, the 36-year-old has made it as part of the coaching team guiding the world's top-ranked side.

Maloney views working under Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez as a natural progression in his football philosophy, influenced by an upbringing steeped in Celtic's Lisbon Lions - and one that sparked a love of Matt Busby's Manchester United, the Johan Cruyff-inspired Ajax, and Barcelona under the Dutchman then Pep Guardiola.

Here, the former attacker talks to BBC Scotland about being described by Martinez as having "an elite brain" and his ambitions once he completes his masters in coaching from the Johan Cruyff Institute.

Deep-thinking student of football history

That elite brain comment came as Martinez explained why he had added the Scot as an assistant alongside former Arsenal and France forward Thierry Henry last year.

Martinez's season as a player with Motherwell coincided with Maloney's breakthrough into the Celtic team. And the Spaniard thought at the time that the 18-year-old's "appreciation of space and technically ability" set him apart from players normally brought up in "the British system".

Having been born and spent his early years in Malaysia as the son of a Scottish mother and English father before moving to Aberdeen, Maloney has always come across as more worldly wise than your average footballer and, after later signing him for Wigan Athletic, Martinez also found him to be "a deep thinker".

Ask the quietly-spoken, ever-modest Scot for his reaction to those remarks and he shifts uncomfortably in his seat but does admit to having a long appreciation of football at its most beautiful.

"I really enjoyed the history of the game even when I was a younger player - different eras of the game," he says. "At Celtic, you are brought up with the Lisbon Lions and their European Cup win in 1967.

"It was just fascinating watching some of the footage of that, then going through into the Busby teams, Ajax teams of the 70s, Barcelona under Cruyff and that led to Guardiola. That is the same philosophy - Roberto has grown up with that."

Shaun Maloney (left) celebrates scoring for Scotland with Steven Naismith and Charlie Mulgrew
Maloney (left) scored seven goals in 47 Scotland appearances

Positional play's lightbulb moment

Maloney was an established Scotland international, had won five Scottish titles and eight cup winners' medals in two spells with Celtic, and had a less productive 18 months in between in England's top flight with Aston Villa before heading to Wigan.

However, he admits: "When I worked with Roberto as a player, it was like a light coming on. I knew there was a way of playing that other teams had. Now I had a manager who wanted to play that way."

That way is "positional play" - a style of possession football based on organising the team structure to defend and attack collectively in a way that "generates superiority" in crucial areas of the pitch.

The roots of what the Italians call Giochi di Posizione and the Dutch call Positiespel are disputed, some even suggesting it was adapted from the teachings of a Barcelona handball coach, but Guardiola is the most celebrated of its converts following his successes with the Catalans, Bayern Munich and now Manchester City.

"I've got huge admiration for teams that do it other ways," Maloney concedes while citing Livingston as a contemporary success story for a more direct style. "There's not one specific way to win a game.

"Leicester won the league playing a counter-attack system that was just so effective, but positional play is a style that inspires me. I think it's the best way to win games - and the most attractive and exciting."

Roberto Martinez, Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff
Maloney views Roberto Martinez, Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff as part of the same football philosophy

Standing at just under 5ft 6in, Maloney was always more suited to a style of play that combines caressing the football with nimble footwork and it's no surprise to hear that it permeates his coaching, first with potential stars of the future in Celtic's youth team and then with Belgium's squad of superstars under Martinez.

"Roberto is a good man and an incredibly good head coach/football manager," he says. "The lovely detail he goes into, it's incredible, the passion he has, the style of play - that never changes whether he is at Swansea, Wigan, Everton, Belgium.

"It's been an amazing year I've been there and the amount I've learned under him is exceptional."

Joining the next generation of leaders

While still based in Glasgow, Maloney's own desire to learn has taken him to Arnhem and Amsterdam as part of the online and campus-based institute founded by former Netherlands forward Cruyff to educate "the next generation of leaders in sports management".

"The course I'm doing means you are learning from different sports and it has opened my mind to the coaching process," Maloney said. "It is a huge learning curve.

"It is a masters in coaching and it's been an amazing experience. I started it in February and hopefully I'll finish that in May. The professors there are from different sports with different ideas on coaching and it's been eye-opening."

Maloney is too streetwise, or just typically coy, to make any predictions about where all this gathered knowledge may eventually take him in his career.

"When I spent the year at Celtic at the academy, I had an idea and path where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there. And then, within 12 months, Roberto had phoned me and asked me to join him," he recalls. "So that path was not something I expected.

"I'm very happy in the role I'm in now and very motivated to do the best I can at that and I've committed to Belgium for two years. After that, I can't plan for anything specific."

Shaun Maloney coaches Celtic's youth team
Maloney started his coaching career with Celtic's youth team

Belgian mentality & Scottish knowledge

From Nou Camp to Anfield, Bundesliga to Serie A, Maloney traverses the world between international breaks assessing the form and qualities of Belgium's wealth of talent before assisting Martinez in ensuring their side are tactically aware, fit and mentally attuned for match day.

While their charges have marched imperiously to the top of Scotland's qualifying group with a 100% record, Maloney has had half a pained eye on his home country's failure to challenge for the two automatic spots leading to the Euro 2020 finals - and their reliance now on a possible backdoor entry via the play-offs.

Asked what Scotland could learn from Belgium's ability to punch above their weight in terms of population, he replies: "The players I played with at Scotland had a really good mentality. But when I watch the Belgian squad each day and when I watch the matches, in addition to the tactical intelligence and the technique, the one thing that impresses me is the mentality - no matter what the weather is like, the conditions, the opposition, they give 100% every day."

Maloney retains a belief that current head coach Steve Clarke will turn Scotland round in the way he did with Kilmarnock but suggests that the Scottish FA set-up could do a better job of helping upcoming coaches "tap into" the wealth of knowledge gathered by past top-class managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Gordon Strachan and Walter Smith.

However, when it is suggested that his own footballing education might one day result in him leading his country, Maloney goes no further than to reply: "It is an amazing job, but that's too far to be thinking about. Competing in next year's Euro finals and preparing for that - that's as far as I'm looking."