Shaun Maloney doesn’t hang about. The ball comes out on to the left, with seemingly little danger. He does his trademark step-over, swivels left, faints and zips it into the box. The ball ends up in the net. Just like that. And this exceptional piece of artistry from the Scot subsequently won Wigan the game against West Brom on the weekend to ease their relegation worries.
Maloney had produced a wonderful last-gasp free-kick against Queens Park Rangers the previous month to salvage a priceless point and although not getting on the score-sheet at the Hawthorns, his incisive contribution meant just as much. Not only did he create two of Wigan’s three goals, he was at the fulcrum of everything the side did in an attacking sense.
It’s been hard work cementing his place in the first-team, though, since his arrival just two years ago. Signed for a bargain price of £850,000, injuries hampered Maloney’s chances before he made an impressive cameo against Norwich after coming off the bench last season, which signalled the start of more opportunities under manager Roberto Martinez.
This campaign, Maloney has played the starring role in not only Wigan’s brave battle against relegation but their endearing Cup run. He’s played over 30 times, scoring six and making nine assists. Martinez’s clever deployment of the diminutive midfielder has reaped the benefits. With the highly-rated James McCarthy and tenacious James McCarthur anchoring the midfield, it enables Maloney to push forward and do what he does best: create chances.
He was originally a striker in his formative years but at Celtic he was transformed into a deeper role due to his height. In an interview with FourFourTwo Magazine in 2002 when Maloney was just 19, he said:
If there’s anyone I model my game on, it would be Michael Owen. He’s worked hard on his game over the past couple of years to add to his natural pace and he’s a good role model for young players.
In many ways, Owen’s attributes are similar to Maloney’s: Quick, inventive and blessed with extraordinary vision.
There are exciting times ahead for Wigan, with an appearance in the FA Cup Final imminent. Survival in the Premier League is the primary objective, says Martinez, but wouldn’t it be magical if the club could put the cherry on the cake and win some long-awaited silverware? Maloney will surely be an essential part of that and he recently explained:
Winning trophies at a club like this probably isn’t the first thing on your mind at the start of the season, but as each round comes along you get more excited. Once it gets within touching distance then you start to believe. We are a good team and on any given day I think we can beat any team. We are hoping that happens in the cup final.
In terms of domestic action, Wigan have three challenging matches still to contend with. A midweek encounter with Swansea is followed by a tough trip to Arsenal and a crucial end-of-season finale against fellow relegation candidates Aston Villa – which could well determine either club’s fate. If they are to pull off another one of their great escapes, then surely Maloney will be at the forefront of it.