Wigan’s Shaun Maloney: Sir Alex is God-like – my dad could never convert me to Arsenal

Shaun Maloney

As the words “Sir Alex” leave Shaun Maloney’s lips, the Wigan manager is visibly moved. From a meeting room at the club’s modest training ground, Maloney is looking ahead to Monday’s FA Cup third-round tie against Manchester United.

Anyone suggesting the tournament has lost its sheen, would do well to spend a little time with Maloney. Although he grew up in Aberdeen, his loyalties were split equally between Celtic and United. Why the latter? Simple: Sir Alex Ferguson.

“He had God-like status. He still does. My father was an Arsenal fan, but he didn’t convert me. As a child, I travelled down to Manchester United on the supporters’ buses. They were very long trips, getting back at four or five in the morning.

“I was at the Bayern Munich group game in December 1998, the season United won the treble. Roy Keane scored, and I was a row or two from the back of what is now the Sir Alex stand. I’ll never forget that.”

Maloney pauses momentarily. Telegraph Sport is about to pose another question when Maloney begins again. “I can get a bit patriotic – the links with Scotland, with Aberdeen, with Denis Law, it created an affinity with that club that I felt.”

Maloney is engaging, at times enchanting, company. His deep love for football’s history shines through. A wide grin stretches across his face as he recounts schoolboy life at Celtic.

John Clark – one of the Lisbon Lions, Celtic’s 1967 European Cup winning side – was the kit manager and barely a day passed without a former team-mate visiting for tea. Maloney would always eavesdrop. “And my first year as a professional was a crazy year for Celtic,” he recalls. “John Barnes; Kenny Dalglish; Ian Wright. We still had Henrik [Larsson]. [Mark] Viduka. Paul Lambert. An incredible year to be a 16-year-old cleaning boots.”

The goosebumps are palpable as he recalls one of his “favourite nights ever”. All it involved was him listening to Hugh McIlvanney recounting tales of Jock Stein, Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Ferguson. Being so consciously studious meant a shift to management was perhaps preordained.

Shaun Malloney - Wigan’s Maloney: Sir Alex is God-like – my dad could never convert me to Arsenal
Maloney learned a lot during his time at Celtic - Laurence Griffths/Getty Images

Against United, Maloney has a chance to make new history. He is already part of Wigan’s tapestry from his playing days. Back then, times were very different. The club was in the top-flight. His 15 Latics goals include the winner in what is, to date, their solitary victory over United. That was April 2012, and a year later Maloney set-up Ben Watson’s Wembley winner. Manchester City were defeated, and Wigan lifted the FA Cup.

Shaun Maloney with the FA Cup
Maloney set up Ben Watson's FA Cup final winner as Wigan shocked Manchester City in 2013 - Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

“I remember having a real confidence,” Maloney explains, when asked about his memories of that occasion. “That was one of the great gifts Roberto [Martinez] had – in the biggest games, his behaviour or his level of calm never changed. Good or bad. Whether you’d won or lost.”

Martinez’s influence is a theme that runs through the conversation. The Spaniard has been central to Maloney’s life. Sat in the same room, on the same chair, in his Glasgow flat, Maloney received pair of career-altering phone calls from Martinez.

The first came in late August 2011. Maloney’s second Celtic spell had been decimated by injury, and Martinez took him to the Premier League with Wigan. The second came seven years later. Maloney had recently retired and was coaching Celtic’s B side.

He and Martinez, by then the Belgium manager, had exchanged “the odd text” and the pair had reconnected by chance during Celtic’s Champions League trip to RSC Anderlecht 11 months before.

Maloney, though, had no inkling of the forthcoming job offer, assuming the call was player-related.

“The first part was about Dedryck [Boyata],” Maloney explains, his eyes twinkling at the memory. “But the second part was to offer me a job as one of his assistants.

“I’ll forever be grateful for Roberto. I’d had two real problems with injury at Celtic, and he gambled on me. He then took me from an Under-19 team to the Belgium national team.

“I can’t put into words what he’s done for my career as a player, career as a coach. When somebody has such a positive impact on your career and, ultimately, your family’s lives – I’ll forever be grateful. Anything he ever needs from me anytime; he knows I’m there for him.”

Shaun Maloney, Roberto Martinez and the FA Cup trophy
Roberto Martinez has a close bond with Maloney after managing him at Wigan and employing him as a coach for Belgium - Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Following three-and-a-half years with Belgium, Maloney delved into club management with Hibernian. He loved the club, the city, the history. “But unfortunately, the relationships with key people broke down after a month.” Maloney was jobless three months later. It felt “in part like relief because of how uncomfortable” things had become.

And it also required some soul-searching, something Maloney felt inclined to do because of the masters in coaching he had by then obtained from the Johan Cruyff Institute. After a period of healing, Maloney assembled his staff to pick over the bones. “It was about really having to delve deep and be quite honest with myself.  It was the best thing we could have done. It really gave me clarity and understanding that ‘alright, not everything we did was wrong.’ And basically, I prepared for the next job.”

Wigan was that next job. Maloney was nearly appointed in November 2022, the role instead going to Kolo Toure. Just 59 days later, Toure was sacked, and Maloney arrived with Wigan four points adrift in the Championship.

Despite an uptick in results, relegation followed. Yet given the context and the club’s perilous finances, Maloney is rightly “proud” of those few months.

The owner – Abdulrahman Al Jasmi, who had rescued Wigan from administration in 2021 – could no longer financially support football operations. Wages were consistently delayed. How did he deal with the issue of an unpaid workforce? “I made it very clear to them that I would not judge anyone for not working when they weren’t getting paid. But when they did turn up to work, I expected everything that they had.”

Post-relegation, worse was to come. Unpaid taxes led to a winding-up order issued by HMRC. For more than a fortnight, “we didn’t know if the club was still going to be here the next day.

“It should have been on the profile of players, how to defend, how to attack, but my sole focus was creating presentations to show that we could run the football side in a very, very different way. We wanted to make it as self-sustainable as we could.”

Shaun Maloney, Manager of Wigan Athletic applauds the team
Life as Wigan manager has not been easy for Maloney but he has impressed during his time at the DW Stadium - Matt McNulty /Getty Images

Eventually, billionaire Mike Danson swooped in and the rebuild began. Hampered by an eight-point deduction and barred by EFL regulations from paying transfer fees until next summer, Maloney’s focus is on youth. Four of his five most used players this season are 21 or younger; among them goalkeeper Sam Tickle, who received a maiden England Under-21 call-up in September.

“This season on the pitch is going to be a constant fight. Even when we lost one game in 11, we were never really away from that bottom four. We lose three in a row and bang, we’re straight back in it.”

Maloney admits progress off the field is necessarily slow. Eventually, he wants to “bring back the DNA” of Wigan and Swansea of old. All roads, it seems, lead to Martinez.

“The other thing is I want it to be exciting. Last year, we had to make us very hard to beat and it must have been hard to watch. But I hope this season, if anyone asks ‘is it exciting to watch Wigan?’, the fans say they at least enjoy the 90 minutes they spend watching us.”

Maloney sees the United game as something of a “reward” for all those involved at Wigan. Players; supporters; owner alike.

Victory would undoubtedly be the high of Maloney’s fledgling coaching career to date. He knows that to prosper on such occasions there has to be exceptional moments.

“It’s my job to put players in certain areas,” he said. “But it’s also my job to give them the belief that they can do it. You always need a little bit of luck, but we’ve got talent. I know it’s there. I need to help them believe that they can show it on the biggest stage.”

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