Dream is one step closer to reality for Maloney

Scotland's Shaun Maloney, left, celebrates his goal against Gibraltar during their UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier  at Hampden Park (Picture: PA).
Scotland's Shaun Maloney, left, celebrates his goal against Gibraltar during their UEFA Euro 2016 Qualifier at Hampden Park (Picture: PA).
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TBILISI and the capital of France may be more than 2,000 miles apart, but for Scotland’s footballers next year’s Euro 2016 finals are within touching distance.

The Scots sit third in Group D behind leaders Poland and Germany, two countries Gordon Strachan’s men have already visited.

It is a promising position and one that could lead to a first appearance at a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, coincidentally also held in France.

For Shaun Maloney, the promise of Scotland reaching a first 
finals in 18 years was a big factor in his move to Hull City last week after eight months in the United States with Chicago Fire.

The 32-year-old midfield player, a key figure in the Scots’ campaign with four goals in those half-dozen qualifiers, felt the long distance travelling was already 
affecting his game so called an early halt to his time on the other side of the Atlantic.

Tonight, he is expected to be part of the side that takes on Georgia in the capital Tbilisi.

Victory could, depending on how Germany get on at home to the Poles in Frankfurt, see the Scots move into second place and set them up nicely for Tuesday’s encounter with the group favourites at Hampden Park.

“We want to finish in the top two,” said Tigers signing Maloney. “That is the goal and the dream.

“We are certainly aware of how long it is since Scotland last qualified. It is brought up on a regular basis when doing the press up there. Not in a bad way, not at the moment, anyway.”

Scotland, not so long ago, were regular qualifiers for the major finals. They reached five consecutive World Cups between 1974 and 1990 before also making it to France ’98.

In the European Championships, the Tartan Army were also able to follow their team to Sweden in 1992 and England four years later.

The challenge, therefore, for Strachan’s men is to emulate those former players and book their place at next year’s finals.

If they do it, Maloney will have played a part with those four goals, which included the winner against the Republic of Ireland in Glasgow last November.

Asked about his impressive scoring ratio, Maloney said: “I have done okay in the qualifiers. Fingers crossed, I can score a couple more in the next few games as it is what happens from now on that matters.

“I came back from America because I want to be at my best. The position that the national team is in does weigh heavily on the mind.

“And if I was not going to be able to be at my best physically, I didn’t want to be like that. I had to prioritise, which is why I am so delighted to be at Hull.

“The MLS is a good league and I enjoyed it. But I had to get back to the UK.”

Maloney’s debut for the Tigers came in last Saturday’s 1-0 victory at home to Preston North End, a result that took Steve Bruce’s men up to second in the Championship.

Thanks to the expansion of the European Championships, second will be enough to book a place at next summer’s tournament.

Scotland’s fate will be decided by not only the current double-header but also next month’s, which will see Poland head to Hampden on October 8 before Strachan’s men round off their campaign against Gibraltar on the Algarve.

“There is a real sense of excitement and everyone is behind the national team,” said Maloney.

“The manager has turned it round. It was a pretty barren few years, but things are very exciting now.

“No matter how qualifying ends, there are good signs for the future squad and future campaigns.

“But we are totally focused on achieving what we all want –which is reaching a major finals. It is our dream.”

Maloney’s Scotland team-mate Russell Martin is convinced their team can make a major contribution to Euro 2016 – and is confident they will get the chance to back up his assertion.

“I expect us to be in France,” the Norwich defender said. “I believe that 100 per cent and I’m sure everyone in the squad would tell you the same.

“With the position we have put ourselves in now we all expect to get there, it’s as simple as that. If we don’t we will all be extremely disappointed, but we are confident we have enough in the group.

“We would add to it as a squad for sure, with what we’ve got,” he said, “and we’re desperate to show that now.

“We’ve put ourselves in a great position and we’re desperate to go out there and qualify and show what we’re about.

“We’re a proper team. We’re not about individuals, we don’t rely heavily on one person, we’re a proper team with togetherness and all of that. I think the people of Scotland enjoy watching us play.”