Maloney's feat seals triumphant recovery

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The Independent Football

Shaun Maloney has made history by being named as both Player and Young Player of the season by his fellow professionals - a feat never achieved before. He could now cap what he describes as the best campaign of his career by signing a new deal at Celtic.

The 23-year-old striker revealed how he had been on the verge of leaving Parkhead. A cruciate knee ligament injury, sustained in February 2004, left Maloney having to learn to walk properly again and it would be nine months before he would make his comeback for the reserves.

Maloney was determined to make great strides in the first team again but feared he might not be given that opportunity under the new manager, Gordon Strachan, who replaced Martin O'Neill last summer.

He considered a loan move to secure first-team football but a phenomenal effort in pre-season was enough to convince Strachan he had a decent player on his hands and Maloney became a mainstay of the Celtic team which went on to win the title. When asked if this had been his make-or-break season, he said: "It could have been if things had turned out differently. After missing the whole of last year, I definitely wouldn't have wanted to go through another year of not playing football."

O'Neill had shown his faith in the young striker by sanctioning a new contract while Maloney was still going through the rehabilitation process. But he had to prove to himself he was still good enough to be a Celtic player.

He added: "I knew myself that I had to try to step up to the plate a little bit. I had to justify to myself and my team-mates that I was good enough to be in the team. There have been a few of the senior players who have helped me through that."

One of those players was John Hartson and Maloney is thrilled his fellow striker will see out the remaining year of his contract. Hartson had considered quitting Celtic in the summer to return to his native Wales to be closer to his children, but he revealed at the weekend his plans to stay at Parkhead. Maloney said: "It's a big boost because I think there was some uncertainty within himself. I don't know his family situation but to have him back for next year is massive."

Maloney has held talks with club officials about his own Celtic future and he added: "If all the circumstances are right, I would love to sign. I've enjoyed it so much this year and I've got a lot of time for the fans and the management so, if everything is right, then I would love to stay."

Meanwhile, the Hearts player Rudi Skacel has rejected accusations from the Celtic captain, Neil Lennon, that he spat at him during Sunday's 3-0 victory over the champions at Tynecastle. The Northern Irishman made the claims about the Czech, who had been at the centre of a spitting row earlier in the season involving Dundee United's Stuart Duff, to the referee, Alan Freeland, before being taken off by Strachan. Television replays were inconclusive but Hearts felt it necessary to make a response on their player's behalf.

A Hearts spokesperson said: "Rudi strenuously denies any of the reported allegations made by Neil Lennon. The player is deeply offended and is furious at the associated implication of these remarks."