BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Scott Malone says he has a point to prove after sealing a Millwall return – and that includes proving to himself that he is still Championship class.
The 29-year-old has made 203 appearances in England’s second tier, plus 22 in the Premier League for Huddersfield Town, and is an experienced addition to Gary Rowett’s squad.
But Malone sounds motivated to answer any doubters after a season-long loan switch from Derby.
“I haven’t started a league game for 10 months with Covid and everything else that has gone on,” he told the South London Press. “My last one was Reading away [in December 2019]. I’ve only started three cup games since then.
“Do I have to prove something? Yeah, a little bit – but to myself as well. Because when you’re not playing regularly you start doubting yourself a little bit. Have my best days gone? I don’t think they have.
“I’m 29 and I’m fitter than I’ve ever felt, apart from a little match sharpness, which everyone is lacking at this stage because it’s been such a short break before the start of the season.
“I just want to play well again, enjoy my football and help Millwall get higher than they did last year – that’s the aim.”
Malone clocked up 35 games for the Rams in the 2018-19 campaign as they reached the play-offs – he sat out of facing Aston Villa at Wembley due to a red card in the second leg of their epic encounter with Leeds at Elland Road.
But after another dismissal against Reading the following December he was only used four more times in the league as a late substitute by Phillip Cocu.
“I played a lot under Frank [Lampard] and Jody [Morris] and it was a great season, personally and collectively,” explained Malone. “I was on a high after that.
“I started last season and everything was going well and then I got sent off four minutes into the Reading game and didn’t really feature after that.
“It’s just football, we all know what it is like. The manager said he wanted to go down a different route and I respect that. I wanted to play but you’re a footballer and do what you’re told. I was as professional as I could be. I always did that at Derby – there was no falling out.
“I had a great relationship with everyone there. We both came to the decision I needed something a bit new and to be playing again.”
Malone had been dismissed for bringing down Yakou Meite as the Royals attacker was shaping to shoot.
Asked if that dismissal had killed his Derby career, he replied: “I don’t know. It could’ve been that but it might not have been.
“You’ll never know. If I didn’t get sent off you could probably argue I would’ve featured a little bit more but without knowing all the facts I’ve got no idea. It’s in the past. You learn from it and I’ll try not to get sent off again, which will be a positive!”
Malone is a free agent next summer and wanted to nail down a move away from Pride Park as quickly as possible.
“I didn’t want to wait,” said the former England U19 international. “I wanted to get back down to an area and a club I know.
“I’m not thinking too far ahead. I keep mentioning Covid, but no-one knows what is going to be happening in 12 months or 24 months. I could’ve stayed at Derby, where my family is, and picked up my money and just thought I won’t play for 12 months. But I couldn’t do that. I did it for nine or 10 months already and it wasn’t nice.
“In fact I’d go as far as saying it is the worst feeling I’ve had in my career. It’s the longest stint I haven’t played for.”
It’s a new challenge for Malone in familiar surroundings.
He played 71 matches for the Lions before being sold to Cardiff City in January 2015.
So where does Malone feel he has played his best football in a nomadic career which has taken in the likes of Ujpest, Southend and AFC Bournemouth?
“I’d say Fulham was my best spell – goals-wise and assists-wise. The way we played, with me and Freddo [Ryan Fredericks] as the full-backs. We kept the ball and it really suited our style of play. But second to that would be Millwall. It wasn’t a great start under Kenny Jackett, I played the first few and then he reverted back to Shane Lowry.
“I didn’t play for six months but I stayed professional, kept working hard and eventually I got back in the side. The season before I left I got runner up in the Player of the Year award to David Forde, which was a good achievement.”
Millwall finished eighth – just two points behind sixth-placed Swansea last season. And Malone, who lost a play-off semi-final to Reading with Fulham, sees no reason for the SE16 outfit to dial down expectations.
“The top-six is definitely achievable,” he said.
“I know every club who finished mid-table upwards will always say they can make it – but we can.
“The group dynamics we have got are incredible. I’ve only been here a week and it’s one of the best squads I’ve seen for that. There is a collective togetherness and desire to work for each other. Even for the friendlies they get so hyped up. It made me go ‘wow, I’ve never seen this before – this is different’.
“When you add that to the performances on the pitch it means we should be optimistic.”
Malone is good pals with Mason Bennett, 24, who also joined from Derby last week.
“He seems to have been around for 20 years but he’s still young,” said Malone. “He is so explosive and he can beat anyone if he knocks the ball down the line.
“If we keep him fit he’ll be one of the best widemen in the league.”
PICTURES: BRIAN TONKS
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