Shaun Maloney is Scotland’s reluctant hero-in-waiting. The Celtic attacker could not have looked less comfortable with his new-found status if he had been smothered in James McFadden’s oversized training gear at Cameron House yesterday.

Modesty and intelligence are two of Maloney’s most prominent personality traits. It can be a nightmare combination for journalists with a line of inquiry to pursue. The absence of McFadden through suspension has createda a vacancy for a new tartan talisman against Holland at Hampden Park tonight. Their stylistic differences could not be more contrasting yet Maloney is expected to be the beneficiary of the international icon’s absence for the final chapter of Scotland’s complex World Cup qualifying adventure.

“We don’t know what the starting 11 is yet; hopefully I will play, but it would be a bit disrespectful to assume I was going to be in it,” was Maloney’s initial response to whether he can fill Faddy’s boots. Frankly, such reason and perspective was unacceptable in this week of all weeks.

Maloney goes about his business quietly. It may prove a stealthier weapon with which to slay the runaway winners of Group 9
tomorrow night. The diminutive dynamo has thrived at Celtic under the liberal coaching style of Tony Mowbray. His return to Celtic from Aston Villa had been hampered by injury, a faint whiff of lingering ill-feeling over his departure in the first place and the prominence of Aiden McGeady and Shunsuke Nakamura during his underwhelming stay in the Midlands.

He made a notable impression on Macedonia when he replaced Steven Fletcher after 66 minutes on Saturday. He arrived 10 minutes after Scott Brown headed Scotland into the lead but was instrumental in debilitating the visitors thereafter. His surging runs, effortless close control and ability to change direction will all be valuable qualities in unlocking a Dutch defence that may include his club-mate, Glenn Loovens, a rookie at this level.

Maloney is no McFadden: he is quicker but less 
skilful; more direct but less improvisational; smaller but more elusive. He may not be able to replicate the sheer majesty of McFadden’s slalom special on Saturday but he is more than capable of executing a few of his own trademark treats. “We will need someone to step forward,” he said, briefly threatening to live up to his billing, “but it might not be just one individual person.

“In recent times, Faddy has been the one who has seemed to produce something magical; a brilliant goal that seems to get us results. I don’t think it matters what type of goal, you would take any one whether it is a great goal like Faddy’s or a tap-in. Anything that would help us get a result – I don’t think the type matters on this occasion.”

David Weir has already endorsed Maloney’s credentials for a must-win game “but I think he’s just been speaking to the press and felt obliged to say that” said Maloney, showing a worrying perceptiveness of the media game. Burley is expected to adopt a 4-4-2 formation to counteract Holland’s fluid blend of total football. Gary Caldwell may return as a holding midfielder beside Darren Fletcher, with Maloney and Scott Brown operating on the flanks. Selection would complete Maloney’s patient return to prominence for club and country.

“I should have scored against Macedonia,” he said, having woven a path straight through to the goalkeeper, Jane Nikoloski. “I let the ball get away from me a bit but it was still nice to get on for a little bit and you just feel a bit more a part of it when you come on like that.

“I’ve been trying to establish myself in the squad and be part of the starting 11 for quite a while. I think form for your club is a big part of that and if I can continue what I started at the club this season and stay fit then, hopefully, that will come.”

Maloney was named player of the year and young player of the year in Gordon Strachan’s first season at Celtic but left, in somewhat acrimonious circumstances, to reunite with Martin O’Neill at Villa Park; signing a pre-contract agreement in January 2007 then moving immediately for £1m after a dispute between Celtic and his agent. He was a fringe player at Villa but the home bird has rediscovered his contentment second time around at Celtic Park.

Maloney’s new-found happiness is a major bonus to George Burley as he calls in reinforcements to his depleted squadron. With a play-off still possible, Maloney acknowledges there is no further margin for error in what has been a turbulent campaign. “It’s always been the case that we probably need the win,” he said. “We’ve seen the tables of other groups and if we get a point then we really are on the edge. A point? I don’t think that would be enough.”

Celtic’s early start to the season has helped equip Maloney with an idea of what to expect. He has faced an Arsenal side who have adopted the Dutch philosophy of free-flowing football, with Robin van Persie the focal point of the attack for Arsene Wenger and Bert van Marwijk.

“Hopefully playing the Dutch won’t be like playing Arsenal but that’s probably right,” he said of the stylistic comparisons with the team that forcibly ended Celtic’s Champions League interests. “The way they play football and the type of players they have will make it a similar game. We know how difficult it’s going to be because you see Holland’s record and the way they have been playing throughout the group.

“We are massive underdogs, but at the same time we are at home, we need to win and we will just give it everything we have.”

He was predictably scornful of suggestions Holland will arrive half-heartedly having long since secured their place in South Africa. “I’ve seen bits of their manager saying the opposite – that they are going to be 100% committed to playing their strongest side – so I can’t imagine it not being that way. It’s your country, isn’t it? You give your all for your country whether you have qualified or not.”

The wee man might just have a big say in solving Scotland’s qualification conundrum.