Big interview: Jamie Maclaren on Hibs, Hearts, World Cup '“ and his Darmstadt hell
Jamie Maclaren made a dream move to Germany convinced it would help him cement his place in Australia's squad for this summer's World Cup finals in Russia.
Instead, it turned into a nightmare, the striker forced to watch on his mobile phone as the Socceroos qualified with a play-off win against Honduras.
And that, the new Hibs signing revealed, was the moment he realised he had to get out of Bundesliga II outfit Darmstadt if he was to have any hope of being part of football’s biggest jamboree.
Although he still has two years of his deal left, Maclaren is convinced six months in Edinburgh – original home to his father Don, who was once on Hearts’ books – will help him win back the place he lost in the Aussie squad as his move to Germany turned sour.
Maclaren said: “The reason I left Australia to go to Germany was to progress and become a Socceroo at every camp. Instead, the six months in Germany became ones to forget.
“When I first signed my contract, I was told we’d play with two strikers and the contract that was given to me was one I couldn’t refuse.
“I rocked up after the Confederations Cup to do pre-season in Austria and everything that happened compared to what I had been told was completely different. The manager was playing with one striker and we went through a spell where we didn’t win for 11 games and I was sitting on the bench thinking, ‘I can help’.
“So it was frustrating training every day knowing I wasn’t going to get a chance when I felt I should.
“But I stayed professional. I lost my spot in the national team as well.
“The last two years I had played regularly – the last six months I have struggled to string games together.
“And when you lose your spot in the national team, your head kind of goes ‘I was with the boys at the camp they had before they qualified for the World Cup’.
“The play-off against Honduras was the sad part. The game was in the morning, German time, and I got to training and the boys were saying, ‘is your team playing’ and I had to say, ‘yeah, and I’m sitting here watching it on my phone’.
“It was so hard to watch, especially the celebrations afterwards when they qualified. That is when it hit home: ‘I can be here until January, but then I need to go’. And I was sitting in Germany when they were in Sydney celebrating having qualified knowing I should have been there.
“That really hit home that it wasn’t the right spot for me.
“So I told my agent I had to go somewhere in January for my mental space, to be happy and to put myself back on the radar. Our Socceroos manager [Ange Postecoglou] has resigned, so we don’t have anyone right now.
“From a personal point of view, I just needed to get out. I signed a three-year deal there so it’s one of those things – you need to take a step back to go forward.”
The initial response from Darmstadt boss Dirk Schuster, who had replaced Thorsten Frings, the man who brought Maclaren to Germany, was not to let him go, but the player said: “I was already beyond the point of no return.
“I was in Rome with my fiancée Iva and I basically begged him to let me go on loan, whether it meant taking a pay cut or anything.”
Coincidentally, Maclaren and Iva had been in Edinburgh – a city he has visited frequently and where his Hearts-supporting grandfather lives in Corstorphine – for a few days before Christmas when rumours began to fly around that both Capital clubs were interested in signing him for the rest of the season.
He said: “There was talk of me going to a Belgium or Holland on loan, but then you have the language barrier and settling in. My fiancée, Iva, has come over from Australia as well, so it’s important to me that she’s happy as well.
“What better place than Edinburgh? It’s a beautiful place and I have those family ties and mates over here.
“We’ll have somewhere to be every night and it just feels right. It’s a bit like home and I’m sure my dad will fly across when he can.”
Asked how close Hearts had come to signing him, Maclaren said: “I was letting my agent deal with it and there was a moment when he came back to me and said ‘Hibs have come in with more proposals’. Darmstadt had the last say, really. It was in their best interests to accept the offer which was better for them, and Hibs came in with more force.
“It showed they wanted me. Hibs were pushing hard and I had to make a decision, but there’s no bad blood as far as I’m concerned. I know it’s a big derby, but for me it wasn’t a case of picking one over the other. It was that Darmstadt held all the cards – I’m happy to be here.”
The fact his debut could well come at Tynecastle when Hibs travel across the city to face their arch-rivals for the third successive season in the Scottish Cup hasn’t, of course, been lost on Maclaren.
He said: “It was the first thing I noticed when I looked at the fixture list! Obviously I’m going to cop a bit of flak, but it will be great to be involved in a match like that. I’ve been involved in some big games before and I can’t wait to sample this one.
“It’s my dad’s hometown. I’m sure my grandad will be at the game, and it will be a feeling that’ll stay with me forever.
“It will be a goosebumps moment.
“My grandad will probably be a Hibs fan for the next six months – I know that because he has already been asking me for tickets to the derby, and he’ll be going in the Hibs end! After that, he’ll be a Jambo again.”
Although now firmly committed to Australia, Maclaren did play two under-19 games for Scotland thanks to his father who once played alongside the likes of Eamonn Bannon, Walter Kidd and Bobby Prentice at Hearts.
The Melbourne-born player said: “‘My first international call-up was for Scotland. I couldn’t believe it, but I hadn’t been picked for Australia so I thought, ‘why not?’ As soon as I played for Scotland, the Aussies were straight on the phone, asking me to make a decision. I thought it was a bit cheeky from them. I was just 17 at the time and I’d already had some problems with Australia when I moved to Blackburn Rovers.
“They had this rule that if you didn’t have a British passport they made it difficult for you. But I had a British passport and they still made my registration difficult. I was out of football for five months without a competitive game because the Australian federation stopped me.
“I was a bit annoyed about that. They stopped me for playing for five months and now they wanted me to play for them.
“I delayed it a bit but eventually I called Billy Stark – who was a good coach – and I told him I was choosing Australia.
“But I loved playing for Scotland and the Flower of Scotland song beforehand. It was a fantastic experience.
“Dylan McGeouch, Callum McGregor, Callum Tapping and Joe McKee were all in the squad that played Denmark twice over there. I’ve kept close with some of those boys and it’s great to see them kicking on in their careers.
“Also I was in the Blackburn youth academy with Anthony O’Connor, who is now at Aberdeen. He’s already texted me to say he’s looking forward to kicking me.
“The call from Australia probably would have come somewhere down the line but it’s funny how one thing happens and then they got in touch. But I believe everything happens for a reason and I’m thankful my first international games were for Scotland because it’s a country I’m familiar with and fond of.
“I’ve still got my Scotland shirt, signed and up on the wall at home. It’s something I will always be proud of.
“I’ve actually got three nationalities. My mum was born in Malta and before I played for the Socceroos I got a call asking me to play for them.”
And if Maclaren’s family ties tend to lie to towards the other side of the Capital, his first taste of football actually came at Easter Road.
He recalled: “As a kid, I used to come over with the family and when I was at Blackburn I’d come up to see my grandad every second weekend. When I played for Scotland Under-19s I’d go to Edinburgh to see my grandad then through to Glasgow.
“It’s a city I’ve always visited, but I’d not been here since 2013. Coming back brought back so many memories, the streets, the castle, which I loved as a kid. It’s a city that’s so easy on the eye and I’m delighted to be back.
“I’ve not been at an Edinburgh derby, but my first Scottish game was Hibs v Dundee at Easter Road in 1999. I was in the stand with my dad, his best mate and my brother. It will be nice to be on the pitch at Easter Road for real.
“I’m just happy to be here and I’m sure I will have family and friends at most games.”