Between 2002 and 2010 James McFadden won 48 caps for Scotland, scored 15 times (including that winner against France in Paris) and was generally seen as the “go-to guy” for goals by the Tartan Army, who idolised him.
According to the Oxford Handy Dictionary, a talisman is “an object supposed to be endowed with magic powers… or bringing good luck to its holder”. Few fans would have quibbled about McFadden being described in such a fashion.
He was Scotland’s talisman, an extravagantly gifted footballer capable of making opponents look foolish while conjuring up the unexpected. Both effective and aesthetically pleasing, his career was ended prematurely due to a series of injuries, and his flair and gallusness have been sorely missed.
He is convinced, though, that his replacement has been found, hailing Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths as the man most likely to succeed in Slovenia this evening.
Griffiths took time to win over his doubters (including Scotland manager Gordon Strachan), but he has now established himself as an automatic selection. McFadden admits he has been surprised and delighted at the way Griffiths has worked to improve his game under Brendan Rodgers and Strachan.
At 27, he is approaching his peak years and the Slovenians may be on the receiving end in Ljubljana.
“It’s been brilliant watching him progress,” said McFadden. “When he was scoring his goals regularly for Celtic but still not getting in for Scotland, Gordon obviously wanted a bit more from him. He’s doing that now. As a natural goalscorer, he’ll be raging about not getting one against Slovakia but he does so well for the team.
“Sometimes he comes a bit too short for my liking but he moves off the front, gets on the half turn and fires in shots from the edge of the box. He also gets crosses in, gets on the end of crosses… his game has evolved so much.
“Gordon says he’s the first name on the team sheet now and he’s one you just feel is likely to score every time he plays. He’s found his rhythm. He’s the No.1 striker for Celtic, No.1 for Scotland; everyone is looking for him to be the man and he does it well. He holds the ball up, causes problems for opponents, occupies the centre-backs and always seems to get a chance.”
Griffiths was Scotland’s Player of the Year in 2016 after scoring 40 goals for Ronny Deila’s Premiership-winning side. Yet he was frustrated at not starting under Strachan and being restricted to the bench at Parkhead as Rodgers selected Moussa Dembele ahead of him.
McFadden says Griffiths deserves credit for his mature response to the situation he found himself in. “He could easily have sat there and said: ‘Well, I score goals, so I should be playing.’ But, instead, he worked hard and changed his game – added to it. We’ve been saying for years that we need a No 9, someone to lead the line, and he’s doing it now. Okay, he went a wee while without getting his first goal but he brings so much more to the team now.
“Everyone is backing him because of the form he’s in for club and country. It was great play from him to set up the goal against Slovakia the other night.”
And McFadden is hoping the momentum Strachan’s team has generated can take them all the way to Russia. “I’d be thrilled for everybody but especially for Craig Gordon and Darren Fletcher, two boys who have had so much to deal with off the pitch in terms of their injuries and illness,” he said. “It would be absolutely fantastic; there would be no bitterness from me, only support.”
McFadden was speaking at a William Hill event. William Hill is a proud sponsor of the Scottish national team.