BY HIS own admission, James McFadden’s body language could be better. The long, languid stride is all very well for ghosting past opponents, but, as the years tick by, and questions start to be asked, it doesn’t do him any favours. “I have a ‘different’ running style,” he admits. “A lot of the time I look tired, but I don’t feel as tired as I look. People think ‘he’s blowing here’, but I’m not.”
In fact, if his daily commitments are any guide, the 31-year-old St Johnstone player is quite the bundle of energy. Apart from his determination to regain match fitness, as well as the form that has been lost in the last four, injury-hit years, there is the taxi service he provides for his four kids, the oldest of whom – eight-year-old James, also a footballer – is proving to be a chip off the old block. “He answers back a lot,” smiles his dad.
McFadden is a family man now, but he still hates days off, rather too many of which he has experienced since his release by Motherwell at the end of last season. Only last month, when St Johnstone needed a replacement for the injured Steven MacLean, was the former Scotland international able to end a short, but increasingly frustrating, period of unemployment.
He hasn’t yet recovered the sharpness of last season, never mind the form that established him as a poster boy for the Tartan Army, but there are signs of progress. While he was a late substitute in the defeat by Rangers on Tuesday, there were flashes of the old magic on Friday, when his former club were beaten at McDiarmid Park. “I can’t see it taking too long. As long as I get a decent run of games, hopefully I’ll get back to my best.”
Now, that would be something. McFadden’s best includes the carefree, early days of his first spell at Fir Park, five subsequent years in the Premier League with Everton, and 48 appearances for Scotland, for whom he also scored 15 goals, the pick of which, naturally, was the screamer that beat France in Paris seven years ago.
Scarcely a day passes without McFadden being reminded of his finest hour, a goal that ranks alongside Archie Gemmill’s in the nation’s hearts. He never tires of being asked about it. “It’s every time I meet somebody new,” he says. “Quite often people say ‘I remember where I was’ and ‘I was there’. The amount of people I’ve met that have said they were there is incredible. It’s frightening actually.”
McFadden has scored a few belters for Scotland, from the winner against Holland in 2003 to the solo effort that did for Macedonia six years later, but the turn and shot that dramatically upset France in 2007 was, like the result, so momentous and historic that he is appreciating its significance only now.
“I didn’t realise how special it was at the time. I don’t think we, as younger players, got it. But David Weir did. He was going around, getting his top signed by everybody, telling us to enjoy it, and never to forget. He knew exactly what it meant.”
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That seems a long time ago now, as does McFadden’s last game for Scotland, a 2-1 home win against Liechtenstein in 2010, when Craig Levein hauled him off at half-time and publicly questioned his workrate. Just ten days later, he was prevented from proving the manager wrong when cruciate ligament damage, sustained while playing for Birmingham City, sent his career into a downward spiral.
After his rehabilitation, there was a brief return to Everton and a short spell with Sunderland before he cut his losses and rejoined the club where it all began. That McFadden was allowed to depart even Motherwell, his spiritual home, makes you wonder if the problem is not so much the injuries – from which he has now recovered – or indeed the ageing process, but the kind of player he is.
McFadden is an entertainer, who prides himself on taking risks, which isn’t necessarily what clubs need at a time when budgets have shrunk and managers are under growing pressure.
“There are more athletes playing the game now. People look for strong, fit and fast before ability. It’s the safe option. You know exactly what they’re going to give you but, for me, you need a bit of unpredictability. Maybe one day he’s going to be a nine out of ten. On another day, he might be a five or a six, but at any point in that game, he could make the difference.”
For McFadden, being prepared to tolerate a degree of failure is not so much a mindset as a strategy. It is the price of adventure. He talks about his game of “cat and mouse” with the full-back, which is sometimes construed as indolence. “It’s not that you’re not wanting to [track back],” he explains. “You’re just trying get in a position where, if we win the ball back, you’re in the clear.”
McFadden wonders if he is misunderstood. He admits he had a stinker on that fateful night at Hampden four years ago, but the manager’s claim that he was “lazy” has dogged him since. Asked if that remark has influenced potential employers, he says: “I think so. I think a lot of people changed their opinion at that point. He said it. Then I got injured and I never played for a while. That was years ago now, but it’s hard to shake. I wouldn’t be playing games if I didn’t work hard. I’m not good enough to not work hard. There is this perception that I’m a luxury player, but it’s just not the case. You can’t get away with not putting a shift in. I’d never in my life been accused by any manager of being lazy until that time.”
McFadden has worked for a range of them, from Berti Vogts and David Moyes to Stuart McCall and now Tommy Wright. He says that Alex McLeish – Scotland and Birmingham City – is the one who trusted him most, although there is a special mention also for Terry Butcher and Eric Black, who knew what made him tick during his first spell at Motherwell.
Those were the days when he was young, free to make mistakes and able to add his distinctive flourish to a colourful Scottish football landscape. More than a decade later, he is enjoying being back in his homeland, where his kids are starting school, and he can watch James junior play on a Sunday afternoon, but the game here is not what it used to be.
“It’s obvious to everybody its gone backwards as a product. We’ve not even got a sponsor for the league. We were talking about it the other night. When you used to go to Ibrox, it was Numan, the De Boers, top, top international players, but not anymore.”
The good news is that there is now room for young Scots to develop. The bad news is that English clubs are picking them up for peanuts. “Apart from Dundee United, who have managed to get top dollar, we have good, young players who are going for maybe 100 grand. Look at Stevie May last year. He scored 27 goals and he goes for £800,000. It doesn’t seem right.”
McFadden, though, has ambitions here, like winning a trophy. His only medal was with Birmingham City, when they won the 2011 Carling Cup, but he had just got rid of the crutches, and he watched the final in his suit. He would like the kids to see something of the player he once was, and he would love, if at all possible, another Scotland cap, so that his last was not that miserable night four years ago.
“It’s a massive regret,” he says. “If I hadn’t got injured, I believe I could have forced my way back in. I don’t think I would have been ostracised. I don’t think Craig Levein would have kicked me out of the squad. I could have changed his opinion.
“At the moment, I just need to get back playing. I need to concentrate on getting match fit and firing, then take it from there. Gordon Greer plays, and he’s older than me. Kris Boyd got back in last year. Craig Gordon has come back. I don’t think the door is ever closed.”
Another international appearance would also move him to within one of a landmark that would be in keeping with his contribution to the national side. “I’m two short of 50 caps, which is a sore one, but that’s life. If I finish my career and I’ve finished two short of the Hall of Fame, I’ll be happy. I’ve still managed to play 48 times for my country. Nobody can take that away.”
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