‘Scapegoat’ James McFadden rejects Levein’s accusation he was lazy and explains to Tom English why he’d love to play for Scotland again
SO there he was, lying in his hospital bed, eight months of his career already lost because of a ruptured knee, eight months of living with that Liechtenstein disaster and not being able to do a damn thing about it. He’s coming round after the operation. He’s groggy but alert enough to notice the specialist in the room, the specialist with the kind of expression on his face that spelled trouble.
“Just a clean-out, James.” That’s what they told him beforehand. “Routine.” That was the vibe. Now he’s being told something different. “You’re talking three more months on the sidelines, maybe six – that’s if you come back at all.”
“I can’t guarantee that everything is going to be all right.”
“But this was just a clean-out. You said I might be back in two weeks!”
“After looking at the knee I can’t say at this point in time whether you will play football again or not.”
It was April 2011 and, suddenly, the gallus one wasn’t so gallus anymore. James McFadden had a month before his next session with the specialist, a month to ponder the future, if he was the type that went in for pondering, which luckily he is not. “Things go through your head and you wonder about retirement and that, but I managed to put it in the back of my mind to be honest. I just put it back there and left it there. I’m good at that.”
A month passed and the news was better. He’d play again right enough but, when the knee healed, the hamstring went and, when the hamstring was fixed, it was the groin that was the problem. That was a month ago. Felt a twinge in training with Everton and pulled up as a precaution. He was hoping it was nothing but, when your luck is out, it always ends up being something. A tear. Momentum checked. And now here he is on this Thursday afternoon on Merseyside talking about his wretched 18 months, a period that has seen him start the sum total of one game (for Everton against Tamworth in the FA Cup last month) with just two more appearances off the bench. Eighteen months and 77 minutes of football.
Not much action on the field, but all sorts off it. Where do we begin? Well, there’s only one place really. Euro 2012 qualifier, Hampden, 7 September, 2010. Scotland v Liechtenstein – a 2-1 victory snatched from the jaws of utter humiliation by a 97th-minute goal from Steven McManus. The last and the worst of McFadden’s 48 caps. The artist formerly known as The Fadiator substituted at half-time by Craig Levein and later humiliated by the Scotland manager’s remarks.
“I had a shiter, there’s no hiding from it,” says McFadden.
Strange week, that. Remember? Levein picked McFadden wide left and Kris Boyd up front and never seemed sure about his team selection. In the build-up, either consciously or sub-consciously, Levein started to pile the pressure high on McFadden. “We need to play with passion and aggression, but everyone has to buy into it,” he said. “Is it a gamble to play James? I think previous managers have wondered what to do with him.”
Not exactly. Previous managers got the best out of him, Alex McLeish in particular. But not Levein. The night was a personal calamity and Levein wasted no time in putting the boot in. Called him lazy and said that he learned a lesson about picking him again.
“The whole week was set up in a way that the only outcome was for me and Boydy to fail. It was the first time I’ve ever been called lazy in my life and any manager I’ve worked for will tell you that I’m not lazy. So it was a shock. It’s up to him. He’s the manager and he’s got to make his decisions, so fair enough. But I don’t agree that I’m lazy.
“All that week it was: ‘I might play two up front and the players who come in have got to deliver. . .’ And then it was: ‘We weren’t playing well because of these two players’. James Morrison did well when he came on [for McFadden] but I don’t think you could have picked anybody else out and say he played well. It was made out that it was all me and Boydy’s fault.
“It’s the worst game I had with Scotland, without a shadow of doubt and after the game a lot of journalists had a lot of negative things to say which I thought were wrong because they were saying I was living on past glories. I never said anything about past glories. I never said a word. I had a bad game but the comments afterwards were out of order from the management and then everybody else just jumped on the bandwagon.”
Everybody wanted a word with McFadden in the hours and days after that match, wanted a verbal war between the player and the manager. “I made a conscious effort not to do an interview after the game because I didn’t want to be shouting my mouth off in the papers. What happened, happened. I got slaughtered. I never defended myself because I didn’t want it to become tit-for-tat. If I’ve got anything to say I’d rather say it to somebody’s face.
“I had it in my mind that, even though I’d played shit, I’d be in the next squad. I thought I’m not doing this over the phone [with Levein]. I don’t like leaving things to simmer. If there is something to be said I’d like to think I’d say it. I’m not going to make excuses. I had a bad night. I was definitely trying too hard and it got the better of me. It’s not often I can say that, but it definitely did. I wouldn’t say I never tracked back [as Levein alleged], but my reaction wasn’t great at times when I lost the ball, but it was a reaction of sheer frustration at myself. It wasn’t because I was lazy. If you look at my time at Birmingham, that’s all I done. Running up and down the line. My football was suffering because all I done was work hard for the team. I would have wanted to talk about it face to face [with Levein], but then I got injured. The frustrating thing for me is that I haven’t had a chance to prove everybody wrong. ”
After Liechtenstein, McFadden returned to Birmingham, played his best game of the season, against Liverpool on the Sunday, and then didn’t play again for 14 months. The journey back to Everton was challenging on so many fronts, as much mental as physical. He was injured and coming to the end of his contract at Birmingham and was under the impression that they’d be taking up the option of an extra two years – and then they were relegated. The offer now was 50 per cent less than the original. McFadden turned it down.
“It was a point of principle. They said something and then went back on it so now I was in limbo. I took a risk. It could have been a case of nobody taking me.” Celtic made a move at one point. “Basically, they wanted me to go on trial. It was pretty convenient, you know, the timing of the AGM and stuff. A lot was said about me going there and none of it came from my side. I don’t know the motives.
“I could understand [their caution] because I was injured but I went to Wolves and did a medical for over a week and did every test you could do and I passed them. If they said ‘We really need to check your knee out’ then I would have taken that. That’s different. Instead it was basically a two-week trial. You know, I’m 28 not 38. The communication wasn’t great to be fair. I don’t have any ill-feeling towards Celtic, but I just didn’t see that there was a massive desire to sign me. I then had a chance to come back to Everton and I took it. I walked in the door and it was like I was never away.”
What’s going on with him now? Well, he’s trying to get fit, trying to learn the game again, he says. His mind knows what he wants to do but his body hasn’t been allowing him to do it.
He’s at Everton until the summer and who knows after that. Nothing’s ruled in and nothing’s ruled out. He’d just like to get some game-time before the end of the season.
Scotland? Ah, he’d love a return to international football but knows he has a mountain to climb. He’ll never stop hoping, though. Never. “I’m not going to let one bad experience in 48 games get me down. I love it and would love to get back to it.” And Steven Fletcher, who seems determined to run away from it?
“I know he’s made his decision, but if I ever see him I’ll say: ‘Just go back and play’. Definitely. I spent my first spell at Everton with Fergie [Duncan Ferguson] and he wished he could have played more for Scotland. I don’t think he regrets his decision, he just regrets that in his own mind he couldn’t play. I know a few years down the line Fletch would probably say: ‘I wish I had just bitten the bullet’.
“He’s probably the best striker we’ve got now. Maybe he made a bit of a rash decision. Somebody’s got to swallow their pride, whether it’s Fletch or the manager. Somebody’s got to do it. The manager has said all he’s got to do is phone so maybe that’s him made the first move and Fletch needs to act on it. Then again, he might be happy with his decision, I don’t know.”
Whatever about the return of Fletcher, the rebirth of McFadden would be a tale of tales.
In his time he has produced magic for Scotland, he has produced more captivating moments than any of his peers. It would be nice to think that he still has the power to enchant. Not yet, perhaps. But one day, soon.