It says as much about the state of the Scottish game as it does about his actual ability, but the fact remains that a mere whisper of James McFadden’s name still excites pangs in hearts of the Tartan Army.
Three and half years on from his last Scotland goal – two and half on from the last time he even played a full 90 minutes – and there’s still the forlorn hope that McFadden could one day again pull on a dark blue jersey and inject some fantasy into Scotland’s latest doomed adventure in tournament qualification.
So it was on a torrent of goodwill the McFadden surfed back in to the SPL this week, signing a short-term deal at Motherwell in an effort to reclaim fitness, match sharpness and a smidgen of youthful glory. The thought of McFadden in claret and amber instantly evokes memories of an irrepressible teenager with truly atrocious hair, waltzing through stodgy defences, scoring for fun, and being labelled Scotland’s ‘cheeky boy’ by Bertie Vogts in a cultural reference that dates the winger’s golden era with leaden finality in a way that only a novelty chart-topper can.
There’s been a minor rash of these prodigal players in recent years, returning to the clubs that made them stars after spending a few seasons in the harsh undertow of journeyman reality in larger footballing ponds. Hibernian welcomed back their talented-but-difficult strike pairing of Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan from their failed excursions to the remote outposts of Moscow and Glasgow. Aberdeen has seen former club captain Russell Anderson re-establish himself as a solid if unspectacular SPL player at a solid if unspectacular SPL club after failing to make much impact on the peoples of Sunderland, Plymouth or Derby.
Andy Webster – a vital part of the Hearts team that won the 2006 Scottish Cup – returned to Tynecastle after a bizarre four and half year stretch of futility and injury that saw him play just 14 games for Wigan, Rangers and Bistol City – though that was interrupted by a season-long loan at Dundee United where he managed 31 games while captaining the team to the 2010 Scottish Cup. Since returning to Edinburgh, Webster has been largely injury-free and managed yet another Scottish Cup triumph – rather suggesting that he can only maintain health and well being if he can smell the North Sea from his back garden.
Then just last week – a few days after McFadden held a Motherwell scarf above his head and said cheese for the local press – the SPL’s all-time leading goalscorer (and Middlesbrough’s joint 1846th all-time leading goalscorer) Kris Boyd announced his return to Kilmarnock.
Though Boyd does not carry the same romantic cachet as McFadden – and as his place as a lower-level volume scorer with unproven national team credentials is currently being filled by Jordan Rhodes, there’s no great clamour for him to find form and force his way into Gordon Strachan’s thinking – the sheer statistical urgency of those 164 goals in 296 league games have a bewildering effect on Scottish minds, coming as they did from the boots of a man who never seemed all that interested in tactical nuance or hard running or even moving more than strictly necessary. Boyd’s return is – in tandem with McFadden’s – intriguing mainly as first step in a referendum on whether SPL quality can ever translate to a more elevated stage.
The relative successes of the returns of Riordan, O’Connor, Anderson and Webster are all well and good, but all they have managed to achieve by returning to the bosom of the fans that nurtured their on-pitch adolescence is to confirm that they are merely good players up to a certain level. McFadden’s skill and Boyd’s penalty-box instincts carried greater expectations when they set off on their ill-fated tours beyond these parochial shores. If these two can rediscover some of the old magic on their old patches, and use it spring back out into the world, perhaps we can write off their failures as being victims of circumstance. If this injury or that incommodious team set-up hadn’t got in the way, perhaps we might have seen their SPL successes transfer into the wider world, rather than having to watch our heroes flounder on the sidelines as younger, sexier, foreign-ier players took their rightful spots.
The depressing alternative is that McFadden and Boyd become mired back in the SPL grind, and like their prodigal cousins before them accept their destiny as local lads, chained forever to their locale. At that point – if our best and most prolific prospects accept they cannot flourish anywhere else – we may have to pack up the rest of our exports as a job lot, smuggling Charlie Adam out of Stoke under the cover of midnight, back to his true calling as the hub of St Mirren’s midfield.
The early signs aren’t great for McFadden, it has to be said. Across the highlights of the two matches he’s played during his Motherwell comeback so far, his name is mentioned only twice – once when he comes on for his second debut against Dundee United, and once as he fails to touch the ball during an attack, seconds before Ross County score a match-killing second goal on the break. Is it fair to judge a player whose combined minutes on the pitch over the last three years would barely last as long as disc one of a Mad Men boxset? Absolutely not, so let’s keep hoping that the magic still lives on in the Cheeky Boy, despite his weathered face and male pattern baldness brought on by three and half seasons playing for Alex McLeish’s Birmingham City.
The good news for McFadden is that his next game is against a Hearts defence that seems to be locked in an ongoing performance art piece titled ‘What Is Marking?’ Perhaps a quick hat trick or two at Tynecastle will give him the confidence he needs to make another push into the world outside the SPL and become the player that Scotland fans still hope he can be.
Nicol Hay watches a lot of sport and then writes about it. It's a compulsion, and he needs help desperately. His blogging can be found here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.