James McFadden’s elevation to national icon was sealed last month when a giant photograph of his spectacular winner against France was unveiled at the entrance to the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park.
Yet while the 24-year-old is revered at home for a series of memorable strikes, at his club, Everton, he has struggled to hold a regular starting place. But three blistering McFadden goals in four qualifying games have helped Alex McLeish’s side to come within one win of reaching their first major tournament for 10 years.
While this alone would probably be enough to secure the adulation of success-starved Scotland supporters, it is his ability to produce the unexpected that has set Tartan Army pulses racing. September’s winner in Paris did just that, as McFadden controlled a long punt from goalkeeper Craig Gordon, turned his marker and blasted the ball home from 35 yards.
He shot to prominence four years ago after his slick finish in a 1-0 play-off victory over Holland briefly raised hopes of a place at the last European Championships in Portugal.
And either side of September’s goal in Paris, McFadden also hit the target crucially in victories over Lithuania and Ukraine.
“He has great belief in his own ability and an excellent left foot. He is capable of doing anything over 95 minutes,” says Derby County manager Billy Davies,
who gave McFadden his debut at Motherwell.
Klaus Toppmöller, whose Georgia team also faced Scotland in qualifying, was exaggerating only slightly when he said McFadden “could play in any great team in Europe now”.
McFadden’s 26 goals in 63 appearances for Motherwell earned him the accolade of Scottish Young Player of the Year in 2003, a £1.25m switch to Everton and selection to the national side, then managed by Berti Vogts.
Unnervingly nicknamed “Cheeky Boy” by the German, McFadden came off the bench to win his first cap aged 19 in a 2-0 defeat to South Africa in Hong Kong. Yet his debut was overshadowed by off-field antics, as he went awol after a drinking session and missed the flight home.
McFadden has since shown a greater maturity, recently asking guests at his wedding not to buy gifts but to donate instead to the Glasgow hospital that cared for his prematurely born son. He also joined team-mates in paying moving tribute to Rhys Jones, the 11-year-old Everton fan shot dead in Liverpool in August.
On the pitch, McFadden’s stay on Merseyside has been marred by frustration, with the player spending as much time on the bench as on the pitch. While mindful of his Scotland exploits, Everton fans remain cool on McFadden, often accusing him of lacking an end-product. Celtic are said to be lining up a move for him in January.
Some have argued that the slower pace of international football gives McFadden a better platform to show his skills than the frantic Premier League, although even for Scotland he has been saddled with the label “luxury player”, and may not have started in Paris but for an injury to striker Kenny Miller. However, with 13 goals from 36 appearances and the squad’s leading scorer, McFadden is likely to start up front alongside Miller today.
A campaign has been launched via the social networking site Facebook to vote McFadden the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Should he inspire Scotland to victory against Italy, that award could move a step closer.