McFadden justifies Scottish leap of faith
Amid all the jubilant madness at Parc des Princes on Wednesday night as Scotland deservedly beat France 1-0 for a second time in 11 months to move a point clear at the top of their Euro 2008 qualifying group, there was a sentence that nobody heard but that will rapidly take its place in a nation's sporting lore.
Scotland's captain, Barry Ferguson, yelled it at his team-mate, James McFadden, at precisely the moment that the 24-year Everton striker was shaping for the shot that would win the match.
McFadden had brought the ball down, 35 yards out. Ferguson was calling for the pass; there was nothing else on, after all. So when McFadden turned to goal and swung back his left leg to unleash his wonderstrike, Ferguson was bemused, even frustrated.
"I shouted: 'What the fuck are you doing?'," the Rangers' midfielder admitted in the euphoric early hours of yesterday. "I'd started a run and was hoping for a pass. When I saw he was going to try his luck from that distance, I was giving him pelters."
The abuse was short-lived. The ball sailed home in slow motion. For a heartbeat it seemed like the entire ground – players, coaching staff, tens of thousands of fans, even the referee – could not absorb the reality of what had happened.
"But it was a fantastic shot," Ferguson added. "It really was a special goal. It was going in from the minute it left his boot."
While Ferguson's initial "What the..." question was a literal inquiry, even some of McFadden's admirers, especially of the Everton persuasion, would accept it resonates about his mercurial game in general.
Few doubt his ability. He made his professional debut at 17 for Motherwell, then managed by Billy Davies. He won his first cap in 2002 on a Far East tour where he also recorded the only blot in his off-pitch copybook, by missing the flight home because he stayed out all night partying.
In 2002-03 he got 19 goals from 34 starts, won the Scottish Young Player of the Year award and attracted wide interest. Everton signed him for £1.25m.
It is his record at club level since that has polarised opinion. He has played 99 Premier League games, but 50 of them as a substitute. His strike rate is, on the face of it, poor, with 10 league goals, or one every ten appearances. But most of those have had an element of the spectacular about them: one was the Match of the Day goal of the month for April this year, a late volleyed winner against Charlton.
But consistency has not been a strong point. Injuries have been partly to blame. So too McFadden's versatility. Being able to do many jobs has worked to his detriment because he has never really had a decent run at the one he most wants.
Equally, while his manager, David Moyes, rates him highly, Everton's pragmatic style and Moyes' preference for more conventional target men – James Beattie not long ago, and now Yakubu – have limited McFadden's chances.
He has now scored 12 goals in 34 Scotland games, again mostly eye-catching. A likeable, laid-back Glaswegian, he is always confident in his own ability. But as a "luxury player"– not dissimilar to Matt Le Tissier in some respects – starting with him does not guarantee a return. What Alex McLeish's selection in Paris showed was that a leap of faith can be amply, gloriously rewarded.
Now, as after each Euro 2008 victory, Scotland's mantra reverts to: "There is still a lot of hard work ahead." With Ukraine (at home), Georgia (away) and Italy (home) to come, there certainly is. France and Italy remain favourites to progress.
But try telling McFadden and Co that long shots don't come off.
Remaining fixtures: 13 Oct: Faroe Islands v France; Italy v Georgia; Scotland v Ukraine. 17 Oct: France v Lithuania; Georgia v Scotland; Ukraine v Faroe Islands. 17 Nov: Lithuania v Ukraine; Scotland v Italy. 21 Nov: Georgia v Lithuania; Italy v Faroe Islands; Ukraine v France.