Amidst Scottish football’s seemingly terminal decline in the early twenty first century, James McFadden was a rare thing. Technically gifted, flamboyant, a natural showman – the young Glaswegian was a throwback to an era when Scotland was renowned for producing some of the game’s most entertaining players. In coming to Goodison from Motherwell for a knockdown fee of £1.25million in August 2003, he followed a noble tradition set by the likes of Torry Gillick, Tommy Ring, Alex Young and Pat Nevin.
Indeed, McFadden’s full debut, against Leeds United in September 2003, was one of the most memorable Goodison has witnessed in recent years. As Everton romped to a 4-0 win, McFadden was at the heart of everything positive, wowing with his dribbling, close control and trickery – and thoroughly upstaging Wayne Rooney, who was returning from injury. There would be other occasions too when McFadden thrilled Evertonians. His April 2007 flick over the head of a Charlton defender and volley into the back of the net for a late winner was one of the finest and most dramatic goals Goodison has seen in many a season. And few of McFadden’s strikes in an Everton shirt were more important than the one that brought the scores level in the away leg of a UEFA Cup tie against Metalist Kharkiv the following October.
But all too often, McFadden seemed more like Jim Pearson than the Golden Vision. He was not ruthless enough in front of goal and it took him 16 months to get his first Everton goal. Although he possessed formidable talents, pace was not one of them. Always a slight figure he was prone to be subsumed by more physical opponents. On other occasions he was let down by over elaboration – the cause of immense frustration among the Goodison crowd. Or a trick wouldn’t come off, McFadden’s head would drop and he would drift out of a game.
Part of the problem was that he lacked a regular first team berth and made more Premier League appearances from the bench than he started. There was also a tendency to play him on the wing, rather than in his preferred central role. And yet when opportunities did come McFadden’s way, he never fully seized the moment.
One of his final games – the 2008 League Cup semi final against Chelsea – seemed to represent everything infuriating and mesmeric about McFadden. Asked to play on the Everton left, he was repeatedly caught out of position and failed to track back as Chelsea romped forward. Given a glimmer of an opening, however, he brilliantly wriggled past Ricardo Carvalho’s despairing lunge and broke into the left of the Chelsea box, but one-on-one with the goalkeeper elected to shoot from a tight angle instead of squaring to the unmarked Tim Cahill. The ball hit the post, Chelsea won the match and within days McFadden was no longer an Everton player – the £4.75 million bid from Birmingham representing a good price for a player nearing the end of his contract.
McFadden spent four injury-troubled years at St Andrews. Following the expiry of his contract in 2011 he was released from the club and linked with a return to Scotland. It was therefore some surprise that in September that year the out of contract player returned to Everton. His opportunities were nevertheless limited in his second spell at Goodison.