North of the Border

McFadden lands to lift gloom

February 20, 2013
By Neil White
(Archive)

In this week's North of the Border, James McFadden lands back in Motherwell, but there are still issues in getting people through the gates in Scotland.

RETRO FAD

James McFadden
APJames McFadden has returned to the SPL

The signing of the season in Scotland was completed this week, when James McFadden agreed a short-term contract with Motherwell, the team he left as a 19-year-old, ten years ago, to join Everton. Then he made Motherwell £1.25 million, but what will they get this time and what makes this coup so interesting?

A lot of it has to do with the changed landscape in Scotland compared to that which McFadden left to play in England. Scottish football fell off the fiscal cliff some time ago and its broken and bloody remains now lie scattered on the rocks of destitution.

Player wages are down, as are attendances. Nobody outside Glasgow pays any transfer fees and broadcasters treat the SPL like a pound shop. The economic gap between the SPL and the English Premier League, where McFadden was last playing with Sunderland, is so vast that the arrival in Scotland of a player from the top division in England now has the news value of the arrival on earth of an alien life form.

To make this happen, Motherwell have almost certainly had to stretch their wage structure for a few months and McFadden most certainly has taken a colossal cut in earnings. However, it may work out for both parties.

For Motherwell, the hope was that the extra spend will be cushioned - and possibly covered - by increased attendances. McFadden was shrewdly signed 24 hours before a home game against Dundee United, yet still only 4,633 showed up, including the travelling support of one of the better-followed teams in the division. Second in the league, off the back of a big win against their nearest competitors and parading the returning hero and that's it?

McFadden was a prodigious talent as a teenager and his game-changing moments translated both to the English Premier League and international football - think about his goal of the season for Everton or the iconic long range strike that gave Scotland a famous victory against France in Paris. Whatever his physical condition, as long as he can make it on to the pitch his talent will shine through in the SPL. What supporter, considering how to spend his or her Saturday afternoon, would risk missing one of those McFadden moments?

The club might also see a benefit in terms of prize money and European competition next season. There is no Champions League football on offer for the runner-up in Scotland, but £2.4 million and a place in the qualifiers for the Europa League is quite a sweetener.

McFadden's decision has to have been made from the heart, but may make sense in career terms, too. If he gets game time in the SPL between now and the end of the season, he will have answered the big doubt that restricts his market as a free agent. In the summer, a fit McFadden still on the right side of 30 will appeal to bottom-end Premier League and competitive Championship clubs.

In the meantime, instead of a barely-visible back-up at Sunderland, McFadden will be worshipped; his every touch of the ball will be praised to the heavens and the opposition he will face will give him greater license to thrill Fir Park once again. Who wouldn't sign up for that?

CROWD CONTROL

What McFadden's former manager at Motherwell, Terry Butcher, wouldn't give for a few weeks of gold dust and a few hundred more through the gates at Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

After a tame 1-1 draw with Kilmarnock, and before Motherwell put daylight between themselves and Inverness with a 3-0 win, Butcher wondered out loud whether the Highland city deserved a team such as his, given that only 2,529 came through the turnstiles for a midweek clash. Butcher had taken a rag-tag bunch of recruits to second place, including one of the top goalscorers in the league in Billy McKay and perhaps its most consistently creative player in Andrew Shinnie.

There is a strong argument that this is as good as it gets for Inverness and that was backed up by quotes from the manager this week which read: "I don't know what more we can do."

Billy McKay
APBilly McKay was on show, but the fans did not come out in force

There were underlying factors for that fixture. Manchester United played Real Madrid live on television; the weather in the Highlands was not quite what it was in the Spanish capital that evening; and the pricing - £26 to choose the SPL over the Champions League - was frankly ridiculous.

However, at the core of it, Butcher has a good point and it works in Motherwell and many other clubs. Something is wrong with the model and the kind of radical thinking required to right it is absent among the powerbrokers of Scottish football.

TRICKLE-DOWN ECONOMICS

The publication of the revised prize money stapled onto plans for league reconstruction were a masterstroke in convincing dissenters in the lower leagues to vote for the changes in front of them.

The prize pool for the second tier will increase from around £60,000 to over £800,000. That's a pretty weighty argument. It also highlights the devastating greed upon which the SPL was founded and which created the lethal gap between that league and the SFL clubs that now have the power to influence the changes being made to it.

Unfortunately, the economics are being bundled up with the competition changes. So you get the money only if you agree to the end of league football as we know it. In the new model, there will be no late-season runs, no transformative January signings. The first 22 games will define where the ceiling or the safety net to your season exists.

Such is the damage already done by the existing model, this may well be a price worth paying to the clubs in whose hands the immediate future of league football rests.