ROBERT SNODGRASS is the new James McFadden in the eyes of the Tartan Army. Opening the World Cup qualifying campaign with a hat-trick confirms Snodgrass as Scotland’s latest talisman.
Supporters have craved a replacement for McFadden for several years. Having missed Euro 2016 qualifying through injury, the Hull City midfielder has assumed the mantle.
At 28, he is approaching the peak years of his career in England’s Premier League and is utterly essential to Scotland’s hopes of reaching the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
His influence on the team was discernible in the 5-1 win in Malta. Snodgrass is arguably the most complete player available to Gordon Strachan. He is Scotland’s equivalent to France’s Dimitri Payet, Germany’s Mesut Ozil, or even Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
Six years since McFadden’s last cap, a true successor has emerged with the same endearingly gallus swagger. Reared within the youth academy at Livingston, Snodgrass has gone from West Lothian protégé to national hero.
“The fans loved McFadden and the maverick stuff he used to produce. Snoddy can do the same,” said Allan Preston, who coached Snodgrass at Almondvale. “Everyone remembers McFadden’s goal in Paris. That’s something Snoddy could do.
“He can hit things, he causes chaos from dead-ball situations. He has that x-factor that every side needs and he certainly produces it for Scotland. He’s such an important player now for Scotland because he can do the extraordinary things other players can’t do.
“It’s great to see him back because it was a horrendous injury on his knee [sustained on his Hull debut in August 2014]. He’s clearly worked very hard on his fitness to get back and he deserves everything he gets because he’s a brilliant talent. Without a doubt, he’s different to anyone else Scotland have got.
“I don’t think he meant that first goal against Malta but he is capable of stuff like that. I remember him scoring a similar goal as a kid for Livingston against Dunfermline. He cut in from the right and smashed it into the top corner. That was his first goal in senior football.”
Back then, Snodgrass was very much a mercurial and capricious talent who didn’t act anything like a future internationalist. His skill and natural ability were clear but indiscipline hindered him as a teenager.
He arrived late for training and games, liked a drink and continued to be influenced by friends at home in the Gallowgate area of Glasgow. It was a worry for Livingston coaching staff, who feared he may not make the grade in professional football.
“I remember him turning up late for a reserve game at Kilmarnock one day. I went mad at him, absolutely mad,” recalled Preston. “I told him kick-off times don’t change because of Robert Snodgrass.
“He spoke about that in an interview a few years later. He was asked what was the biggest roasting he’d ever had and he mentioned that day. You could see his talent, it was second-to-none, but at that stage of his career he was ruining it. He wasn’t using his talent.
“That was the time when I thought: ‘He’s not going to make it.’ Robert could’ve been that guy everybody knows who was the best player they ever played with, but who didn’t work hard enough.
“Even at 16 and 17 he was turning up smelling of drink, not phoning at all. At Livingston, we used to write down how many grannies and grandads the boys had when they joined us at 16. It’s something I learned from Jim McLean at Dundee United.
“The amount of times a kid would use a grandparent passing away as an excuse was unbelievable. One guy, who will remain nameless, had four grannies and three grandads. They thought those tricks had never been tried before.”
Preston knew a dramatic change was needed if Snodgrass was to become the international star his potential hinted at. “At a young age, he liked a drink, he liked to go out and socialise. As in any job, if you’re taking Mondays off a lot then clearly you’re out on the Sunday.
“It was a worry for me at that stage of Snoddy’s career. When I was manager at Livingston, I even offered him the chance to come and stay with me and my family. I just wanted to get him away from what was going on so I could look after him.
“There was never anything malicious with Robert Snodgrass. He’s got a heart of gold. He was just maybe getting led astray by people who shouldn’t have been around him. Thankfully, he turned that corner, saw the light and moved down to England. The rest is history. He’s been brilliant since then.”
The move to Leeds United in 2008 proved to be the making of Snodgrass. It removed him from the Glasgow goldfish bowl and the only environment he knew. He flourished in Yorkshire and won his first Scotland cap in 2011.
Memories of being shipped off to Stirling Albion on loan were banished for good. “John Robertson sent Snoddy on loan to Stirling Albion and he might not have recovered from that,” said Preston.
“I think it was done to give him a bit of a jolt because there was never any doubting Robert’s ability. He came to Livingston with Graham Dorrans and James McPake and they had a great bond. Snoddy was just a wee boy of 16, 17, who would muck about as all kids do.
“The best thing that happened to him was getting away from Scotland and Glasgow. He had to grow up, mature and knuckle down. If he’d stayed at Livingston and stayed in Glasgow, would he still have become the same player? I’m not so sure. I think his off-the-field stuff was hindering him more than he thought. He could’ve been a loss to the game.
“He’s a great story now, a great example for young kids. Snoddy has seen it and done everything on and off the field. You can have daft moments but if you knuckle down, do things right, look at the rewards you can reap.
“All young boys get to a point where the penny drops and you realise what a fantastic opportunity you have as a footballer. It’s the best job in the world, but you need to listen and learn and show a terrific attitude. Robert’s clearly got that now.”
He also has the Tartan Army fawning over him. Snodgrass has six goals in 18 Scotland caps so far, a better ratio than McFadden’s 15 in 48. Scotland’s new idol is here to stay in that No.10 jersey.