Slovenia just one more challenge for Gordon and Fletcher

They have walked dark paths to reach this point, negotiated far greater challenges than anything Slovenia will be capable of presenting.

Darren Fletcher and Craig Gordon know what it is like to face up to the prospect of losing it all, of seeing everything they have worked for since childhood swept away by the unsparing cruelty of illness and injury.

When they take the field in Ljubljana’s Stozice Stadium this evening, the enormity of the occasion will not be lost on them. Such high-stakes fixtures, not so long ago, seemed but a distant dream.

Darren Fletcher made his first appearance for Scotland in 2003 and is now set for an 80th cap

Darren Fletcher made his first appearance for Scotland in 2003 and is now set for an 80th cap

Darren Fletcher made his first appearance for Scotland in 2003 and is now set for an 80th cap

Craig Gordon is another member of Gordon Strachan's squad who knows all about recovery

Craig Gordon is another member of Gordon Strachan's squad who knows all about recovery

Craig Gordon is another member of Gordon Strachan’s squad who knows all about recovery

There will be pressure, of course. But no fear. Fear is something they faced up to and dealt with in altogether more difficult circumstances. Being within 90 minutes of putting Scotland into the play-offs for a place in the World Cup finals should, in contrast, be a matter of celebration.

The road travelled by Fletcher has often been a terrifying one. After years of suffering in silence at Manchester United from the effects of ulcerative colitis — going on drug trials, being hospitalised through blood loss, losing almost three stones in weight — he opted to go through three major operations over the course of 2013 to remove his large intestine.

Over a two-year period between November 2011 and December 2013, he made just ten appearances. Yet, here he is. Back captaining his country and still an English Premier League regular at the age of 33 with current club Stoke City.

Gordon spent more than two years completely out of football after being released by Sunderland in May of 2012. A patellar tendon injury sustained there, operated on in Sweden and subjected to some radical treatment involving blood injections from a Barcelona-based specialist kept him on the sidelines and paying for treatment out of his own pocket simply to try and rebuild his career.

Fletcher will lead Scotland into their crucial World Cup qualifier against Slovenia on Sunday

Fletcher will lead Scotland into their crucial World Cup qualifier against Slovenia on Sunday

Fletcher will lead Scotland into their crucial World Cup qualifier against Slovenia on Sunday

Goalkeeper Gordon will hope to keep a clean sheet in the do-or-die encounter in Ljubljana

Goalkeeper Gordon will hope to keep a clean sheet in the do-or-die encounter in Ljubljana

Goalkeeper Gordon will hope to keep a clean sheet in the do-or-die encounter in Ljubljana

Like Fletcher, he was told on several occasions that he may never play again. Like Fletcher, he refused to give up. And here he is now, No 1 with Scotland and Celtic and the subject of a failed £3.5million bid from Chelsea in January.

Both men were given their chance at international level as part of Berti Vogts’ ‘young generation’ of players. James McFadden was another.

And although his playing career has taken him from being the toast of the Tartan Army to turning out in the Irn-Bru Cup with Queen of the South at Montrose on Saturday, he insists he feels nothing but warmth and happiness for his two former team-mates as they endeavour to fulfil the fantasy they once all shared of taking Scotland to a World Cup finals after helping earn that dramatic 1-0 win over Slovakia in midweek.

‘I’d be delighted for everybody, but for Craig Gordon and Darren Fletcher, two boys who have had so much to deal with off the pitch in terms of their injuries and illness, it would be absolutely fantastic,’ stated McFadden.

‘I wish I could have got there and there will be other players that’ll wish they could have got there too, but there would be absolutely no bitterness from me. It’s all support. I hope they do it. There aren’t two more deserving players for me.

‘The game against Slovakia was, up to this point, the biggest game in the group. Scott Brown has been excellent and he drops out, but there is no one better to come in than Darren with all his experience to use.

‘Craig hardly had a save to make. He’ll have been delighted that it was probably one of his quietest nights. They have come through so much. As a Scotland player, you are going to be up and down, mostly down, but they are so close now.

Former Everton and Motherwell forward James McFadden scored against Slovenia in 2005

Former Everton and Motherwell forward James McFadden scored against Slovenia in 2005

Former Everton and Motherwell forward James McFadden scored against Slovenia in 2005

Scotland would take another 3-0 win this time around to cement their place in the play-offs

Scotland would take another 3-0 win this time around to cement their place in the play-offs

Scotland would take another 3-0 win this time around to cement their place in the play-offs

‘It would be a great achievement to get the play-offs and the way the momentum is going, you never know what could happen no matter who we get.’

Fletcher was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008, but it wasn’t until December 2011, after a Champions League match with Basle, that he first shared the details of his problem with a small and trusted group of his Manchester United team-mates.

McFadden recalls how Fletcher struggled to deal with the issue — it took him 18 months to finally accept that surgery was his best option for a full recovery — and stayed in contact with him on the long journey back from his very worst times.

‘I saw him a few times and spoke to him quite a bit,’ he said. ‘There wasn’t a timescale put on it and I don’t think he knew how to deal with it. Darren’s a private guy. He’s not flashy. He’s very humble and he just got on with it.

‘He came back and never missed a minute last year for West Brom. He is still playing in the Premier League with Stoke. He is a fantastic asset and I’m absolutely delighted for him.’

Gordon Strachan had been under pressure but he has recovered a precarious position

Gordon Strachan had been under pressure but he has recovered a precarious position

Gordon Strachan had been under pressure but he has recovered a precarious position

Steven Fletcher (right) takes a shot as Andrew Robertson and Robert Snodgrass watch on

Steven Fletcher (right) takes a shot as Andrew Robertson and Robert Snodgrass watch on

Steven Fletcher (right) takes a shot as Andrew Robertson and Robert Snodgrass watch on

McFadden stayed in touch with Fletcher on the long journey back from his very worst times

McFadden stayed in touch with Fletcher on the long journey back from his very worst times

McFadden stayed in touch with Fletcher on the long journey back from his very worst times

Of course, Fletcher, who will win his 80th cap on Sunday, has had to learn with no longer being a fixture in the Scotland side. Gordon, meanwhile, is back to being a first-pick, replacing David Marshall as manager Gordon Strachan rung the changes for the 3-0 loss to England at Wembley last November and slowly began rebuilding his Scotland side around a core of Celtic players.

Scott Brown came out of retirement for that match. Leigh Griffiths was finally given the start up front that the supporters had long been demanding. James Forrest played too. Stuart Armstrong, out injured along with Brown at the moment, would later become a key player and Kieran Tierney is similarly invaluable.

Callum McGregor is also in the squad for tonight’s game and McFadden believes the influence of the Celtic players in Scotland’s incredible revival cannot be underestimated.

‘It has been a huge factor,’ said the 34-year-old, who scored in a 3-0 win when Scotland last played a World Cup qualifier in Slovenia in 2005. ‘They’re used to winning and there’s a style of playing. It makes a difference.’

Celtic, of course, have also delivered a mercurial player. The kind of person capable of performing the role McFadden once did for Scotland, the matchwinner-in-the-making, the forward player with the talent to produce something magical.

Fletcher (left) and Leigh Griffiths work on their shooting during the final training session

Fletcher (left) and Leigh Griffiths work on their shooting during the final training session

Fletcher (left) and Leigh Griffiths work on their shooting during the final training session

Scotland take on Slovenia in confident mood after the dramatic victory over Slovakia

Scotland take on Slovenia in confident mood after the dramatic victory over Slovakia

Scotland take on Slovenia in confident mood after the dramatic victory over Slovakia

Scotland will be guaranteed a top-two finish if they win against the Slovenians on Sunday

Scotland will be guaranteed a top-two finish if they win against the Slovenians on Sunday

Scotland will be guaranteed a top-two finish if they win against the Slovenians on Sunday

Scotland have been much more dangerous since Griffiths entered the side and after those two free-kicks against England in June, a goal against Malta and his role in setting up the winner against Slovakia — playing a terrific pass wide to Ikechi Anya having lost his balance — it is clear he has taken on that talismanic role which McFadden always revelled in.

‘He’s relishing it,’ said McFadden. ‘Who doesn’t want to go and be the main man for their country?

‘When he was scoring his goals regularly for Celtic and not getting in for Scotland, Gordon obviously wanted a bit more from him.

‘He’s doing that now. He’ll be raging he never scored against Slovakia, but he does so well for the team. He is a nuisance and his part in the goal was excellent.

‘I don’t know if he’d have done that before. It was a great pass because he could have easily claimed for the foul and he’d probably have got a free-kick.

James Forrest and Callum McGregor were part of the training session on the eve of the match

James Forrest and Callum McGregor were part of the training session on the eve of the match

James Forrest and Callum McGregor were part of the training session on the eve of the match

Scotland's Ikechi Anya stretches him hamstrings on a mat as he prepares to do battle

Scotland's Ikechi Anya stretches him hamstrings on a mat as he prepares to do battle

Scotland’s Ikechi Anya stretches him hamstrings on a mat as he prepares to do battle

‘Sometimes, he comes a bit too short for me, but he comes off the front, gets on the half-turn, gets shots away from the edge of the box, gets crosses in, gets on the end of crosses. His game has evolved so much.

‘Gordon says he’s first name on the teamsheet now and he’s one you just feel before every game that he’s going to score.’

Tying Celtic scarves onto the posts at Rangers and Linfield has, of course, landed Griffiths in trouble this year. Might we see a repeat with a tartan one in Ljubjana tonight?

‘Well, I’m sure that won’t be frowned upon,’ grinned McFadden, clearly still, as Vogts once put it, a ‘cheeky boy’ after all these years.

James McFadden was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is a proud sponsor of the Scotland national team.

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