Now he is back as a husband and father of four, returning as if from war looking older, more grizzled, and mindful of his wounds. When they sold him to Everton a decade ago he was a 20-year-old standing on two good knees. Now? "I look a lot older and I've got less hair." Not that anyone cares about his looks. All that matters is that his cruciate ligaments hold up, and that he graces Scottish pitches with something resembling his old flair and invention.
Supporters yearn to see some of the old McFadden magic – not just Motherwell fans, but those of Scotland and other clubs too. He is desperate to provide it after becoming a lost talent. It is two-and-a-half years since he completed 90 minutes of competitive football. The guy who could play with great style and expression has been derailed by a serious knee injury. At last he has the prospect of regular football to regain match fitness but big questions remain: will he be as good as before? Has his career seen its best days or are there more great moments still to come?
McFadden held court for the best part of an hour at his own morning press conference at Motherwell yesterday, explaining for the first time why he had rejoined his hometown club on a contract for the remainder of the season. He was as open and transparent as ever, but the most revealing answers will come from his feet over the coming weeks. He has 13 matches to impress. If it goes well he might earn himself a lucrative return to English football and even a recall to the Scotland squad; there are World Cup qualifiers in March and June. And if it does not go well? No-one wanted to contemplate that.
There was no negativity and little self-doubt – only pleasure at being involved and thoughts of bleaker times in the aftermath of that serious knee damage in 2010.
"I never really lose faith. I think you have doubts and you have good days and bad days, but I've never thought 'I can't do this any more'. If I had done then I wouldn't be here, I would have just given up," he said. "The hardest part was actually quite early on. I went for a clean-up because I had a lot of fluid and pain but I still trained. It was only supposed to be a two-week recovery but I came round from the operation and the specialist said he wouldn't be able to tell how it was for another three months. He couldn't even tell me if I was going to play again. It wasn't what I was expecting. That was another six months of recovery for a clean-up operation. That was the toughest point.
"I have four young children and it is amazing how much pressure they can take off you. They make you realise that there are more important things in life. My wife and my family are the ones that got me through it. They will be fed up of me saying 'I just need a couple of games'; that is all I have been saying, but I truly believe it. I played a few reserve games at Sunderland and with every game I felt stronger. I didn't play and then I got set back a bit. I think if I play three or four games then you will see the best of me.
"I have got a determination to get back playing football and show everybody I can still do it. The last couple of years have been incredibly frustrating. It's not been easy. But I'm here now and I need to play regularly, play every week, and show that I've still got it."
And does he? He's older, and knows that it shows. The thinning hair and the stubble make him look a little battle-hardened. The thrill of youth, of a young McFadden with a red stripe in his hair tearing up defences for Motherwell, is only a warm memory.
"I've played in England for nearly 10 years and feel I'm a better player. I was a wee boy when I left Motherwell. I've come back as a married man with four kids. I played 200-odd games in the Premier League and I've learned a lot. I've got a lot more to give as well."
The knee feels fine, although he is careful to maintain the surrounding muscle strength and be protective of it after matches. What he needs is a run of games, something he has been denied over a frustrating couple of years with Birmingham City, Everton (in his second spell there) and Sunderland. He opted in September to try his luck at Sunderland after declining the chance to join Motherwell in the summer.
There is no regret that it did not work out during the three-month contract he signed after an initial trial on Wearside. "It was an opportunity to go back to the Premier League and I thought I'd get a chance to play. Sunderland weren't doing very well but I still didn't get a chance. It was half a case of wasted time for me, but I enjoyed it there.
"It doesn't matter if you're injured or you're just not playing, your confidence does go. But it's amazing how quickly you can get it back. A couple of good bits of skill or a good pass or whatever in a game and it lifts you a bit. Then you build on that. Obviously I've not got a magic wand and I'm not going to be able to do everything myself. I'm not saying that everyone's expecting that anyway, because the team's been doing really well."
Motherwell, second in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League in another fine season, have gone as high as they can realistically hope. McFadden's personal climb starts now.