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Once bottom of the heap, now king of the Cottage

THE first big goal of Ross McCormack's career came on the evening of November 23, 2005.

Ross McCormack is very much in Scotland manager Gordon Strachan's plans. Picture: SNS
Ross McCormack is very much in Scotland manager Gordon Strachan's plans. Picture: SNS

For him, and for Rangers supporters, the memory remains vivid. Seven minutes from full-time in a tense European tie in Porto, McCormack took a knockdown from Chris Burke and sparked pandemonium among the away support by burying the equalising goal. It was to be the strike which saved Rangers' prospects of reaching the last 16 of the Champions League.

McCormack was 19 years old. He did not start that game in the old Estadio das Antas but came on in the 76th minute as a substitute for Francis Jeffers. At Rangers, Jeffers always looked a player burdened by the £8m transfer fee Arsenal had paid to sign him four years earlier. McCormack replaced him on the pitch that night and, remarkably, he overtook him in another sense yesterday by switching clubs for an even bigger transfer fee.

Now a 27-year-old, £11m striker, back then McCormack was a teenager faced with what felt like insurmountable obstacles. The Porto night was not his debut - it was his 10th appearance for Rangers - but he was up against a list of high-calibre rivals for places in manager Alex McLeish's team. Michael Mols, Kris Boyd, Peter Lovenkrands, Shota Arveladze, Dado Prso and Thomas Buffel were among those crowding him out.

McLeish gave McCormack his debut and later agreed to his transfer to Motherwell when it was clear his desire for regular football could not be satisfied at Ibrox. His admiration for him never diminished.

"Even when I watched Ross in the reserves at Rangers he had a certain quality with the ball, a natural ability with the ball, that I liked," said McLeish yesterday. "He obviously got a wee bit frustrated when he was growing up, with guys like Mols, Arveladze, Prso, Boyd and the likes making it difficult for him to pin down a place. He went away and had a wonderful season under Mark McGhee at Motherwell. I remember Mark waxing lyrical about him and the way Ross adapted to his first real senior challenge.

"I played him in the Porto game and he scored the goal that effectively took us through to the last 16. That was the goal that alerted people to him. That put him on the map. He was still young and it was difficult for him to take that mantle on.

"I played him in the next game, against Hibs at Easter Road, but we didn't so well, we lost the game. People were saying 'he scored against Porto, he'll be fantastic against Hibs', but he was still learning his game. He was a boy with a helluva lot of ability, though.

"It was a different Rangers then, and it just wasn't easy to give him regular games. When we brought him in at first it wasn't a result of his phenomenal progress in the reserves, it was to do with top players missing. But we didn't have any doubts about Ross's ability. It was there for everybody to see. He had the little tricks, he had quirky things about his game, and he was a very good finisher."

McCormack was loaned by Rangers to Doncaster Rovers, then moved to Motherwell, Cardiff City and Leeds United, blossoming at the latter and becoming the captain and top scorer at Elland Road. McLeish, who tried to sign him as manager of both Birmingham City and then Aston Villa, is an authority on the English Championship. "He will get more credibility and respect because of that fee, that's the way it works in football. But there will be more pressure on Ross now to justify that. One of the things that's so vital in the Championship is a goalscorer. These are the guys who can get you out of there.

"McCormack has had a brilliant couple of seasons. He's emerged as a leader, when you think of what he's done at Leeds and the way he commanded the respect of the Elland Road crowd."

Some of his fellow Murray Park alumni are experiencing mixed fortunes. Alan Hutton, who has been repeatedly loaned out by his club, Aston Villa, having not played a game for them since May, 2012, is now reportedly a target for WBA. Charlie Adam, who was on the bench at the start of Stoke City's last seven games last season, is said to be surplus to requirements under manager Mark Hughes.

In contrast, the extraordinary fee between two Championship clubs has made McCormack a hot property. His new manager, Felix Magath, said: "We've signed an experienced and exciting player, a Scotland international, who can be a leader that our young and ambitious squad can learn from. There was a lot of interest in him over the summer months so securing his signature is good for Fulham."

McCormack, once at the bottom of the pile at Ibrox, is now Craven Cottage's star attraction.

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