MATURITY can be a contradictory concept. It can mean taking the necessary responsibility to survive and thrive in the world. But it can also mean losing the youthful joy and spontaneity that would make that success worthwhile.

When people talk of James McFadden growing up as a footballer, the idea conjures as much apprehension as it does approval. Berti Vogts may have cursed him with the "cheeky boy" epithet that has sniggered behind his back ever since, but McFadden would not inspire such genuine fondness among Scotland watchers without the streak of daftness that is coded in his DNA.

Mercifully, he seems at last to have found the perfect balance between the bland and barmy. McFadden was named Everton's young player of this year and, 30 months after his GBP1.25m transfer from Motherwell, is a genuine Premiership competitor.

Opposition managers in England's top flight will now point to his name on the teamsheet and urge watchful caution from their defenders. Walter Smith is hoping that, come the Euro 2008 qualifiers next season, a similar trepidation will infect the coaches of France, Italy and Ukraine.

Scotland today fly out to Japan for the Kirin Cup matches against Bulgaria and the hosts, with McFadden poised to play a crucial role in negotiating a morale-boosting outcome from this Far Eastern finale to the season.

"James is the type of player who is a crowd-pleaser, " said Smith. "But there was always that erratic ending to his play.

"Because he has settled down now, so has his overall performance. He is beginning to appreciate that, the more you play, the more you have to be a team player as much as anything else. There are few players in the world who can say they are in the team on ability alone. Ronaldinho is one of the few. Zico was another one.

"What people can overlook, though, is that James is only 22. He's the same age as some of the other younger ones in the Scotland squad just now.

"They don't have any caps and he has 25. So I'm hoping we will get a real benefit from him in the upcoming European Championships."

As a deep-lying forward, or even leading the line in the absence of James Beattie, McFadden was effective and important in Everton's surge clear of their early-season trauma.

Effective and important could be almost anyone, though. What made it all so heartening were the flashes of genuine brilliance which startled the Goodison faithful into realising the Scot might have a lot more than a singeing temper.

There was a magnificent, crashing drive against Fulham that made Beattie's 25-yarder minutes earlier appear like a tap-in; a glorious lob to beat Middlesbrough in the final seconds at the Riverside; and a sugar-sweet strike to start a rout of Aston Villa.

The 22-year-old has made a total of 41 appearances for Everton this season, scoring eight goals. Those statistics are the clearest evidence that he has gained the full trust of David Moyes, his club manager, who was previously more likely to tug at his receding curls in frustration over the player's bolts up blind alleys or petulant fouls on his marker.

"It was always going to be a big step for James to go down to the Premiership and try to recreate what he did for Motherwell, " said Smith.

"He scored 18 or 19 goals in Scotland. People expected him to do the same in the Premiership, but he was never going to be able to do that. However, he has now settled down a wee bit and this has been his best season at Everton. I don't think there is any argument about that.

"James is playing really well at the moment. That's just a matter of him maturing and they are starting to see the very best of him down there."

With Kenny Miller confirmed as Scotland's firstchoice striker - although absent from Japan with a hamstring injury - there was often a quandary for Smith about precisely where to fit McFadden into his system. Now, the player's improving game intelligence is reducing the level of risk for his managers at club and country.

"I think James can play both as a striker and on the left, " said Smith. "That was one of the things which happened in the early part of his Everton career - they weren't sure exactly what his best position was.

"Now, through experience, James knows what is required in each of the positions he can play. Mainly this season he has been used as a striker and even played as a lone man up front when Everton had injury problems. His overall awareness is improving all the time."

Awareness, application and attitude - sounds like the ideal grown-up.