Duncan Ferguson holds a polarized place in the hearts of many Rangers supporters, especially the ones of my generation. When he signed with Rangers in 1993, he represented the opportunity of youth, he was destined to be the next great Rangers striker. Then, a head butting incident in 1994, sent his career into a whirlwind of hyperbolic reactions that eventually led to a prison term. The beginnings of university blurred my memories of Ferguson’s stint at Ibrox, so I asked David Edgar of the Heart & Hand podcast to comment on his recollections.
Everyone was really excited when he signed. He was probably the hottest prospect in British football at the time. The general view that he was the long-term replacement for Mark Hateley & that he’d be leading our front line for the next decade.
He never really settled in. I think the key reason was that while he was ‘the new Mark’ there was nothing wrong with the old one! Hateley took it as a challenge & his form was such that first-team opportunities for Duncan were limited.
The fans always liked him, but he was obviously competing with Hateley for the same spot. Over that period you couldn’t have picked Ferguson ahead of the big man. He was just superb.
I remember his goal against Motherwell, Brian Laudrup’s debut. It was 1-1 in the last minute when Lauders went on a slaloming run and set him up. I also remember him being up front against AEK Athens when we were chasing a 2-0 deficit from the first leg. Walter tried him and Hateley up front & it just didn’t work at all. I think that finally convinced Walter he would never fit in.
So when I heard about Alan Pattullo’s new biography on Ferguson, I was instantly intrigued to get a glimpse at his story with the benefit that accompanies a couple of decades of hindsight.
In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life & Crimes of a Footballing Enigma was released last week by Mainstream publishing & has instantly received a breadth of positive reviews.
Pattullo took some time out recently to speak exclusively to Rangers Report about his book, Ferguson’s stint with Rangers, his resurrection with Everton, & much more.
What led to you choosing Duncan Ferguson as the subject of your latest book?
I am not sure there is any one incident, but I first saw him play live for Dundee United v. Dundee in a Scottish Cup quarter final in March 1991. It was one of the first games to be televised live by BSkyB in Scotland, if not the first and I still have the video of the game.
I am a Dundee fan so it is perhaps strange that I became so fascinated by Ferguson, who also scored that night with a trademark header for his side, who won 3-1.
My interest was re-ignited when I was sent by The Scotsman to report on his sudden move from Everton to Newcastle United in November 1998 – behind manager Walter Smith’s back, according to Smith. At the press conference at St James’ Park, Ferguson was surprisingly charming, and even eloquent. He had the reporters eating out the palm of his hand. Yes, he said, he would consider returning to play for Scotland. Yes, he would consider doing more interviews. Of course, in the end, he did neither.
But what really intrigued me was the incident that is of course so well known by Rangers fans. Ferguson did not do much in a Rangers shirt, but he did make history when he was – eventually – jailed for an incident that lasted just a few seconds during a game at Ibrox against Raith Rovers. ‘The headbutt’ episode still obsesses me – particularly the ramifications of it. I was interested on examining what a fairly innocuous spat – we have all seen worse on a football pitch, let’s face it –meant for both players involved, John McStay as well as Ferguson.
Did you have the opportunity to interview him as part of your research?
Did I sit down with Ferguson? No, I did not. I wrote to him and contacted him via various intermediaries but he was not really interested. He said he was not “bothered” about someone writing about him but did not want to help with the book.
Why spoil the habit of a lifetime? But I do think he is now coming to an understanding that he has to engage with the media if he wants to fulfill his coaching ambitions – he has done a couple of interviews here & there. And he does indeed seem quite articulate, which some might find surprising.
I am of course interested to know whether he reads the book, which I have sent to him. His good friend Alan Stubbs told me he would. “He will say he won’t, but he will,” Stubbs said.
I can vividly recall the genuine excitement & buzz that surrounded Ferguson’s signing with Rangers. In hindsight, do you feel it was too much too soon for Ferguson given he was only 21 at the time – which in football terms was much younger than it is today?
I think it was definitely too soon – Walter Smith has even admitted that, as has David Murray. But Rangers were itching to make advances in Europe at the time and, of course, were hamstrung by the three-foreigner rule so had to look about the Scottish scene to see who might be good enough to get them to the next level.
Among those young Scots making waves at the time, Ferguson was the most conspicuous. Dundee United knew Rangers were desperate to buy so they could bump up the price. Having agreed to sell him to Leeds United just a few weeks earlier for around £3.2 million, United managed to make Rangers pay £4 million for him – a British record transfer fee. This did not help ease the pressure on someone who, as you point out and I think people tend to forget, was only 21 years old at the time.
Labelled ‘Duncan Disorderly,’ what role did the media play in the extent of punishment that Ferguson received for the infamous head-butting incident? I’m also curious, if you feel that Ferguson’s downfall at Ibrox was inevitable.
I would not say his downfall was inevitable at all. Jim McLean – the Dundee United chairman when he was sold – admittedly thought he would struggle because his temperament was not right for the Ibrox club, & McLean, more than anyone, knew how immature he was – but then so were most of us at 21.
But I think had it not been for the headbutt incident then Ferguson DID have a chance to push on after what was a difficult first season at Ibrox. But that headbutt episode changed everything – or at least the reaction to it did.
Did the media have a part to play? Perhaps. The News of the World headline the following day was “You Nutter!” but then you’d expect that from a tabloid newspaper – it would be the same today. I don’t think they were picking on Ferguson in particular. Anyone would have been given the same treatment. Although we can continue to argue about how severe it was, the headbutt was a newsworthy incident – and one that Ferguson probably should have been sent off for.
If he had been red-carded, then what followed might well have been avoided & the reaction would not have been quite so hysterical. But the appetite for the authorities to get involved in football at the time – this was post-Hillsborough, post the McAvennie v Roberts, Woods and Butcher Old Firm derby bust-up – I think was the most significant aspect. The Procurator Fiscal decided to progress things and after that, it was difficult to halt what then Rangers vice-chairman and QC Donald Findlay describes in my book as the “legal machine” – he added, “it tends to grind everything, and everyone, in its path”.
Based on your knowledge/research, does Ferguson resent his time with Rangers? Do the old grudges with the SFA & the media linger?
I don’t think he resents his time at Rangers at all. He wanted to play for the club. He was a supporter, although judging from what those who went to school with him told me I don’t think he was quite as passionate about Rangers as he later claimed.
When he signed for Everton, initially on loan, the plan was to go there, score some goals & try and convince Walter Smith that he still had a future at Rangers. He wanted to stay at Ibrox but I think two things swayed him in the direction of Goodison Park – 1. the reaction of the fans to him after he had got off the mark v Liverpool in a derby & then 2. a growing realisation that he was never going to escape the scrutiny & baggage that comes with being a controversial figure playing for Rangers in Scotland.
It was better for all concerned that he had a clean start.
Does he still resent the SFA and the media? Well, he did his coaching badges at Largs, so that perhaps answers the first part of the question. As for the media, he has come out of his shell a bit too, perhaps for pragmatic reasons as much as anything given his coaching ambitions, so I think he might now accept that the media had to report what happened in the headbutt incident – they could not just whitewash it.
I would say that he probably still harbours some resentment towards the late Jim Farry, who was SFA chief executive when Ferguson was given a twelve match ban for the McStay incident. Farry wanted this to still stand despite the custodial sentence Ferguson was handed. His pursuit of Ferguson after he had been released from jail did seem unnecessarily vindictive.
What changed for him in England? Who were some of the catalysts for his success with Everton?
I think the aforementioned goal v Liverpool changed a lot of people’s perceptions of him. If you remember, he was not the only signing from Rangers. Ian Durrant joined him on loan at Goodison & it is clear that Durrant was the one whose arrival was greeted with a more excitement. He after all had a genuine pedigree having achieved on the European & international stage while Ferguson had earned most of his headlines for less savoury reasons.
Ferguson had not scored in his opening few games & at half-time of the Liverpool game, Joe Royle was even considering taking him off because he had learned just prior to kick-off that the striker had failed a breathalyser test in the early hours of Sunday morning – just the day before the Monday night fixture!! Had he been taken off then I think he might have been sent back to Rangers the next morning with the tag: “thanks but no thanks”.
But Royle decided to keep him on, and he scored a typical Duncan Ferguson header to seal is place in the fans’ affections and the rest is history – although he did also test the fans’ patience with some ridiculous red cards & his long absences with injury and suspension, which were features of his second spell at Goodison.
What will readers take away from this biography? Will preconceived notions be challenged?
I hope they will feel enlightened about his story, which, I think, is one of the most fascinating of in football – I mean, for a start, Ferguson remains the only high profile player to have been jailed for an on-field offence. That alone is noteworthy.
I hope people regard it as a sympathetic rendering of his life and career – I still find it hard to believe that he went to jail for what happened that day against Raith although I also wanted to highlight that it was not as straightforward as that – it is often forgotten that when the Ibrox incident occurred he was half-way through a year’s probation following a colourful episode in Anstruther.
I wanted to also look at what it meant for Jock McStay, the sometimes forgotten victim in the episode. He now works in the maintenance department at Celtic Park.
When I started the book Ferguson had gone into exile in Majorca & that’s what again piqued by interest – I am attracted to personalities who decide to disappear, and leave the life they became famous for behind.
Everyone I spoke to at the start of my research said that this was true to form for Dunc. They reported that he didn’t even seem to like football, & he wouldn’t be back. But then lo & behold he did come back, which gave me an unlikely ending for my book.
As for preconceived notions, I hope my book helps demolish the opinion of some who believe he was just a “nutter”.
He is incredibly generous to his teammates, & I heard barely a bad word about him from them. Ally McCoist told he me that when he hears his name, he just smiles. He did not mean that in a mocking way. Rather, he said, he loved him. One of McCoist’s biggest regrets, he said, is that he was not asked to be a witness at the headbutt trial.
This is Alan Pattulo’s second book. His first – Ten Days that Shook Scotland – examines ten of the most momentous days in Scottish football history, which includes a look at a riot during a 1909 Old Firm match. In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life & Crimes of a Footballing Enigma is available on Amazon & at your local bookstore.
You can follow Alan Pattulo on Twitter @allan_pattulo