Always a man with a gift for a quip, never was Joe Royle more prescient than when he observed, shortly after signing him in 1994, that Duncan Ferguson had become ‘a legend before he was a player’. More than a decade later, as Ferguson drew time on his long, injury - interrupted footballing career, Evertonians were left to rue that same, strange paradox first voiced by Royle.
On the one hand, Ferguson was a man they had taken to their hearts, who had inspired and been inspired by the Goodison crowd, who, in his flourishes, had been one of the very few to lift the torpor that consumed Everton through lean years. And yet, there was an unmistakeable sense that he had wasted the prodigious gifts that once made him Britain’s most expensive footballer, that because of this underachievement he had contributed to the mediocrity that defined the club during his time on Merseyside. As Ferguson made his way to Spain, where he lived with his family in quiet retirement for five years before a surprise Goodison return, so the debate about his actual importance to Everton’s history rumbles on among the club’s support.
BORN IN the medieval town of Stirling in 1971, Ferguson was heralded as the most promising Scottish footballer of his generation. A centre forward, he played for his country’s youth teams alongside Alex Young’s son, Jason, and was signed by Dundee United, making his debut in November 1990, and establishing himself as a first-team regular by that season’s end.
Two years later, in July 1993, he became a British record signing, when he joined Glasgow Rangers for £4million, in the process rejecting the opportunity of moving to England, where a number of clubs – including Everton – were linked to him. Ferguson was far from a success at Rangers, notching just one goal in his first season, although he was kept out for much of it with a broken leg.
WORSE STILL, his off-the-pitch antics earned him unwanted headlines. Ferguson had already been involved in three assault cases in two years when he was handed a 12-match ban by the Scottish Football Association for head-butting Raith Rovers defender John McStay during a league match at Ibrox in April 1994. The referee missed the incident, but it was captured on television and although Ferguson appealed against the ban, he was also charged with assault by Strathclyde Police and left facing the prospect of a custodial sentence.
It was with this cloud hanging over him that Ferguson arrived at Goodison in October 1994 in a loan deal with the midfielder, Iain Durrant. Many fans viewed the expensive deal with some scepticism, seeing it as a last-ditch attempt by Mike Walker to save his job as manager after Everton’s worst ever start to a season.
Although Ferguson impressed in flashes under Walker, he failed to score and just weeks into his three-month loan spell Walker was sacked. Walker’s replacement, Joe Royle, was well versed in the lore of Everton centre forwards, and under his management Ferguson seemed to be galvanised. In Royle’s first game as manager, a derby match against Liverpool with Everton propping up the Premier League, Ferguson scored his first goal in an Everton shirt – a header from a ferocious Andy Hinchcliffe corner. Later in the game, pressure from Ferguson enabled Paul Rideout to score a second.
Suddenly the anti-hero, who had been charged with drink-driving the previous night, was Goodison’s new darling. ‘Duncan went to war in the second half,’ said Royle after the game. A fortnight later, Royle made the loan deal permanent at a cost of £4.5million – then the second highest fee ever paid by an English club. ‘I don’t think he came here to play for Everton,’ Royle would say. ‘I think he came to get out of Scotland. But then he found the place was growing on him, and suddenly there was this adulation which has to be seen to be believed. You walk round Goodison today, and they’ve all got Ferguson shirts on. The big fella has got a charisma about him. He is a bit of a gunslinger, sometimes an anti-hero in people’s eyes, but they absolutely adore him.’
Though noted for his physicality and aerial prowess – at 6ft 4in, Ferguson was a giant in a time before English football was dominated by such players – this belied a deft touch and quick feet. A succession of top defenders, such as Arsenal’s Tony Adams and Manchester United’s Gary Pallister, lined up to describe him as their toughest opponent. Never the most instinctive finisher, he nevertheless possessed a fierce shot and was capable of spectacular strikes. A good team player, who brought colleagues into the game, at times Ferguson was perhaps not selfish enough in the penalty area. Before injuries ravaged his career he possessed a reasonable turn of pace too.
In short, he possessed all the attributes to be a top-class centre forward. On his day he was unplayable, and there were few sights more majestic than Ferguson rising to head home a cross. What seemed to hold him back, however, was a suspect temperament. The times when he was at his best could in most seasons be counted on one hand. Joe Royle later hinted that Ferguson was actually uninterested in football, and certainly there were occasions when he seemed to struggle to motivate himself and games passed him by. Nor did he score the number of goals one would expect from a top-class striker. Ferguson’s best ever tally came in 1997/98 when he scored 12 goals.
The violence that dogged his life in Scotland – on and off the pitch – persisted, and although Ferguson found himself a marked man by referees and was unfairly targeted on occasion, there were times when he literally blew up, elbowing or punching opponents. Sometimes these were memorable and went unpunished – who could forget him pushing over Liverpool’s Paul Ince or throttling Jason McAteer? But often they cost Everton dearly. In total he received eight red cards while an Everton player – an unenviable Premier League record he shares with Patrick Vieira. Despite facing the wrath of many a referee, and the injuries that forced him to miss much of the latter stages of the 1994/95 season, Ferguson still managed to add to his burgeoning reputation. He scored the winner when Everton met Manchester United in February, and celebrated by whipping off his shirt and swinging it around his head. Three months later he collected an FA Cup winners’ medal against the same opponents after coming on as a late substitute, although his contribution to the win was ultimately minimal, having missed most of Everton’s FA Cup run through injury or suspension.
The 1995/96 season was a bad one for Ferguson. After missing the early stages of the season with a groin injury, in October he became the first professional footballer to serve a jail term for on-the-field violence when a Scottish sheriff’s court sentenced him to three months’ imprisonment for the McStay incident. Ferguson served six weeks but his return was once more curtailed by injury, and again he missed the latter stages of the season, and consequently Scotland’s participation in the European Championship Finals.
WHEN HE returned at the start of the 1996/97 season he seemed rejuvenated, putting in immense displays against Newcastle and Manchester United. ‘The bigger the reputation of the opposition, the more he’s up for it,’ said his Scotland team-mate, Gary McAllister. ‘He acquires that strut as if he’s saying: “You might be [Steve] Bruce or Pallister, but now Fergie’s arrived.” It turns him on.’ However the old problems soon returned: another ludicrous sending off at Blackburn – this time for ‘industrial language’ – then further surgery, this time on his knee.
Suddenly Ferguson was under the microscope again, and it was noted that in his first two years at Goodison he had missed half of Everton’s games through injury or suspension. Ferguson, who refused to speak to the press, challenged such scepticism on the pitch, usually in front of the TV cameras. A spectacular turn and shot, which levelled the scores in the April Goodison derby, was one such retort, and the point that this earned simultaneously ensured Everton’s Premier League status and ended Liverpool’s narrow hopes of the title. Such interludes heightened Goodison’s adoration for the player.
During Howard Kendall’s third spell as manager in 1997/98, Ferguson enjoyed his most prolific season. He announced his retirement from international football – it was said that he still hadn’t forgiven the SFA for their part in the McStay affair – and after Gary Speed left Goodison in January 1998 took over the captaincy. The added responsibility seemed to galvanise him and it was his goals – including a hat-trick against Bolton and another derby goal – that again ensured Everton’s survival.
In the summer of 1998 Ferguson was reunited with new boss Walter Smith, who had been his manager first at Dundee United, then Rangers. Fresh investment brought new hope to Goodison, but in November chairman Peter Johnson tried to balance the books and Ferguson was sold to Newcastle United in an £8million deal. The transfer was conducted without Smith’s knowledge and Johnson’s already diminishing credibility was destroyed. With the manager threatening to resign, it led to a dramatic boardroom coup: Johnson stepped down, to be succeeded by Sir Philip Carter as chairman and Kenwright as vice-chairman, and he subsequently sold the club to a Kenwright-led consortium.
At Newcastle, where he partnered Alan Shearer, Ferguson was a qualified success, although injuries and disciplinary problems – those perpetual bugbears – limited him to just 30 league and cup starts. By July 2000, Newcastle were ready to cut their losses on him, and he returned to Goodison in a £4.5million deal.
His second coming was less than triumphant, however, and for a long time Ferguson, the club’s top earner, was a costly burden. His paltry number of league starts say everything about how injuries damaged his career: just nine in 2000/01, 17 in 2001/02 and none at all in 2002/03. By the summer of 2004 there was talk of Ferguson being paid off for the final year of his contract – but he flatly rejected the offer. Then in December that year it looked as though Ferguson’s Everton career would draw to an even more ignominious close when he was told to stay away from Bellefield after a furious row with David Moyes. The Everton manager and player resolved their differences and Ferguson returned to the Everton squad.
THERE WAS an element of Roy of the Rovers fantasy about what followed. As Everton chased an unprecedented Champions League place, Ferguson, now a grizzled veteran, became something of a talisman, usually brought on from the bench to wreak chaos in the opposition penalty area, and he played a decisive part in Everton’s race for fourth place. His finest moment, indeed arguably his finest hour as an Everton player, came on 20 April 2005, when Everton met Manchester United under floodlights at Goodison. Ferguson went to war, playing with the skill and bombast of a man a decade younger. He captured the game’s decisive moment when he dived through a maelstrom of United defenders to somehow head home Mikel Arteta’s free kick into the Gwladys Street goal. The 1-0 win, Everton’s first league victory against United since Ferguson had scored at the same end ten years earlier, virtually assured them of a Champions League place.
Rewarded with a new year-long contract, Ferguson almost played a decisive part in their Champions League qualifier against Villarreal the following August, scoring a late header that would have brought an away-goals victory. However, referee Pierluigi Collina inexplicably disallowed the goal. Collina had become the world’s most famous referee by studying players’ movements and behaviour prior to games. Once more, it seemed, Ferguson’s reputation had preceded him.
Ferguson’s role was less substantial in 2005/06, and by the final day, when Everton met already relegated West Bromwich Albion at Goodison, it became clear that his contract would not be renewed. Ferguson, accompanied by his children, who were mascots, led Everton out one last time as captain on an emotional day – Brian Labone had died just days earlier and the game was preceded by a heart-rending tribute. Albion took an unexpected two-goal lead, but Everton fought back, first through a Victor Anichebe goal, then, in the dying seconds they were awarded a penalty. Ferguson, without a goal all season, stepped up to take it, but Albion’s goalkeeper, Tomasz Kuszczak, who had been in inspired form all afternoon, saved it. Ferguson had the last word, however, and with the final kick of his Everton career converted the rebound.
AS THE TEAM went on a lap of honour, a tearful Ferguson waved at the fans, many of whom shared his emotional state, for the last time. It was a strange thing, the bonds that united the centre forward with his support, for although his career was marked by occasional moments of brilliance, it was ultimately one of immense underachievement. Plenty of men with less formidable talent outperformed him during his Goodison years yet without sharing the same affinity with the crowd.
Enigmatic he may have been, but Ferguson was the ultimate cult figure. As a younger man, wild stories about his nightclub antics – sometimes apocryphal or exaggerated in the telling – proliferated among Evertonians, adding to his legend. There was the pigeon fancying and the Everton tattoo, designed by a fan after a competition in the club magazine. Then there was the incident, in 2001, when Ferguson confronted burglars in his home and put one of them in hospital for three days.
Ferguson's life even inspired an orchestral piece, Barlinnie Nine, composed by the Finnish composer, Osmo Tapio Räihälä. Of his work, Räihälä said, ‘I got the idea for it when he was facing jail and had just become something of a cult figure for Everton. It takes into account the contradictions in him: he has an aggressive side but there is a lyrical undertone to him, as the fact that he keeps pigeons shows.’ Barlinnie Nine premiered on 20 April 2005 by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – the same night Ferguson scored his famous goal against Manchester United. The significance of this was not lost on Räihälä, who said: ‘There I was describing Duncan as a failure in Finland, and thousands of miles away at Everton he rises like a phoenix from the ashes to score against Manchester United. If there are gods of football up there, this proves they have got a most twisted sense of humour.’
In April 2007, Ferguson broke his long-standing public silence to speak out against Everton’s proposed move to Kirkby. He said: ‘During my time at Everton, Goodison Park came to feel like a second home, with the supporters of the club, and the people of the city becoming a second family to me. If you were to take Everton out of the city, I firmly believe
the club could no longer call itself the “People’s Club” and I give my whole-hearted support to the campaign to keep Everton in the city.’
THE LATE Tommy Lawton once said that Ferguson ‘could be the greatest [number nine] the club has ever had’, sentiments echoed by Joe Royle. Before the injuries, the talent was patently there, but the application never seemed to match it. Jim Baxter, a predecessor at Rangers, once quipped: ‘I hear he likes a few pints, loves to stay out late and gives a bit of lip in training. In my book he has all the ingredients of a great footballer.’ Maybe, just maybe, it was those same ‘ingredients’ that held Duncan Ferguson back from true greatness.