“Commitment, aggression, goals, leadership and, yes, maybe a bit of devilment. And even the ability to intimidate. Evertonians loved him for that. The Gwladys Street would have followed the big man everywhere. He was a talisman who terrified opponents and was adored by Blues. There was just nothing other than a total bond between him and the fans at that moment. Football rarely gets more emotional or passionate.”
It’s telling that so long after his retirement from the professional game – a decade, to be exact – the legend of Duncan Ferguson endures. Indeed, the above quote from Everton chairman Bill Kenwright speaks volumes about the popularity and appeal of a man widely viewed as Everton’s first, and perhaps only, modern day icon, in what has been a barren, trophyless Premier League era for the historic nine-time champions of English football.
On the face of it, the Stirling-born striker’s yield of 73 goals in 272 appearances for the Merseyside club is far from spectacular. Break it down statistically, over the course of his 11-year, two-part spell at Goodison Park, and it works out at an average of roughly seven goals per season in around 25 appearances. Solid, but hardly likely to set the pulses racing for a group of fans well versed in the tales of 60-goal Dixie Dean and other club legends like Tommy Lawton, Graeme Sharp and Bob Latchford, or indeed, the new breed of football fan accustomed to seeing the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo notch 50 goals a season.
Injury-prone, volatile and a constant target for referees, some outside of the Everton bubble fail to understand the appeal of the revered man affectionately nicknamed ‘Big Dunc’, and less affectionately as the ‘Barlinnie Boy’, a reference to his 44-day jail sentence in a notorious Glasgow prison. On the face of it, it’s a quasi-impalpable, sentimental thing that only a select few understand. Those select few are, of course, Evertonians.
Back in 2006, days before Ferguson’s final game prior to retirement, a Daily Mail article attempted to summarise the Scottish international’s controversial, yet successful career in a colourful part-homage, part-critique. The words, “icon, hooligan, man of principle, shameless mercenary, tender bird lover, vicious thug, generous teammate and waste of space” paint a picture of a divisive figure that people outside of the blue half of Merseyside bubble have rarely accepted.
However, Kenwright’s words sing with nostalgia, affection and understanding of Ferguson’s true appeal to Evertonians. A beacon of hope in times of darkness for the Toffees, simultaneously warrior and wizard, never has the Goodison supremo spoken a truer word when he compared the relationship as “a love affair that endured”.
Born into a modest, working-class community in the central Scotland city of Stirling, Ferguson began his career at local side Carse Thistle before his obvious talent was recognised, and he was moved swiftly on to Scottish Premier side Dundee United.
His time at the Tangerines was an unqualified success on the pitch, and eventually earned him a big-money £3.75 million move to SPL giants Glasgow Rangers for what was a British record fee. Off the pitch the forward was already showing signs of the aggressive tendencies that would later become a defining feature of his explosive career.
A fine for head-butting a policeman in 1991 was followed by a further sanction for a scuffle with a disabled Hearts fan two years later. But it was an incident the following season that had the biggest impact on the life of Ferguson.
During a Rangers-Raith Rovers match in April 1994, Ferguson proceeded to head-butt opposition player John McStay in a bizarre moment that was either an indicator of unbridled aggression or an innocuous confrontation in the heat of the moment between two irate players, depending on who you speak to. In an unprecedented move on behalf of the Scottish authorities, Ferguson was sentenced to a 44-day spell in a Glasgow prison as punishment for his behaviour. At his lowest ebb, and out-of-favour at Rangers, Ferguson’s career was in peril.
In October 1994, the Goodison Park club were stuttering under the management of former Norwich manager Mike Walker. The antidote was a move that took two Rangers players on loan, including Ferguson and midfielder Ian Durrant. The former impressed, and became a permanent signing under Walker’s successor, Everton legend Joe Royle. It was a marriage made in heaven.
Royle’s first game in charge was a momentous occasion for Ferguson, and one that went a long way to establishing the bond between player and fans that is seen today, as the towering Scot nodded in the opening goal in his very first Merseyside derby. The Blues went on to win 2-0, with Paul Rideout bagging the second on a raucous November evening.
That year, with Ferguson excelling as the focal point of the Everton attack, terrifying defenders up and down the country, the club staved off relegation and won the FA Cup, beating a star-studded Manchester United side 1-0 thanks to Rideout’s opportune rebound header.
The following season was anticlimactic for the hulking striker, as a combination of injuries and a stint behind bars for the McStay incident served to derail much of the momentum that had been created during a stellar first campaign at the club.
However Ferguson bounced back in style, as all great players do, at the start of the 1996-97 season. Part of the Scotsman’s appeal was his ability to produce on the biggest stages, against the Toffees’ fierce rivals, Liverpool and Manchester United. Ferguson was a constant thorn in the Old Trafford club’s side during his time at Everton, and the August ‘96 game in Manchester was no different.
First, he opened the scoring with a sublime shot on the turn that arrowed into the home side’s net, and then the Scot proceeded to double Everton’s lead after Peter Schmeichel misjudged Andy Hinchcliffe’s teasing cross. Ferguson’s heroics that night would have gone down in Everton folklore but for United’s second half fight back that culminated in David Unsworth’s late own goal. Fans had received yet another reminder of his true potential.
In November 1998, with Everton strapped for cash, Ferguson was controversially sold to Newcastle United for a fee of £8 million. The deal to sell the player was, it is believed, done by then Everton chairman, Peter Johnson, behind the back of then manager Walter Smith, and many fans mourned the sale of the striker who so embodied the club and its core of devoted fans.
The move to Newcastle failed, for a number of reasons, to work out for the player, and Ferguson returned to Goodison Park for a fee of £3.75 million at the start of the 2000-01 season, provoking widespread jubilation on the blue half of Merseyside.
The striker’s second debut, an emotional, cathartic 3-0 victory over Charlton Athletic in which a sold out Goodison witnessed their returning hero net two, still lingers in the memory for supporters; the prodigal son had returned in style.
Highlights during Ferguson’s second spell at the club include a wonderful headed winner to beat Manchester United and propel the Merseyside team to Champions League qualification in 2005. That night, Wayne Rooney’s first return to Goodison since his acrimonious £28 million move was overshadowed by Ferguson’s second half winner as the Scottish international stooped to head Mikel Arteta’s in-swinging free-kick into the Gwladys Street net and send Evertonians into raptures. Ferguson, quite simply, had a habit of making the difference when it truly mattered.
Controversy, however, followed the totemic attacker wherever he went and that, together with injuries, threatened to shorten a turbulent, rollercoaster of a career. Altercations with Wigan duo Pascal Chimbonda and Paul Scharner, and Leicester City midfielder Steffen Freund, were reckless in the extreme, yet only served to enhance his cult reputation among the Everton fan base.
Similarly, that Everton’s opponents for this weekend’s testimonial are Spanish side Villarreal is again in no small part down to another moment of controversy involving the Scot. With Everton trailing 3-2 on aggregate in the Champions League qualifier against the community of Valencia club, Ferguson’s header to put David Moyes’ men on level terms was unfairly ruled out by Italian referee Pierluigi Collina. To this day, Everton officials and supporters alike wonder what would have been had the club been awarded that goal, with many arguing that Collina’s decision was the defining moment in the recent history of a club struggling to reach the top table. Fittingly, perhaps, Ferguson will put on his playing boots one last time this Sunday as he seeks ‘revenge’ for that fateful night.
The striker’s last game for the club was another memorable affair, as Ferguson’s late equaliser earned the Toffees a point in their final home game of the season. Trailing lowly West Brom 2-1, the Blues were awarded a 90th minute penalty. Ferguson’s scuffed left-footed effort was saved by Albion custodian Tomasz Kuszczak, however the former Rangers star duly dispatched the rebound to satiate an emotional Goodison Park. A poignant send-off for the iconic centre forward, if ever there was one.
Ferguson, in his current capacity, is a highly rated coach in Roberto Martínez’s set up. Initially a volunteer at the club’s productive Finch Farm academy, learning from the likes of fellow Glaswegian Alan Irvine, the Scot is now in possession of his UEFA coaching badges, and is widely tipped to one day take the reins at his beloved club. Given his remarkable rise up the coaching ladder at the club, who would bet against him?
Seemingly, Ferguson’s impact on the likes of Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku cannot be understated. Indeed, the prodigious Barkley himself gave a glowing appraisal of the coach’s virtues: “Since he came over to us, he has been great,” Barkley told Everton TV. “He has been passing on all of his experience.
“As an attacking player like him, Duncan has been passing on information for me to take into games. We have been working on my finishing and getting across my man. They were things he was great at, so it’s been fantastic to learn from him. We just class him as one of the lads. But you do have to be respectful because he is a coach and obviously he is a legend – everybody knows that.
“He fully deserves his occasion on Sunday. It’s reward for how much he loves the club. You see just how much he does every day.”
It is often said that Ferguson understands what it means to be an Evertonian more than most, and his actions largely backed up this school of thought. The striker famously campaigned against the current board back in 2007 to keep Everton in the city of Liverpool, when plans to move to the local borough of Knowsley were unveiled. In an impassioned speech that resonated with just about every blue, Ferguson 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.”
It is this very same capacity for empathy that resonates most with supporters of the famous old club. Goodison Park, as a result, will be packed to the rafters on Sunday to celebrate the career of a true Everton icon. Duncan Ferguson: coach, captain, inspiration.
By Patrick Boyland. Follow @Paddy_Boyland