By the summer of 1994, at the age of 23, Duncan Ferguson appeared to have reached something of a crossroads in his career. Heralded as one of Scotland’s brightest young prospects, Ferguson drove his manager at Dundee United, Jim McLean, to distraction with his apparent lack of dedication. “I can’t keep him out of trouble,” he bemoaned regularly as Duncan became involved in some unsavoury altercations which necessitated regular appearances before the judiciary. The forward became a standard feature in the Scottish fanzine, The Absolute Game, whose cartoon covers depicted him as a layabout with a bottle of whisky in hand, appearing in front of a magistrate.
Yet Ferguson’s potential was frightening. In a declining United side, he scored 28 goals in 77 games, prompting Rangers to sign him for a British record fee of £4m in 1993 at the age of just 21. Frustratingly, his career in Glasgow never really took off.
During a league game in 1993, Ferguson appeared to have headbutted John McStay of Raith Rovers, an incident missed by match officials but caught on television. In a worrying precedent, the case was referred by the Strathclyde Police to the courts and he was charged with assault, receiving a three-month prison sentence pending an appeal. Unsurprisingly, his form suffered and he struggled to maintain his place in the side. The Scottish press seemed to derive pleasure in their continual demonising of the young man.
Meanwhile, despite manager Mike Walker’s best attempts, Everton narrowly escaped relegation at the end of the 1993/94 season. The new campaign showed no sign of improvement and the club languished at the bottom, scoring just seven goals in nine Premier League games. The need for a striker was obvious, especially as Walker, in all his wisdom, inexplicably decided to swap the previous season’s top scorer Tony Cottee for West Ham defender David Burrows.
On a fact-finding mission to Rangers to improve income streams, Everton chairman Peter Johnson concluded a loan deal with Rangers for both Ian Durrant and Ferguson to join Everton. Most Blues at the time believed Durrant to be an excellent choice but held deep reservations about Big Dunc. He certainly didn’t endear himself to supporters when he arrived at his unveiling sporting a bright red jacket, with the languid demeanour of a matchday scally. Durrant, however, had got the memo – he wore a blue.
In October 1994, Ferguson made his debut in a 1-0 defeat away to Crystal Palace. He didn’t score in his next four games and Walker was dismissed, allowing him to spend more time on his sunbed. Most Blues had concluded that Ferguson simply didn’t want to be at Everton after his uninspiring performances. Whilst he may have thought that his future lay with Rangers, despite all the positive noises from Ibrox, manager Walter Smith realised that his striker needed to escape from the goldfish bowl to fulfil his potential.
Everton appointed ex-club legend Joe Royle as manager at the start of November. The Toffees were anchored at the foot of the table with one win in 14 games, having accumulated a measly eight points. Relegation seemed a foregone conclusion and Liverpool were to visit Goodison on 24 November. The Gwladys Street faithful resigned themselves to a crushing defeat. If ever a club needed a hero to save their season, it was now.
Royle quickly appreciated what an asset Duncan could be. During training sessions, he noted that Ferguson’s aerial ability could cause defences problems given the right service. For the derby he recalled Andy Hinchcliffe to deliver those precision crosses. The pre-match analysis on Sky confirmed that a Liverpool victory would be the only logical outcome.
Few inside the ground knew that Ferguson was arrested for drink driving just two nights previously. Inexplicably, Everton accommodated him in the Moat House Hotel in the city centre with a multitude of temptations on his doorstep. At the time, a student in my Year 11 class completed her work experience there and regaled me with tales about this “mad Scotsman” who was having parties in his room every night.
He knew that he had let the club down and now needed to produce something exceptional on the pitch. Royle’s tactical changes saw a much-improved performance, although the Scotsman was struggling to impose himself on the game. Royle later admitted that he considered replacing him during the interval.
Just after half time, Neil Ruddock kicked him on the back of the legs “to show him who was boss.” It was like a red rag to a bull as suddenly Ferguson, incandescent with anger, wreaked havoc on the Liverpool defence. On 51 minutes, he rose majestically and bulleted a header just over the bar. Suddenly the crowd sensed an upset.
On 56 minutes, Hinchliffe delivered the perfect corner and Ferguson soared above Ruddock and David James to head the ball into the net and celebrated ecstatically in front of the Gwladys Street. He continued to torment the Reds defence, who simply couldn’t handle him, and with two minutes remaining, his challenge on the jittery James in goal led to Everton’s second from Paul Rideout. As he tried to leave the pitch, he was mobbed by jubilantly joyous Blues. Later that evening, he could be found in Kirkland’s Wine Bar celebrating with delirious Toffees.
Afterwards, Andy Gray stated on Sky: “I’ve said it all night, Duncan Ferguson has been a handful.” Joe Royle concurred: “Duncan went to war.” It was the display that transformed Everton’s season. Ferguson felt appreciated and loved. It was the night when Evertonians hailed a new hero. The club had been in the doldrums far too long, suddenly Big Dunc lifted the gloom.
Everton broke the British transfer record to make his loan signing permanent. The bigger the opposition, the more galvanised Ferguson appeared to be. The club shop was overwhelmed by the demand for Duncan t-shirts, which went flying off the shelves. A competition was held for fans to design a tattoo for him. By the end of the season, Everton avoided the drop and he was the proud owner of an FA Cup winners medal.
In October 1995, he became the first footballer to serve a jail term for on-pitch violence when he served a six-week sentence in the notorious Barlinnie Prison for the McStay incident. The injustice and futility of the draconian sentence rankled many outside of the game. Crucially, Everton succeeded in overturning a further 12-match suspension imposed by the Scottish FA.
Ferguson was touched by the support he received from the club hierarchy and the supporters and, when he returned to Goodison, a crowd of over 11,000 watched him play for the reserves.
Yet, problems of apparent indiscipline continued to plague him throughout his career. He shares the record for the highest number of Premier League red cards with Patrick Vieira, though there is a compelling case that with certain referees his reputation went before him, as demonstrated when Harrow schoolmaster David Ellary dismissed him for using “industrial language”. He also received a written admonishment from the FA after his winning goal against Manchester United in February 1995 for “excessive celebration”.
Ferguson displayed a passion for the club which has been sadly lacking in many of the monied mercenaries who have worn the shirt in recent times. Watching him in derbie – throwing Paul Ince to the ground or throttling Jason McAteer – was an exhilarating experience worth the admission price alone. In the 1990s, he played seven times against Liverpool and was never on the losing side.
The Scot never forgave his FA for their treatment and refused to play for the national team. Nevertheless, there was another side to Ferguson, the pigeon fancier who named one of them “Coisty” after Ally McCoist, his favourite player. He was a regular visitor to Alder Hey children’s hospital, making substantial donations without any publicity. He did his best to reduce crime in his area by hospitalising some unfortunate burglars who broke into this home.
Both Tony Adams and Steve Bruce named him as their most difficult opponent. On Match of the Day in April 1997, Alan Hansen admitted that he would not have been able to cope with him saying that he was “simply unplayable.”
Many never understood the adulation that Ferguson received but during Everton’s darkest days in the 1990s, he offered hope with his majestic displays. He was Everton’s top scorer in a poor side for two consecutive seasons, between 1996 and 1998, which enabled them to escape relegation by the narrowest of margins. His headed hat-trick against Bolton in December 1997 effectively kept Everton up and in turn sent the Trotters down.
Genuine cult heroes are hard to find these days but in a 48-hour period in November 1994, Ferguson was arrested for drink driving, had a girl waiting for him in his hotel room when he was released, scored his first goal for Everton in a derby match in front of the Street End, and spent the evening celebrating with fans in the city centre until the early hours. Needless to say, barring a miracle, we will never see the likes of him again. He’s the player who made watching Everton in the 90s worthwhile.
By Paul McParlan @paulmcparlan