You’ll remember, I’m sure, the 2006 World Cup when no less than six of the automatic picks for the England team – all fully paid-up members of that country’s so-called “golden generation” – announced they were writing books. This was before a ball had been kicked, before a Portuguese testicle had been trodden on, and when the resultant tomes with their complete lack of a glorious final chapter sneaked hopefully onto the shelves in time for Christmas, someone suggested this might spell the end of the traditional football memoir where players receive huge advances in return for some dressing-room in-jokes, the names of a couple of opponents they didn’t much like – and page after page of tedious self-glorification.
Fat chance. The dreck is still out there. But around the same time a different kind of football book began to emerge. Books which imagined the words of real football figures (The Damned United, also published in 2006). Books about football ghosts (John White’s son going in search of the dad he never knew). Quite a lot of dad-inspired books, indeed, including My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes and The Footballer Who Could Fly. And altogether bolder books like Gordon Burn’s Best and Edwards.
To that fine list can be added In Search of Duncan Ferguson by Alan Pattullo, a book about another football ghost, or at least that’s how the enigmatic Scot – yes, he’s one of those – probably seemed to the author. Makes his name at Dundee United, scores a few goals, has a few fights with Jim McLean, disappears. Signs for Rangers, labours under big price tag, disappears. Really disappears – into Barlinnie Prison. Re-emerges at Everton, becomes cult hero, disappears. Comes back to Goodison again, then disappears again, seemingly for good, which seemed strange, given Ferguson’s love of the “doos” and their inclinations towards home.
And then there were all those times journalist Pattullo tried to get him to talk for the book: the letters, the doorstepping, the notes passed to the few people Ferguson trusted. He was definitely a ghost then. Ferguson doesn’t speak here. His attitude to Scottish pressmen, maybe summing up his attitude to Scotland at the time, can be illustrated by this exchange at Wembley, after Ferguson had helped Everton win the 1995 FA Cup: “Big man, big man…Dunc, over here! Can you spare a word for the Scottish guys, big yin?”
“Aye, I’ll spare you two – fuck yeez.”
What would In Search of… have been like if Ferguson had spoken? “Yes, the Bar-L was hell. Slopping out was disgusting. And did you know that my cell was across the corridor from what they used to call the ‘hanging shed’? You can probably guess how it got that name…”
Ferguson’s views might be interesting. Then again, given the reaction of many he encountered was “Who was that giant long drink of water and what was he about?” maybe they wouldn’t quite rattle the joists of a corrugated-roof grandstand. For now, though, I’m perfectly happy with the testimonies of those Pattullo sought out while he waited for the big yin’s big reveal (and waited and waited). “I don’t see what he can have to write about because the people who know me wouldn’t have spoken to a journalist,” the subject tells a friend.
In the rococo, rock ‘n’ roll life of Duncan Cowan Ferguson, though, that still leaves a few. There’s Jock McStay, the headbutt victim in the case of the first-ever footballer to be jailed for an on-field offence. “I was left with a smashed face. Two black eyes,” says McStay, and this by the way was the second flare-up between the pair, in the reserves, at Alloa’s Recreation Park. (No, I didn’t know about that one either).
Pattullo sits down with Donald Findlay, QC. He gets inside Barlinnie and finds the warden who turned the key in Ferguson’s cell. He tracks down the sheriff who passed sentence and learns that the Ferguson case was among the two most remarkable of the lawman’s career, the other involving a couple of horses as key witnesses.
For a delicious moment, you think the writer might attempt to find out what became of the nags in question. He does travel all the way to Helsinki, though, and meets the composer of a Dunc-inspired opera. But the best quote, almost inevitably, comes from the great grumpy Tayside football oracle McLean in a typical piece of Fergie-provoked frustration: “The game means too much to me, I know that. But it means fuck all to you.”
Ferguson’s tale is the all-too-classic Scottish one of wayward talent, promise unfulfilled, defeat from the jaws of victory. For this paper, Pattullo’s first-ever piece on the man began: “The Tay, the Clyde, the Mersey and now the Tyne. Duncan Ferguson has spent much of his footballing career on the riverbank, never quite having made the splash he should have.”
He finds plenty of corroboration. Fellow Evertonian Scot Graeme Sharp: “All the attributes you need to be a top-class centre-forward: he had decent pace, great control, raw aggression and power…but we just didn’t see enough of it.” McLean: “Duncan just did not want to make the sacrifices necessary.” His mother Iris: “You know, he doesn’t really like football. He just loves his pigeons.”
In one sense, that of the dreamy fan, Pattullo doesn’t want to be writing these words: he’d have loved Ferguson to have been another Bonnie Dundee goal legend like Alan Gilzean. But in another, he knows there’s an interesting story here, one that gets more interesting the more Ferguson keeps running. “Unless he is doing all the writing in it,” Ferguson remarks at one point, regarding Pattullo and his infernal book, “what can he have to write about?”
Well, there’s the city of Dundee. In Search of… would have been an altogether different thing if it majored on Ferguson’s Rangers experience, no matter how short and unsuccessful that had been, before the explosive end, and we’re hardly lacking books exploiting the Old Firm connection. How pleasing it is, then, to be able to loiter for a few pages in some of Tayside’s scabby student pubs and unprepossessing, too-small digs – that is, if you’re a 6ft 4ins footballer.
Then there’s Dundee United, as managed by the mad genius McLean. The chapters on his governance of the club – the work ethic, the gloom brought on by 6-1 wins, the eight-year contracts which were “dangerously close to a form of serfdom” – are required reading for all students of the Scottish game.
Favourite character in the book? Maybe that would be Dick Barton. Not the special agent of radio legend, but what the tabloids called a “zany Glasgow publican”. Barton it was who, when told the police couldn’t act on the headbutt unless a member of the public complained, promptly wrote to every cop-shop in the land. And Barton it was who then felt guilty, turned up for the trial sporting a “Dunc’s no Punk” sandwich-board, and sent Barlinnie’s convict number 12718 a blow-up doll by way of apology.
Ferguson was welcomed as the prison’s “most famous customer since Rudolf Hess”. Officers recall seeing the “terror” in his eyes. He was given hopelessly short jail breeks, and the word spread that they had previously been worn by the Rab C. Nesbitt actor Eric Cullen. A 12-year-old Wayne Rooney was among the fans who wrote him letters. Signed photos quickly became hot jail currency, swappable for cigarettes or phone cards. You wait for the prison chapter and it doesn’t disappoint, but the book was gripping anyway.