Alan Pattullo: My Duncan Ferguson obsession

Duncan Ferguson's infamous headbutt on John McStay. Picture: Neil Hanna
Duncan Ferguson's infamous headbutt on John McStay. Picture: Neil Hanna
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DUNCAN Ferguson didn’t ruin my life, but he inhabited it, and by extension the lives of others around me, for more years than I – and they – might care to remember.

Detritus from the Big Dunc years is still strewn all around my study. There is a Barlinnie visitor’s ticket, dated 13/5/09. There is another one dated 26/1/11. There is a dog-eared copy of Nick Hornby’s book Fever Pitch, signed by Ferguson while he languished inside the Glasgow prison for six weeks as autumn turned to winter in 1995.

It was given to me by one of the prison officers who struck up a cordial relationship with the famous inmate, who they’d been warned had arrived as a footballer worth £4million – “and he better leave as one too”. Barlinnie wasn’t and still isn’t a place for the faint-hearted. Some things had changed since Ferguson was there. But as one governor informed me, “these are still the same walls”. In the eyes of many, Ferguson lost his liberty for an act of folly on a football pitch that was over in just a few seconds. Of course it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, something that I set out to explain in my book, In Search of Duncan Ferguson, published next week.

Now is the time to take stock of all that’s been accrued during the process, the beginning of which I can pinpoint to being sent on an assignment to report on his sudden transfer from Everton to Newcastle United for this newspaper, in November 1998.

I first saw Ferguson play when the then lanky centre-forward scored against my team, Dundee, for Dundee United in a Scottish Cup quarter-final in 1991. As I scuffed my way back down Arklay Street that night, I figured that Ferguson was someone it would be hard to ignore. Despite his height, he also proved challenging to track down.

I am left with piles of interview tapes – C90s, further evidence of how the process has spanned eras. Some of them now contain voices from beyond the grave. Dick Taylor, the Carse Thistle supremo whose glass eye did not prevent him spotting Ferguson’s talent, and George Skelton, the schoolteacher/scout who brought him to the attention of Dundee United, have both passed away since being interviewed.

There were times when I wondered what on earth I was doing. Why was I in Finland, in an opera house interviewing a composer about Ferguson? Why was I turning up unannounced on the doorstep of a retired sheriff? Why was I creaking open a door in a hotel bar in Anstruther, where Ferguson was involved in one rammy too many, to be met by a gallery of stares? These were all places on the Ferguson map as I tried to join the dots, without his co-operation. What chance did I have of sitting down with him when he didn’t consent to be interviewed for his own DVD? Big Dunc: The story of a Goodison Hero was produced by Everton without input from the subject. It, too, lies amid the rubble of research items, along with a programme from a Premier Division match between Rangers and Raith Rovers, from 16 April, 1994.

In the same way that the novel from a few years ago exploring the ramifications of a single seemingly innocuous act was simply called The Slap, I wondered whether The Headbutt could work as a title for a book about Ferguson. Everything changed for him (and others) that afternoon, when he went forehead-to-cheek with the Kirkcaldy side’s Jock McStay, a helpful and understandably still-slightly-bitter contributor to my book.

In the first week of my search I crunched with some trepidation up two garden paths; one was a house in Stirling where Ferguson’s parents live, and where he grew up. At the other, Jim McLean’s, I was led in by Doris, the former Dundee United’s manager’s wife. After her husband was called away to take a phone call, she remembered the strife Ferguson had caused her husband: “It was always Duncan this, and Duncan that.” When he returned, McLean was open and frank. “But I don’t want this to be a slamming exercise,” he told me, before expressing no surprise whatsoever that Ferguson had turned his back on the game, as was the case then.

A book is often a journey of discovery, for the author as well as the reader. It’s fair to say it doesn’t end the way I imagined it would all those years ago. In my synopsis I wrote how I intended to find out why he had walked away from football after a tense final showdown with David Moyes, who, like McLean, often despaired at his attitude.

Now first-team coach at Everton, Ferguson has this week been hailed for his application on the training field. This is different to his latter days as a player at Everton, when he was so often sidelined by suspension or injury. As Joe Royle, the manager who signed him on a permanent transfer from Rangers, memorably said, Ferguson “became the legend before he became the player” after scoring against Liverpool while still on loan. Yet, when he left Everton, after his second spell at the club, the news merited only a “meanwhile” in the local paper. Had Big Dunc really just drifted away from the game? This is when my strong interest in his story turned to fascination and, dare I say it, obsession.

He didn’t walk away. Not for good, at least. Millions can now see him over Everton manager Roberto Martinez’s shoulder on Match of the Day, with suspiciously bouffantish-looking hair. It’s a remarkable transformation.

This is the man who so many told me seemed to actually dislike football. Jim McLean once roared at Ferguson: “The game means far too much to me, I know that! But it means f*** all to you!”

This quote, I now realise, is still pinned to a cork board behind me as I write, the hook on which the book hung. The scrap of paper on which I scribbled these words has now frayed. But, then, haven’t we all? All except, perhaps, a rejuvenated Duncan Ferguson, a misunderstood footballer who I felt deserved another hearing.