HE HAS frequently been lampooned as a ned, his intelligence has often seemed only of the football variety, and his behaviour last week was the kind expected of a teenage tearaway rather than a 31-year-old senior figure in Scottish sport. At the end of the worst week of his career, disgraced ex-Scotland player and former Rangers captain Barry Ferguson has proven that like so many footballers, his brains really are in his feet
Ferguson and fellow tippler Allan McGregor – who drank until dawn after the Scotland team's defeat at the hands of Holland last weekend, despite facing a crucial match against Iceland midweek – are the latest in a long inglorious line of Scottish footballers who have let down themselves, their country and their club as a result of booze. From Jimmy Johnstone's rowing boat escapade in 1974, through the infamous revelries of the Copenhagen Five to James McFadden's 'away day' in Hong Kong, via the nightclubbing activities of Frank McAvennie, there runs a constant thread – a surfeit of alcohol.
But it was their subsequent two-fingered gesture to TV and press cameras during the Iceland match that truly sealed the fate of Ferguson and McGregor. The punishment was not corporal but was still a body blow to a man who has been a lifelong fan of the Ibrox giants and relishes the captaincy of Rangers and Scotland.
The footballing and non-footballing public alike have been fed a diet of 'Bazza The Ned' stories and images ever since the lad from the council estate in Hamilton first gave television interviews in his flat nasal tones and then featured in lurid headlines about the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 2000 – an incident in which he and several companions fought with Celtic fans in the streets of the Lanarkshire town.
Viciously parodied in such programmes as BBC Scotland's Only An Excuse, Ferguson hates the 'ned' image, but did himself no good by once admitting that he only ever read footballers' biographies. He has no inkling of intellectual pretensions and once said: "I don't have any interests outside the game. If I hadn't made it I would probably have become a PE teacher. But it never crossed my mind not to succeed."
But there is another side to Ferguson that the fans do not see. Like several Old Firm players, he quietly supports charities and seeks no publicity for the visits he makes to sick fans. He is also a devoted father of three children, a genuine family man who married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Kane, who happens to be a Roman Catholic. When Sir Alex Ferguson committed similar exogamy – marriage outwith the tribe – more than 40 years ago, he was frozen out of Ibrox, despite being the club's top scorer the previous season.
Times may have changed and Catholics now play for Rangers, while the religion of Rangers WAGs counts for considerably less than their shopping destinations, but it still took courage for Ferguson to hit out at sectarian bigotry as he did six years ago, as well as admitting that he bought his father-in-law a season ticket for Celtic.
Signed to Rangers at the age of just 13, Ferguson followed his brother Derek to Ibrox, undergoing the traditional apprenticeship of a footballer – sweeping up dressing rooms and cleaning boots, while gaining the coaching and playing experience which enabled him to make his first team debut, aged 19, in 1997.
His greatest admirer, the Dutchman Dick Advocaat, soon became manager of Rangers and advanced the young midfielder's career spectacularly. In 1998, he earned his first Scotland cap in the European Championship qualifier against Lithuania, and the following year Advocaat signed him to a six-year contract, then made him the youngest ever captain of Rangers at 22.
His finest hour at Rangers came in May 2003, when he captained the club to a domestic treble of trophies, but with Alex McLeish in charge at Ibrox, just three months later, Ferguson fell for the lure of England's Premiership lucre, and to the shouts of "traitor" and "moneygrabber" he moved to Blackburn Rovers to join former Rangers' manager Graeme Souness.
It was to be an ill-starred sojourn in England, the player openly admitting to homesickness. He then broke his kneecap and missed the rest of that initial season. There was only ever going to be one solution. In January 2005, Rangers re-signed him, Blackburn taking a 2m loss on their 6.5m investment.
The failure of his southern jaunt damaged Ferguson's reputation as a player. The English media dismissed him almost out of hand, and that hurt a man who had wanted to prove himself furth of Scotland. He was received home to Ibrox like the prodigal son, and promptly proved to be a lucky talisman for his club, who beat Celtic to the Premier League title by a single point.
That summer he started his second spell as captain of Rangers, and the following year earned an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours. But then it seemed he met his nemesis. French manager Paul Le Guen arrived at Rangers and was soon making disparaging comments about the role of captain in Scottish football.
Unfortunately for Le Guen, Ferguson took the remarks personally, and with Rangers underachieving at the time, in the battle of manager versus captain, unusually it was the manager who lost. Le Guen went home, before Scotland manager Walter Smith arrived back at Ibrox for his second spell and immediately reinstated Ferguson as captain.
His finest hour wearing the Scotland armband came with that famous victory over France in a European Championship qualifier in Paris in September, 2007. James McFadden may have scored a famous long-range winner, but it was Ferguson who marshalled a defensive performance that night.
More recently, he has seemed to many people to be a shadow of his former self after he was out for five months last year following surgery on a troublesome ankle. Once the idol of the Ibrox fans – he is the only player currently playing who was elected by the supporters to the Rangers Hall of Fame – many of them have been vocal in their criticism of the club captain since his return to first team action last November.
In January, with financial problems mounting, Rangers humiliatingly tried to sell him to Newcastle United. Ferguson was not best pleased, but survived. Now with his boozing and V-signs he has handed Rangers the excuse they need to move him on, and he will leave the club this summer. Being written out by Scotland is also a massive blow, especially with qualification for next year's World Cup still possible.
It is a sorry end to Ferguson's stint at the helm. Yet he should not be written off, as his courage is undoubted – though his passion for football may have diminished in the past few days. If only his thirst for drowning his sorrows had been so easily quenched.
You've been Googled:
• Ferguson was born in Hamilton on February 2, 1978. His father was a roof sheeter by trade.
• He was once asked by Blackburn FC supporters to name his favourite Scot. His reply was the Bay City Rollers.
• His wife Margaret played a trick on him when a video was made to mark the award of his MBE. It showed the Ferguson house with "the captain of a successful team" having a cup of tea – none other than Neil Lennon, the then captain of Celtic.
• With his Scotland career ended, Ferguson will never now make the SFA's Hall of Fame as he has just 45 caps, five short of the 50 needed to qualify. He does have a Silver Cap, however, awarded for 25 appearances.
• Like most Scots players of his generation, he has never appeared in a European Championships or World Cup Finals.
• In season 2002-2003, he not only lifted the three domestic trophies as Rangers captain but also won the Players' Player and Football Writers' Player of the Year titles, the only man ever to achieve this quintuple.