Big brother's eye on Ferguson

AS his little brother resumes his acquaintance tomorrow with the fixture which lured him back to Glasgow, Derek Ferguson will be attending an SFA coaching course in Motherwell. The bedlam of the crucial SPL Old Firm encounter at Parkhead, in which Barry Ferguson will be a central figure once more after his 18-month hiatus in Blackburn, will contrast starkly with the relaxed and light-hearted Sunday lunchtime Derek is looking forward to spending with the schoolchildren of South Lanarkshire.

The older of the Ferguson brothers, of course, has been there, done it and bought the Old Firm t-shirt. A debutant in the fixture at the age of 17, when he helped Rangers to a 1-1 draw at Parkhead in December 1984, Derek played 15 times against Celtic for the Ibrox club before his combustible relationship with manager Graeme Souness saw him sold to Hearts for 750,000 in 1990.

Those who witnessed his prodigious talent as a midfielder handed his competitive first-team debut by Rangers just a month after his 16th birthday would have found it hard to credit the path Ferguson’s career ultimately took, two Scotland caps scarcely reflecting his ability. If his potential was unfulfilled, however, his love for the game has never diminished.

Derek will be 38 in July and is still playing, anticipating a return from injury today to the Hamilton Accies side who face Partick Thistle at New Douglas Park in a First Division relegation tussle. He arrived at his home-town club last summer, the latest stop in a career which, after his three years at Tynecastle, has seen service at Sunderland, Falkirk, Dunfermline, Partick, Adelaide, Ross County, Clydebank and Alloa.

It had been his intention to hang up his boots at the end of this season but he recently revised that plan, figuring his continuing level of fitness in comparison to the younger men around him will allow him to play on until he is 40 while he also seeks to pursue a coaching career.

He has long since ceded status as the most prominent footballing member of his family to Scotland captain Barry, ten years his junior, something he both hoped for and predicted from the days he would take his sibling in to work with him at Ibrox. In always wanting the best for his brother, however, Derek has had cause to slip in the affections of Rangers supporters.

Prior to Barry’s 7.5million move to Blackburn Rovers in August 2003, Derek’s public endorsement of his brother’s potential to shine in the English Premiership was seen by many denizens of Ibrox as akin to betrayal in helping to persuade the then Rangers captain to leave a team which relied on him so heavily.

"Listen, I played no part in Barry moving to Blackburn, none at all," says Derek. "All I said back then was that I believed he was good enough to play at the highest level down there, that he could be on a par with the Roy Keanes and Patrick Vieiras. I never, ever advised him to leave Rangers.

"From when he was 16 until he was 21, I had an influence on Barry in that I was on his back all the time because I wanted him to become a top player and to learn from my experience. For a long period then, I gave him such a hard time that I don’t think he liked me at all, but I didn’t give a shit. Now he sees why I did it.

"When he got to 21, and had made it as a regular first-team player at Rangers, both my dad and myself decided to take a back seat with Barry. He was a big boy and could make his own decisions. I had no influence on him leaving Rangers, he has his own people and advisers around him for that.

"Personally, I felt if he was going down there, it should have been to a top-six club. If he had stayed, then I’ve no doubt one of the biggest Premiership clubs would have come in for him, but once Rangers came calling last month, there was no doubt he wanted to come home.

"You can see in his face and hear in his voice how happy he is to be back. Some people want to criticise him for lack of ambition or not staying in England long enough, but what’s wrong with being happy at your work in an environment you love? Basically, Barry was brought up to play for Rangers and he feels it’s where he belongs.

"I used to take him into Ibrox from when he was just eight or nine, mixing with guys like Ally McCoist, Terry Butcher and Davie Cooper. It was always in my mind that he would become a top player but he has exceeded expectations, becoming captain of Rangers and Scotland so quickly in his career."

If Barry’s collection of caps and winners’ medals already outstrips that of his big brother, however, Derek was certainly a more precocious talent at Rangers. While Barry had to wait until he was 19 to make his first-team debut, and another year before his maiden Old Firm appearance, Derek was still at school when fast-tracked into the Ibrox first team squad in the 1982-83 season by John Greig.

Ibrox fans caught their first glimpse of him aged 15 years and eight months as a substitute in Tom Forsyth’s testimonial match in March 1983, the youngest first-team player in Rangers’ history. His European debut came at 16, then that first Old Firm outing at 17. Too much, too young? He doesn’t agree.

"Some of the young players nowadays are protected too much," he claims. "Throw them in and see if they can handle it at first-team level. If you don’t, you’ll never know. Guys like Paul McStay, Ian Durrant, Peter Grant and myself were all given our chance as teenagers by the Old Firm, but it doesn’t happen now which is a pity."

The cosmopolitan nature of the Rangers and Celtic squads now also makes it unlikely any emerging Scottish player will benefit from the type of extraordinary experience Derek relates from his first taste of Old Firm battle.

"The thing I remember most clearly about the day was being up against Tommy Burns in the middle of the park," he says. "After about 15 or 20 minutes, when we had gone behind 1-0 to a Brian McClair goal, Tommy started talking me through the game. It took me completely by surprise and at first I thought he was winding me up.

"But he really did help me, telling me to keep it simple, keep the ball moving. His advice was bang on, too, and it was incredible to receive that in the middle of an Old Firm game from a guy everyone respected. Davie Cooper got a late equaliser for us and it was a special day for me.

"They are fantastic games. The highlight for me was the League Cup final in 1986-87 when we beat Celtic 2-1 at Hampden and I got my first winners’ medal with Rangers."

Ian Durrant, his team-mate that afternoon and closest friend during his time at Ibrox, returned to Rangers this week in a coaching role, a field Derek intends to prove himself in. His brief stint as player-manager at ill-fated Clydebank in 2001 did not discourage him.

"Maybe that came a wee bit too soon for me, but I think I did okay," he said. "I learned a lot and I’d like another crack at it, preferably as a player-coach."

Perhaps somewhere down the line, Derek Ferguson will emerge as a leading managerial light in Scottish football. For the moment, he is happy to let his little brother dominate the family’s footballing scrapbook, which can anticipate another forest of newsprint on Monday morning from his exploits at Parkhead.

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