Next to donning a Napoleon outfit, complete with bicorn hat, and declaring an irrepressible urge to bring all of Europe to its knees, Eden Hazard and Duncan Ferguson over the past week could not have done much more to vindicate the widespread impression that the distance between the average footballer’s ears is the cerebral equivalent of the Grand Canyon.
This vast, vacuous space may at least partly explain to more rational citizens the otherwise unfathomable action of Hazard towards a Swansea ball boy and the lunatic protestation by Ferguson that the Scottish FA was solely responsible for his failure to become the most-capped player in this country’s history.
Chelsea’s Belgian midfielder, normally among the more placid of competitors, could, with a certain plausibility, claim to have been the victim of a momentary aberration, overcome by a fleeting loss of reason in admittedly pressing circumstances. Ferguson, however, has apparently been mulling over his “outburst” for the thick end of 16 years.
Given Ferguson’s “previous” in this direction, though, this timeline is not entirely surprising. Having been suspended for 12 matches by the association for butting John McStay of Raith Rovers in April, 1994, he was still playing for Scotland three years later, against Estonia in Monaco. It was after this considerable period that he decided he had been unfairly treated and quit the national team in protest.
Hazard’s attempt to retrieve a ball that had been smuggled under the body of the prostrate teenager – clearly an attempt at wasting time as the home team clung to a two-goal lead – could be legitimately described as mildly frenzied. It did, after all, include trying to dislodge the target with an inappropriate, and potentially dangerous, swing of his boot.
The moment was reminiscent of that other bizarre practice among the dopier elements of scoring a goal late in a match and then wrestling the goalkeeper to the ground in the cause of grabbing the ball and rushing to the centre circle. The one touched by the madness seems to be unaware that he is on his own, that the opposition (who now have possession to re-start the game) are nowhere near re-assembling, and the referee is the only arbiter in the matter of the resumption of hostilities.
The apparent needlessness of the fevered altercation – a calm appeal to the match official would be sufficient to ensure added time – seems to escape not only the perpetrator, but even former players long since retired.
One well-known Scottish pundit (whose reputation for intelligent comment remains a mystery) brought such a judicial eye to the business that he thought the ball-boy’s behaviour was “a disgrace” and that Hazard, red-carded for his intemperate scuffling, had been “harshly treated”.
Mindful of those comments, it would be no surprise to learn that Ferguson, too, enjoyed some backing for his claim against the national association. What this latest episode involving the former Dundee United, Rangers, Everton and Newcastle striker represents, however, is an opportunity to demonstrate that Ferguson has probably generated more myths than any player before or since.
The first fallacy is that he was a tortured genius; only half of that claim is true (clue: it is not the second part). No recognised genius could have been less productive than the Stirling man. In the 18 full seasons Ferguson played senior football, he scored a total of 126 goals, an average of precisely seven a year. In only five of those seasons did he even attain double figures and in three of those (10, 11 and 11 respectively) he barely made that target.
The fact that his most prolific campaigns occurred at United in 1992 and ’93, when he was 20 and 21-years-old, tends to support this columnist’s long-held conviction that Ferguson was a much more formidable force in his teens and early twenties than he was even by the time has was 24. He not only failed to improve as he matured, but regressed.
Despite this, there was a reluctance among managers to relinquish the impression of a young virtuoso and he commanded huge transfer fees for years, despite a relatively appalling record of appearances and goals, thanks only in part to a proneness to injury and suspension. His main failing was the diminishment of his talent. And it was confirmation of this notion from a manager renowned for his judgement and his intolerance of wasters which truly debunks the ludicrous insistence by Ferguson that he could have surpassed Kenny Dalglish’s record 102 caps.
Before Ferguson’s last international, against Estonia in 1997, Craig Brown confided his unease at his selection, but there had been a clamour for his inclusion among fans and the manager frequently included such figures in his team “so that they can play themselves out again”.
But Brown on this occasion worried that the team would abandon their normal style and resort to long balls to the tall Ferguson. His fears were justified by a desperate performance in a scoreless draw. “That’s it, no more Ferguson,” he said afterwards. “I warned them about becoming one-dimensional, I told them to play their normal game, but with him there, they can’t help themselves. It won’t do”. Brown’s ditching of Ferguson would have been sound judgment even on the visual evidence, but the fact is that he failed to find the net once in his seven internationals.
Fellow veteran football writers and I occasionally still refer, with undisguised sarcasm, to a friendly against Germany at Ibrox in 1993 as “the night big Dunc nearly scored for Scotland”. His overhead volley that glanced off the bar and into the Broomloan Stand was made more memorable by the barrenness of the years to come.
One hundred caps? As with most of the rest of his career, he failed to make double figures.