Interview: Derek Ferguson on notorious Old Firm he can’t remember

Derek Ferguson at Strathclyde Country Park, near his home in Lanarkshire. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
Derek Ferguson at Strathclyde Country Park, near his home in Lanarkshire. Picture: John Devlin/TSPL
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So, Derek Ferguson, you played in the Shame Game. Not the utterly mayhemic one in 1999 when the referee was downed by a missile. Not the equally non-shy and unretiring one in 2011 when two managers’ nostril hairs intertwined as they screamed blue (and green) murder at each other on the touchline. I’m talking about 1987, the original, the Towering Inferno of Old Firm encounters in 3D and Sensurround, when a trio of Englishmen who thought nothing could surprise them about Scottish football ended up in a criminal court.

In the 30th anniversary year, tell me about it, please…

Derek Ferguson in action for Hearts in 1992. He joined the Tynecastle club from Rangers. Picture: Colin McPherson/TSPL

Derek Ferguson in action for Hearts in 1992. He joined the Tynecastle club from Rangers. Picture: Colin McPherson/TSPL

He can’t. Ferguson was on the Ibrox pitch and perfectly positioned in the middle of the park where, as a 
clever and cultured playmaker, he aimed to weave the pretty passing patterns he’d envisaged in the dressing-room, a zen-like presence among some true psychos. An excellent vantage point but he can’t remember the sequence of events which led to Frank McAvennie being sent off, then Chris Woods, then Terry Butcher, then the Copland Road Male Voice Choir being conducted by Graham Roberts, the stand-in goalie.

Aagh! This is The Saturday Interview’s worst nightmare. There’s a lake outside our window at Strathclyde Country Park and I want to take my notebook full of carefully constructed questions (“Was it, as one match report said, ‘a bewildering afternoon of nonsense’ or in the words of another did football die in disgrace?”) and jump right in.

Well, folks, all may not be lost. This tale isn’t over for another 2000-plus words and, if you want chapter-and-verse on that game, maybe stop reading now. Alternatively stick around to learn more about the thoughtful, mellow, candid and frequently hilarious older Fergie lad, Barry’s brother, a bonnie talent once considered to be The Future.

For instance, trousers: “Leather wans in sky blue,” he chuckles. They come up in response to Gary Mackay-
Steven talking about his river plunge for the first time – a “silly night out that 
just unravelled,” according to the 
Aberdeen winger. “I was surprised,” Ferguson says of the drama in the 
River Kelvin. “Footballers these days tend to socialise quietly. The story made me think about my clubbing at Panama Jax and how, jumping about outside, it would have been very easy to tumble into the Clyde.

“If that had happened during one of my skirmishes then maybe I wouldn’t have got back out. That was when we wore these trousers – Nicky [Walker], Ian [Durrant] and me. What can I say? Miami Vice was the big hit TV show.

“Man, we had some wild gear back then. On holiday in Tenerife we all wore cowboy boots. I wore mine all day and all night, couldn’t get them off and had to sleep in them. I wasted a fortune on shirts at Panama Jax. If a 
lassie liked one I just gave it to her. I could always raid Ian’s wardrobe for a replacement. We called his house DNS – Durranty’s Nightspot – and it was right up there,” he says, pointing up the lake to Bothwell. “I never used the front door, just used to nip in through a window. Crazy days, great days.”

Ferguson, now a sparky pundit on Radio Scotland’s Sportsound, turned 50 in the summer. Those days and nights are long gone. He wears a Show Racism the Red Card T-shirt and after our chat will be imparting the message to Lanarkshire schoolkids. “I say to them: ‘Do you think when I was younger I ever said anything racist? Do you think I ever said anything 
sectarian?’ They usually shake their heads. And I say: ‘Well, I did. I didn’t know any better.’”

He didn’t have a girlfriend until he met his wife, Carol, who’s been his rock through some incredibly tough times. He might not have fulfilled all his 
dazzling early promise as a player but he’s proud of their 25 years together, their youngest son Lewis, currently playing for Hamilton Accies Under-20s, and Lewis’ older brothers, 
Darren and Ross.

Back to that thunderous derby of 17 October, 1987 and Ferguson’s curious amnesia which he only discovered recently at a Rangers function, guest speaker: G. Roberts. “Graham mentioned the match and all the mad things which happened, and I came away thinking, wow, that really summed up the Old Firm: the passion of the 
fixture, the verbals, the challenges, everything. It sounded like a magic
game so the next day I looked it up 
on YouTube. There was me! I was 
playing!”

The encounter was one year into the Graeme Souness revolution. Still 
getting a kick at the ball – and the odd opponent – the manager wasn’t playing that day and we’ll come to this major character in Ferguson’s life shortly.First, our man runs through the key personnel, starting with McAvennie whose challenge on Woods sparked the aggro.

“I play with Macca every few weeks in old crocks’ matches and count him as a friend. Against Rangers, being a big Celtic fan, he’ll have felt an onus, a responsibility to the punters. I don’t think some of the English boys who came up to Glasgow at that time 
realised how massive the Old Firm 
fixture was. Not until they’d played in it, anyway.

Woods? “He was too good-looking, wasn’t he? Certainly for a goalie. Not many keepers back then would have removed their shirt to run down the tunnel after being red-carded. Pure Adonis.” So with Roberts taking over in goals was there any danger of him being selected for the task? “Absolutely none. I think Graham got the gig because he couldn’t really run. I play with him in exhibition matches and goalie is his position now because he must be 20 stone and even less mobile. But he made a couple of good saves that day and I loved his nonchalance when a shot hit the bar and bounced into his arms as if he always knew that was going to happen.”

Butcher was one of the glamour signings Ferguson greatly admired. “Ray Wilkins was another. He was wonderful with young lads like Ian and me, whereas Trevor Francis had no time for us. Trevor was very aloof. He’d sit in the corner of the dressing-room, banter flying and just read his Italian newspaper. Just the fact it was Italian did my nut. This is Scotland! I remember when we won the British Cup against Everton there was a post-match reception. Everyone was having beers and some laughs but he carried on reading. We decided to play a trick. Ian sat down next to him and got his attention and I sat on the other side. He wouldn’t drop that blinking paper so I got a cigarette lighter and set fire to it.”

The relationship, and ultimately non-relationship, between Ferguson and Souness is one of the most fascinating, complex and tragi-comic that Scottish football has witnessed in those 30 years. At its best it was 
master-and-apprentice, Souness seeing in the teenager someone who could strut and boss games like he did. At its worst, after another skirmish at 
Panama Jax, he’d haul Ferguson in front of the press. “I was fed to the lions. No media training. You boys would go: ‘Why are you not living your life right?’ Listen, I was a laddie having fun and enjoying myself. Same with Ian, Coisty [Ally McCoist] and Fergie [Ian Ferguson] even though at that time he was teetotal. Hindsight’s wonderful: I wish I could have looked after my career 
better. But Graeme wanted us to live like monks. He’d come to Rangers from Italy with all these good habits and brought experienced pros to the club and used them as good examples. But they were much older, the finished article. And Graeme, by the way, was young once. I did my research on him. He liked to have a good time, too!”

Maybe Souness was hard on Ferguson because he was the brightest, shiniest talent. After all, he and Durrant were going to run the Rangers midfield, and Scotland’s, for years to come. He shrugs, and ponders temperament and desire: “In football, along with confidence you need arrogance. My father instilled that in me and Barry, too. Breaking through at Ibrox I wouldn’t have said boo to the top players and if they’d ask me to wash their cars I’d have done it. But in practice matches I was right in about them. And in real games I thought I was as good as anyone.”

Maybe wrapped up in Souness’ frustrations with Ferguson was the fact his own playing days were nearing an end. “Do you know, there was probably something in that. It might also have explained why he got jealous that everyone, from the groundsman and the tea-lady to you boys, loved Coisty. That was daft because Graeme was the more awe-inspiring. But I came to know that feeling of the games running out. Not long to go now… scary stuff. I felt it at Hamilton. And I was still trying to play the perfect game of football. That’s impossible, I realise now.

“Some people think I ended up hating Graeme – not at all. If we’d been the same age I think we would have been good mates. What a player he was – scored more goals than me and much dirtier! I’d like to see him again. I’d tell him my dislocated shoulder’s fine, thanks, after he tried to put it back with his foot. He was wrenching this way and that. Don’t forget he was 14 and a half stone of pure muscle. I was screaming: ‘Get aff you f***in’ idiot!’”

The most notorious of Ferguson’s skirmishes came in 1989 in a kebab shop. “Ian and I had been out and, aye, we’d had a few drinks. In the shop there were some Celtic supporters. Ian was in a big stookie and they said some 
nasty things about his injury. There was a kerfuffle. The police turned up and were trying to huckle Ian into the meat-wagon so I had a go at them. We always looked out for each other, him and me.” Durrant was fined for his part in the rammy but Ferguson was found not guilty. One last thing: he hadn’t gone in search of a kebab. “I don’t like them. My order was for a pizza, ham and pineapple.”

That was pretty much the end of his Ibrox career and Souness shipped him out to Hearts where he was gobsmacked by the physique of his new team-mates. “They were built like boxers or weightlifters. It was a much tougher training regime than at Rangers where you were spoiled, having the ball all time. Hearts had to fight like dogs for it. Still, I was embarrassed when Alex MacDonald told me it might take six months for me to reach their level.”

He loved his time in Gorgie where fans saw glimpses of the gallusness which won Ferguson Scotland caps and the man-of-the-match award in a cup final. And, when they didn’t, or thought they didn’t, and grumbled they had to answer to Ferguson’s father, Archie.

“I don’t think he was very taken with Edinburgh folk. He called them teabag-squeezers!

“The perfectionist thing, a game without any mistakes, I got from Dad. He was a roofer, good with his hands, whereas I’m useless and he’d always find fault with my DIY – ‘You missed a bit of paint up there’ – so I don’t do it anymore. He was trying not to criticise, which was his way teaching me and Barry football, and that was brilliant.” Derek or Barry, who was better? “You’d have to ask Dad.” Barry obviously had the more success but he must have appreciated having an older brother’s support and encouragement and cautionary tales. Adds Ferguson: “I was hard on him, telling him not to repeat my mistakes. I was like Graeme with me.” Was he envious of Barry achieving more? “Not at all. We’re not that close – there’s 11 years between us – but we’ve always had each other’s backs.” Yet another skirmish, at Bothwell Bridge in 2000 following Celtic’s 6-2 thumping of Rangers in which Barry played, was a case in point. “There was Barry, his pal John, me and a couple of mates – and 20 Celtic fans. I asked Barry if he wanted to run for it but he said: ‘Naw, you’re OK’.” Then Ferguson laughs. “John was actually Barry’s gardener. I never had one of them!”

After the Old Firm, Ferguson thought he’d be left underwhelmed by the Edinburgh derby. It’s true there was no one at Hearts or Hibs like John Brown who had to blow into a paper bag before kick-off in a futile bid to stay calm – “I thought he was sniffing glue!” – or John McGregor, who played in that ’87 game, terrifying 
Ferguson with his zoned-out, zombie-like expression. But Gary Mackay, John Robertson and other diehard Jambos soon disabused him of such a notion and, by the way, much as he admired Coisty’s finishing, he rated Robbo the superior striker.

His stay in Gorgie, though, was halted by tragedy when his daughter Lauren, after just two days in the world, died of a heart defect. Even now, 24 years later, he’s not sure how he came through the blackest of times, but he had Carol and he had his football. “Carol knew marriages fell apart after the death of a child and told me that wasn’t going to happen to us. Joe Jordan and Frank Connor [Hearts’ management team] were brilliant, telling me I could have as much time as I needed but, to be honest, football was good for me: an hour and a half in a wee world I loved, away from trouble and heartbreak where I could just dream. If it wasn’t for football I don’t know what I’d have done. You hear sad stories about bereaved parents who can’t go on anymore. Football was my sanctuary.”

The family visit Lauren’s grave at Christmas and on her birthday. The inscription on the headstone comes from a poem in a card sent by a friend. “It’s about a butterfly: how they flit in and out of your life, you don’t know them long, but they’re beautiful.”

Ferguson sought a fresh start after that, moved to Sunderland, returned to Scotland with Falkirk, tried Ireland and Australia, sampled management then, after a grand total of 16 clubs, this butterfly was done with football.

For the record, in ’87 Ferguson was one of the few players to merit praise as nine-man Rangers fought back from two goals down to level at the death. Politicians joined the condemnation of the Shame Game at a time when Glasgow was struggling to improve its image. Butcher and Woods were convicted of breach of the peace, McAvennie was found not guilty and the case against Roberts was not proven.

Any of this sound familiar, Derek? “Naw. So I guess the night out must have really been quite special!”