FOOTBALL will not feature in the Commonwealth Games this summer but Brown Ferguson, a footballer, will. It will be another milestone in the Stenhousemuir player’s journey away from the national game, one in which he is demonstrating with some authority that it is possible to quit football without walking away from sport.
Ferguson, 32, is a performance lifestyle adviser with the Sportscotland Institute of Sport, a full-time position he has held since the opening day of the London Olympics in 2012. He has continued to moonlight as a midfielder in League 1 of the SPFL, and even took caretaker charge of Stenhousemuir for a brief period this season, but unlike so many of his peers in football, he decided a long time ago that the sport was never going to give him a return on his investment.
When asked if he is even partly torn between joining the rat race of football management and remaining in his current orbit, which sees him work closely with sportspeople but with minimal public profile, he is emphatically decisive.
“My ambition for the last ten years, after realising that, as a footballer, I wasn’t going to get to the top of the game, has been to get to the top of high-performance sport. I’m very fortunate to be working with an organisation that is working with athletes who share that ambition,” says Ferguson.
When Glasgow’s great festival of (other) sport gets under way in late July, Ferguson will have done his job if his phone doesn’t ring, his inbox lies empty and the athletes with whom he has worked have nothing clouding their minds but pre-competition nerves. There are numerous highfalutin words to describe what he does but, essentially, he is a fixer.
“One of the key skills is understanding the situations an athlete faces, and communicating that to an employer, a senior lecturer at a university or maybe a head of department within a school,” he explains. “That can sometimes be a challenge, to give them that understanding, but generally speaking, once they understand the commitment that goes into sport and the effect that a distraction can have, we find some common ground.
“A lot of people take part in sport, which is great, at some level but they might not understand the demands of a 25-hour training schedule, or the need to travel across Europe to compete. They sometimes think these high-performance athletes are just doing sport at the weekends, like other people. But the demands can be huge.”
Ferguson’s own sporting career took him from East Stirlingshire to Alloa, on to Hamilton and Partick Thistle and then back to Alloa, before making what may well be his final transfer, to Ochilview in 2011. He has played with, and for, a remarkable cross-section of characters, from the wannabes to the could-have-beens to the worthiest class of all, the players who knew they were never going to play in the Champions League but never let their professionalism slip an inch.
Ferguson had the sense in his 20s to chisel out an alternative sporting career for himself, studying a BA (Hons) in Sport in the Community at the University of Strathclyde to qualify to preach his creed to a very important generation of Scottish athletes.
For the past nine months, the Institute’s Central region representative has worked closely with a group of aspiring teenage wrestlers based in Alloa. As things stand, some of them are on course to appear on our radar this summer in Glasgow, such as Shannon Hawke, already a British champion and not yet 18. Some will inevitably miss out on this opportunity to compete at a home Games, but Ferguson’s job is to ensure that this does not happen because they are unduly conflicted in their life/sport balance.
“The athletes we work with all have dual ambitions – it’s not just in sport that they want to achieve things,” he says. “Shannon is in sixth year at school and has the dual ambitions of getting to Glasgow and doing well in her exams with the longer-term ambition of getting into PE.
“But, when I first met her, she was aiming to do five Highers. That wasn’t going to be possible, and we had to sit down and talk about what that meant. We reduced her timetable to give her more focused study leave and we are in the course of reviewing her schedule consistently. We are aware that it’s still a big workload so we are also helping her to look at a Plan B on the basis that you maybe don’t have to go to university to get into PE. The other consideration she has is wrestling, and where is she going to do that beyond this year? Will there be a relocation? You can imagine how much athletes like Shannon have to consider.”
This is sensitive work, and it is largely unsung work. But there are rewards. Ferguson posted pictures of himself recently beaming alongside the GB Olympic curling heroes. The various experts at Sportscotland have no better validation for their diligent work. “It’s brilliant to have Olympic medallists,” he says. “You feel like you’re part of the team and that was an example of everyone working towards the same goal.”