Obituary: John ‘Jack’ Ferguson, innkeeper played key role in Liverpool FC’s European glory days

John 'Jack' Ferguson, innkeeper
John 'Jack' Ferguson, innkeeper
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John “Jack” Ferguson, innkeeper. Born: Cumnock, 28 September, 1940. Died: Ayr, 30 Setember, 2016, aged 76.

JACK Ferguson, who has died, two days after his 76th birthday, following a short but courageous battle against Cancer, liked to describe himself as “an innkeeper”. As such he was a legend in the hospitality industry.

However, he was also a significant if under-stated figure in the rise of Liverpool FC to European glory in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, Jack was running the Holiday Inn in the city, a post he held for more than 20 years. As an exiled Scot, he had become friendly with his fellow Ayrshireman, Bill Shankly, so, whenever Liverpool signed a new player he would be billeted with Jack at the Holiday Inn, until a house was fixed up. Some such moves took longer than others, Kenny and Marina Dalglish for instance, stayed at the Holiday Inn for six months, Graeme Souness for only slightly less time.

Also, whenever Liverpool were drawn in a European cup match, Jack would accompany Shankly or later Bob Paisley out to their opponents’ home city, to check out the hotel accommodation and, if for instance behind the Iron Curtain, it was necessary to take British food with the team, Jack would arrange this, and send a hotel chef to prepare it.

The party he organised on the aircraft back from the Reds’ first European trophy win, the UEFA Cup triumph over Borussia Monchengladbach, in Rome in 1973, is the stuff of legend. Needless to say, Jack had his share of Shankly stories – of the iconic Liverpool gaffer calling him up during a bread strike on Merseyside, after he learned Jack was sending a van up to Scotland for supplies to beat the shortage. “Can you get me half a dozen plain loaves Jack”? Was the Shankly request. Apparently mince and tatties wasn’t the same with the gravy mopped-up with “pan breid”.

On another occasion, Shankly called the hotel and asked Jack for a suite to be made available – as a bolt-hole to escape to when his grand-weans came to stay.

Jack was always meant for the hospitality industry. His father Bill, a “Galloway-Irishman”, emigrated from Castle Douglas, via Malaya, to the bright lights of Cumnock, married Grace – the best-looking “clippie” on the Western SMT buses – and bought the small Sun Inn in Cumnock Square. Jack, twin sister Tanya and younger siblings Ron and Lesley were all born in the town.

At Cumnock Academy, Jack struggled academically – he was proud of finishing 42nd out of 42 pupils in 3D – a position which usually meant, you were going down the pit when you left school. But, while he struggled in class, he shone in Cumnock Swimming Pool – an outdoor facility, only open from May till September. Jack won a host of swimming medals and trophies and, such was his promise, pool manager Keir McCall arranged for him to skip classes to train.

Jack would go on to become a key player for the Cumnock Miners ASC water polo team which won the Scottish Championships. He was also a founding member of Cumnock Rugby Club, famously leading a revolt against the proposed tie for the new club, memorably asking the art teacher member who submitted designs if: “You want us to wear striped blazers and straw boaters as well?” Jack’s alternative design was worn for over 20 years by the club.

His father’s declining health saw Jack take over the pub, but, with his sporting commitments, it was suggested he rename the Sun Inn: “The Son’s Oot”.

The pub had to be sold after Bill’s death, and Jack moved on to the next stage of his working life. He joined the Donaldson Line, as a purser, making the shuttle crossings from Scotland to Canada, but, in the process forging a reputation which saw him promoted to Chief Purser, before, after Cunard absorbed the Donaldson Line, he joined the cruising staff, working on the eastern seaboard of the United States and down into the Caribbean.

But, back home, he had met and fallen in love with Meg Anderson, whose father Cubby, a former footballer, had made the Kilmarnock Arms into the best pub in Ayrshire. Marriage to Meg meant Jack came ashore, to run the Heid Inn – the Mason’s Arms Hotel in Muirkirk –but it burnt down and Jack took a job at the Cadora in Glasgow city centre. He did well there, so he and Meg took over the Garrick Bar in the city centre, and again it flourished.

Jack was now seen as a rising star in the hospitality industry. He was recruited as general manager at the McDonald Hotel at Eastwood Toll, before the world-wide Holiday Inns chain head-hunted him to manage their Leicester hotel, before he was promoted to the Liverpool job.

A change of top management and the implementation of strict portion control and cost-cutting measures didn’t suit Jack, it went against his ethos of give the customer what he or she wants, so, after two decades in Liverpool, he left to run his own restaurant.

Liverpool was the high-point of his career. He kept the hotel in the public eye, he was a friend to the footballers and showbusiness elite of Liverpool, while his annual Burns Supper was one of the highlights of the Liverpool social calendar.

In truth, he missed the daily buzz of a busy city centre hotel and, after a time, he and Meg decided to return to Ayrshire, initially to Dalry, before finally retiring to a seafront home in Ayr.

He fought cancer with the same courage and determination he had shown on the rugby field and in the swimming pool, but, in the end, the illness won. Jack always battled the odds to get what he wanted. For instance, as a young man, he had attended a course at Gordonstoun School and was so impressed by the place he resolved, if he had a son, he would be educated there.

Jack’s sons, Ross and Sean, did indeed go to Gordonstoun. Along with Meg and grandsons Archie, Bill and Frankie they survive him.

His funeral, in Ayr on Monday, was a joyous celebration of his life – the wake did not break up until the early hours of yestarday morning. The only thing missing was Jack, a large brandy in one hand, a big cigar in the other.