Symphony to a soccer bad boy

FOR many he is the ultimate football hardman. His competitive nature on the pitch has raised eyebrows while his performances in front of goal have inspired generations.

But few could have guessed that former Rangers striker Duncan Ferguson, who was sentenced to three months' imprisonment in 1995 for head-butting another player, would now be the inspiration for Finland's most famous composer.

The 6ft 4in striker, who at one stage was Britain's most expensive player, now has the improbable honour of having his time in one of Scotland's most infamous prisons inspire a piece of classical music.

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'Barlinnie Nine' is the latest musical symphony by celebrated Finnish composer Osmo Tapio Raihala. The composer, who fell in love with the Merseyside club after watching Bob Latchford score a hat-trick in a 6-0 slaying of Coventry in 1977, has described the work as "an apotheosis for underachieving".

Raihala said: "I got the idea for it when he was facing jail and had just become something of a cult figure for Everton. It takes into account the contradictions in him: he has an aggressive side but there is a lyrical undertone to him, as the fact that he keeps pigeons shows.

"When I started composing seriously about 20 years ago, I realised that people take inspiration from all kinds of sources and I just let Everton play a part in my compositions. More than anything, though, Duncan has been one of the great underachievers of his generation."

The piece played to more than 2,000 people when the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra premiered it Helsinki's Finlandia Hall. In an uncanny coincidence, on the night of its premiere Ferguson scored the only goal of the game in Everton's win over Manchester United.

"It was like an alcoholic hitting the bottle again," Raihala said. "There I was describing Duncan as a failure in Finland, and thousands of miles away at Everton he rises like a phoenix from the ashes to score against Manchester United. If there are gods of football up there, this proves they have got a most twisted sense of humour."

The 13-minute orchestral symphony, which was written as part of a composers' workshop with the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra, takes its title from the prison where Duncan Ferguson spent 44 days in 1995 after head-butting Raith Rovers defender John McStay.

The work was well received, as were many of his other works - six of which have direct Everton links. Raihala said that when he started composing seriously in the late Eighties and early Nineties he quickly came up with the idea of using football as the basis for his work.

Despite its traditional lager and hooligan image, football has, for generations, inspired musicians and composers. It has even been the unlikely subject of an opera. British composer Benedict Mason wrote the opera Playing Away in which the ball has an aria.

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Contemporary composer Mark Antony Turnage is an Arsenal fan and quoted some of the Highbury chants in Momentum, the work commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle to open Symphony Hall in Birmingham. More recently football hit the West End with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton's The Beautiful Game.

Britain's leading composer James MacMillan said that unusually there has been a relationship between some 20th-century composers and the beautiful game.

MacMillan said: "I don't know anything about his music but he is obviously a serious figure in Finland if his music is being played by the orchestras that are performing it. But I am not surprised, as it seems to be something that figures with a number of composers right back to Martinu and Shostakovich.

"Dmitri Shostakovich was a Leningrad Zenith supporter and Martinu wrote an orchestral work Half Time which is dedicated to Sparta Prague.

"The thing is that the grounds of inspiration have shifted and expanded so much that there have been many different and strange reasons for a composer to be inspired, and football is the most recently eccentric versions of that. It all comes down to personal passion; the conventional passions relate to women and spiritual motivations."

Football has also proven the inspiration for poetry, novels and theatre. Probably the best known example is Arthur Smith's play An Evening With Gary Lineker, which relays the ups and downs of a televised match while the characters play out their own private dramas.

Three years ago, Irish playwright John Breen brought to the London stage the 1978 defeat of Graham Mourie's All Blacks by the Irish provincial team Munster. Breen's Alone It Stands played to nearly 100,000 theatre-goers and was acclaimed by the critics.