Duncan Ferguson: Inside Everton hero's first Forest Green home game - vegan burgers, wine, ex-SPFL players, pigeon banner
And why should he be? Crowds are up, although there is some consternation concerning the crowd figure of 3, 273 read out over the tannoy. It had looked comfortably higher on what was the home debut of the highest profile manager in the club's history. “I’ll need to look into that,” he said.
In the meantime, over the hum of battery-operated mowers tending an organic pitch that is part fertilised by Scottish seaweed is relaying news of a new range of burger the club hopes to introduce in time for the next home game against Charlton Athletic on St Valentine's night.
Big Dunc vegan burgers.
"Big Dunc what?"
Vince explains that the burger will be a classic stacked-type burger, containing two patties and salad (“I asked Dunc how he likes his,” he said). The roll will be made from local wild wheat.
“It’s a new version of the club’s popular shiitake mushroom burger, made with pea protein and other plants, free from all 14 major food allergens,” explained Vince.
At which point, any self-respecting chronicler of the Duncan Ferguson story should have held up their hands, shouted 'I’m done!' and marched down the hill on top of which the world’s first carbon neutral football club is perched, before driving home to Scotland.
This on-going tale, which had already recently enjoyed a peak with news of Ferguson joining Carlo Ancelotti on holiday in Croatia, was now just too bonkers, too surreal.
But it was worthwhile sticking around to hear the Scot's own thoughts on being honoured in such a way. “That’s right,” he grinned. “He (Vince) is going to try and market that. Mind you, they will probably be throwing them at me in the next two or three weeks if I don’t get a point soon!”
Sadly, no amount of tofu can soften the blow of losing a second game in seven days. This might not have been as agonising as the previous weekend’s freakish finale when they lost two goals in injury time having led 1-0. Still, it was frustrating enough. Forest Green Rovers looked to be inching towards a point before a penalty changed the course of the game. A goal in the dying moments, blasted into the top corner from a seemingly impossible angle by Hector Kyprianou, secured the points for Peterborough.
As Ferguson pointed out, when they entered the 94th minute at Shrewsbury Town seven days earlier, Forest Green Rovers had three points to their name under him. Somehow, after two games, this total is zero.
Welcome to management, Dunc. Or, as another Ferguson said, football, bloody hell. Indeed, it was all getting a bit confusing on Saturday, when, in a pleasantly bucolic setting in the Cotswolds countryside, D Ferguson faced up against D Ferguson.
Duncan Ferguson revealed that he had spoken to Sir Alex Ferguson in the run up to this game, which was perhaps surprising given the identity of the Ferguson in the away dugout.
While Sir Alex has been a great supporter of Duncan’s, even inviting him round to his house last summer for advice on when and possibly where he should make his first step in management, Darren is the managerial legend’s son. Peterborough are gunning for promotion in Darren's fourth spell at the club. But even his father might have preferred the draw that the hosts probably deserved and were looking like they would secure before Jordon Garrick's trip on Kwame Poku with 18 minutes left.
Jonson Clarke-Harris celebrated his penalty squeezing through Scottish goalkeeper Ross Doohan's arms with the relish of someone who had been the target of plenty of abuse from the home fans.
It was pleasing to note that for all of Forest Green Rovers' admirable ideals, their embracing of a new way that other clubs would do well to follow, some good-to-honest terracing body shaming has survived. “You fat bastard, you fat bastard!” chorused the South stand at the hefty No 9.
The two Fergusons, meanwhile, shared a warm embrace on the touchline before kick-off and then reconvened afterwards in the home manager’s office, as tradition dictates.
“I spoke to his dad this week,” revealed Duncan. “His dad said, go and buy him some red wine, which I have done. So I have just handed him a bottle of red wine. The last time I saw his dad, I got him a case of red wine. All I seem to be doing is getting red wine for his family!
“Me and Darren go way back, I played with him in Under-21 internationals, but I have not seen him for … it must be 20 years. He looks well. And I congratulated him, he came in to speak to me. He was very complimentary of the team. He obviously knew the shape was good and he found it very difficult to penetrate us. And the penalty made the difference, didn’t it? There was only a goal in it, really.” And maybe not even that.
Ferguson wondered if he had “hit a black cat or something” on his trips from Merseyside to the Cotswolds given the misfortune suffered by his team, although not helping is trying to make wholesale changes midway through the season.
Saturday's starting XI contained as many as five new signings, four of them on loan, including a couple on the say-so of the previous manager. Three more new signings were introduced in the second half, including former Rangers midfielder Charlie McCann. He replaced skipper Dylan McGeouch just before the hour mark.
The overhaul reflects the urgent need to address matters, with Forest Green Rovers now seven points adrift of safety. “I never look at league tables,” said Ferguson.
Now 51, and despite everything, he has savoured his first full week in a permanent management job. As well as being a long time coming after two spells as a caretaker at Everton, it has been hard earned. He started on the once-unlikely road as long ago as 2011, when he enrolled on a Scottish Football Association coaching course at Largs, and started working, initially unpaid, at the Everton youth academy. “You could have knocked me down with a feather,” wrote Jim McLean, Ferguson’s first manager, in his column in the Daily Record at the time.
“I have enjoyed it (the first week) because I am working,” said Ferguson. “I am a coach and that’s what I love doing. I like a challenge. It does not scare me. As people know, because I have done it my whole life, I have done it the hard way.
"Of course, at the moment we are finding it quite difficult, but the players are responding,” he added. “I have enjoyed being with them. And I have a great owner.”
When Ferguson was breaking through at Dundee United in the early 1990s, en route to becoming British football's most expensive player, Vince was just coming to the end of "a decade living on the road".
Wearing his regulation shredded scarf, the former New Age traveller continued: “I was parked on a hill outside Stroud and I began my journey in green energy with a plan to build a big windmill.” This is how Ecotricity, Britain’s greenest energy supplier, came into being. The company is now worth over £100 million. It has helped sustain Vince's munificence at Forest Green Rovers, where his investment means he's been able to force through such changes as switching the club colours from black and white to green and white and implementing a completely vegan menu.
He's also given his new manager a five-and-a-half -year deal, which is nearing the length of contract Ferguson seemed to spend half his time at Dundee United trying to extricate himself from. The notorious four-by-four contracts, where youngsters at the club effectively pledged their future to the club for eight years, was a pre-Bosman quirk under McLean. Vince is tickled to learn this. "It's about commitment, isn't it?" he says.
"I said to Duncan when we met, how long will you be with us? Obviously, you are from a much higher level than we are, so you have to wonder. He said, I will be with you for as long as you want me. I will be with you forever.
“But then he said, Everton might come in for me one day! I said, fair enough. We would not stand in your way. That’s our way as a club, we don’t stand in the way of coaches and players when they want up the pyramid of football."
The Everton connection is hard to avoid. Their surprise win over Arsenal was announced first at half-time at the New Lawn stadium on Saturday and got a cheer. One group certainly appreciated the news. Four Everton supporters had positioned themselves behind the home dugout with a large "Duncan had a pigeon" banner. They had left Liverpool shortly after 8am to drive down to Gloucestershire.
“It’s the only game I have missed since Covid,” said Dylan Bannon. “We are home and away normally. But Dunc’s here. We love him.”
“I wanted him at Everton,” he continued. “Before we got Lampard I wanted him until the end of the season. I just don’t know what’s going on at the club. It’s a mess from top to bottom. I think if anyone was going to come in and instil a bit of fight in the team, it’s him. And we would all be behind him. Now he’s at Forest Green Rovers – and we are all Forest Green Rovers fans.
“And you know what, he is a man of the people isn’t he? It seems like a close-knit community here. I imagine he will be out doing all sorts helping people. And hopefully he does well and keeps Forest Green up and goes on to better things in the future, hopefully for Everton!”
Ferguson had posed for a photograph with the group when he arrived at the stadium. They had caught a bus up the steep hill to the ground having watched the first half at Goodison Park in a local pub.
“They are friends of mine,” said Ferguson later.
Many more friends are likely to make the far shorter journey from Liverpool to Morecambe, where Forest Green Rovers are due this Saturday for what looks like a must-win match against a side three places above them in League One. “Look, it is nice (they’re coming),” said Ferguson. “I am a Forest Green man now, but it’s great to see them coming doon. I appreciate that. And I welcome it.”
They missed a good result for Everton? “Yes, I noticed that,” said Ferguson. “They must have thought they were going to get beaten! That’s why they came doon to watch me!”
There are few similarities between the tightly crammed streets around Goodison Park and Nailsworth, a town draped across the hollow below Forest Green Rovers’ stadium. The clock tower in the centre, a monument dedicated to those from the area who lost their life in the two world wars, possibly resembles Prince Rupert’s Tower, the Georgian lock-up featuring on the Everton crest. But other than this, with its yoga and well-being studios, delicatessens and antique and craft shops, it's a different world.
The beauty of the local football club's green ethos since coming under Vince's stewardship more than a decade ago is that, while Peterborough took the points on Saturday, the hosts took the piss – literally. Over 700 Posh fans had made the journey, drinking beer from pumps powered by carbon dioxide extracted from the air and then, when nature called, returning the liquid in the form of urine in a “pee to pitch” strategy that is intended to “close the water loop”.
Ferguson has promised to learn more about such ingenious initiatives. There are already plans to create a line of T-shirts with his "the earth's warming up, isn't it?" message, taken from an interview on Sky Sports on the day of his unveiling that quickly went viral. According to Vince, Greenpeace took another clip – Ferguson’s surprise on learning chips are vegan – and quickly got 400,000 views on its Instagram feed.
It continues to be compelling to see Ferguson navigate this late, perhaps surprising, chapter in his career, which is being played out in clear view and with the media obligations that come with it.
He’s even appearing on a podcast with Tony Bellew soon that is being heavily trailed on BBC radio, where he tells the former boxer that he wished he had been sent off against Raith Rovers in 1994, “then we would not be having this conversation”. It’s obviously a conversation that covers his 44-day period in Barlinnie, triggered by a headbutt on John McStay that was missed by the referee, and promises to be fascinating.
But those dark days, when he grew suspicious of the media while harbouring an understandable sense of bitterness towards organisations such as the SFA, who he accused of cutting him adrift, seem a long time ago. “I’m just off to do the club TV,” he announced as he broke away from the small reporters’ huddle post-match. It’ll be the cover of Cotswolds Life next.
After being embedded in the Merseyside scene for so long, he’s spreading the love. One imagines youth clubs, local charities and other such social welfare enterprises in the area will reap the benefits from having this hypnotic figure around. Some are already feeling the benefit.
Ferguson spent so long with a young fan in a wheelchair having completed his media duties that the door in the block housing the dressing rooms, situated opposite the main stand, was locked by the time he tried to get out. It meant he had to scamper back across the pitch and out the main exit to get to his car, ducking his head beneath the sign on the staircase celebrating one of the great days in the club’s recent history: “Cheltenham, Swindon, Newport, you are going to eat houmous next season, because Forest Green Rovers are in the Football League."
It'll be Big Dunc vegan burgers all round if Ferguson's first major managerial statement is to steer his new side away from what would be a first-ever relegation.