On 26 April, 1971, the 29-year-old Fergie led the line for the Bairns when they were hammered 7-1 by Airdrieonians at Broomfield in the final league match of the season. In fact it was the second time he had been on the receiving end of such a scoreline, having lost 7-1 at Queen of the South in 1960 when he was a 17-year old amateur with Queen’s Park. Former England centre-forward Ivor Broadis scored four goals that day, with the Spiders’ solitary reply coming from A. Ferguson.
But it was the Falkirk result 11 years later that stung the most. However, rather than refusing to acknowledge it, Shirra believes that Sir Alex will simply have consigned it to the darkest corner of his mind, never to be brought up again.
“I was watching the game on Sky at the weekend and when I heard him say afterwards that it was his worst result as a player or manager, I immediately thought: ‘You’ve forgotten about Broomfield, Alex!’” he said.
“That’s what will have happened. He hated losing – we all did – and he’ll simply have erased that night from his memory.
“Of course, you could say that he’s had his brilliant career because he couldn’t stand being beaten by any score, never mind 7-1.
“I don’t remember much about it myself other than the fact that Airdrie needed to score six times in order to beat Rangers for a place in the following season’s Drybrough Cup. Some of the Rangers supporters said afterwards that we just lay down to them but that certainly wasn’t the case: Airdrie’s front two of Drew Busby and Drew Jarvie were a real handful at the time.”
Indeed, Jarvie became the last Diamonds player to represent Scotland and the three caps he won that year included an appearance against England at Wembley.
For goalkeeper Stuart Rennie, however, it was Busby, a teak-tough, old-school centre-forward who would go on to play for Hearts in the 1976 Scottish Cup final, who made the biggest impression on him that evening – and not merely because he scored two goals to Jarvie’s one. Billy Wilson with a brace and Derek Whiteford were Airdrie’s other marksmen.
“That was a terrible night for the team and also for me, personally,” he said. “The game itself is a bit of a blur now, to be frank.
“What I remember most about it, though, was the series of altercations I had with Busby. He liked to clatter into you at every opportunity and in those days goalkeepers received no protection. Drew was a nice guy off the park but on it he seemed to hate goalies. And he was just the same after he moved to Tynecastle.”
Much the same could be said about furious Fergie, of course, but he failed to make a lasting impression that particular evening, either during or after the game.
“Alex was a bad loser all right but there were no bust-ups in the dressing after that defeat,” said Rennie. “I would remember it if there had been a row but I don’t think there were any arguments.
“That was probably down to our manager, John Prentice, who was a quiet-spoken man with a soothing manner. I remember we lost one match at Brockville by 5-0 and he came in afterwards and didn’t raise his voice to anyone.
“Personally, I just hated going to Broomfield at any time because of the terrible slope they had on the pitch.”
Left-back John McLaughlin was making the final appearance of his first spell with Falkirk that night prior to joining Everton and, like Ferguson, his memories of the occasion have been shredded.
“What do I remember of that night? Not much,” he said. “All that comes back to me about that game is that – obviously – we took a hammering. The other thing is that everything they hit seemed to go in.
“Nobody likes being on the receiving end of a heavy defeat but sometimes there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.
“I remember playing for Everton against Southampton at Goodison in a league match later that year.
“It was a winter’s day and there was snow on the pitch and we beat them 8-0. Joe Royle scored four goals, David Johnson got a hat-trick and Alan Ball got the other one. Southampton just couldn’t stop us and it was a bit like us at Broomfield that night: sometimes these things are fated to happen.
“Not that Fergie would have just accepted it as one of those things: he took every defeat personally and I’m sure he still does.”