There’s been nothing premature about Ferguson’s managerial career – if “career” is how it can be termed. After all, this was only his fifth-ever game in charge after nearly ten years' faithful service as a coach. Now 50, his graduation to such a position of responsibility has been a slow burning process and he might have to accept a further period of assistance to whoever is handed this poisoned chalice at Goodison Park.
When Everton won a corner in the last minute after more good work from the club’s one real bright spot, local boy Anthony Gordon, Ferguson turned to look at the directors’ box, where under-fire chairman Bill Kenwright, one of his greatest supporters, was sitting. It was as if he was saying: ‘This is my last chance, aye?’
A point might have been something to celebrate after being second best for so long but Everton didn’t even manage that. An infringement in the box ensured nothing came of the corner and referee Craig Pawson blew his final whistle moments later.
A header at the Gwladys Street End from playmaker Emiliano Buendia had done for Everton – and perhaps has done for Dunc. Someone who terrorised defences for so long might have contemplated the quirk of one of the smallest, if not the smallest, players on the pitch heading in the winner on the stroke of half-time. There were other ironies involved too.
Fifer Austin MacPhee, who once watched Ferguson play for Dundee United from the terraces at Tannadice Park, is now the set-piece coach at Villa, as he is with Scotland. It is easy to see why Steven Gerrard has kept him on. Villa – with nine – are now second behind Liverpool, eleven, in goals scored from set-pieces this season.
They also successfully defended 16 set pieces as Everton, for all the pre-match hype about playing for the badge, proved surprisingly toothless. “We predicted Duncan would pour petrol on the fire,” said Gerrard later. “They went very direct. We knew we would have to win the game playing a different style.”
Buendia scored from a corner taken by … Lucas Digne, who joined his new club from Everton just over a week ago after he fell out with Rafa Benitez, who has since of course been sacked.
The French left-back was hit by a bottle for his troubles as he celebrated in the corner with his new teammates. He didn’t make too much of it and made a point of applauding the home fans at the end – Benitez, rather than him, is viewed as the enemy, and this hostility pre-dates the Spaniard’s turbulent spell in charge.
Ferguson was duly wheeled out with the task of injecting some spirit into the side. He fastened Howard Kendall’s old watch to his wrist – the one he says is stopped at quarter-past eight – and stood the first round at the Wilmslow Hotel, the self-styled “people’s pub” opposite the ground.
His totemic status round these parts won’t be affected by a 1-0 loss to clearly superior opponents but it isn’t quite the persuasive argument to be handed the permanent role of manager some had he would deliver at the start of his second spell in caretaker charge.
Other than the round of drinks at Evertonians’ favourite local, there were not even any quirky sideshows to provide a distraction for the home fans. Ferguson, soberly dressed in a dark suit, did not remove his jacket, as he did in the pouring rain against Manchester United two years ago. Everton failing to score as they fell to their third successive league defeat extinguished any risk to nearby ballboys or ballgirls.
Two substitutions shortly after half-time suggested the caretaker manager felt he had started with the wrong side. And never mind 8.15, that watch of his might have stopped in about 1998 given Ferguson’s admirable determination to play two up front. Brazilian striker Richarlison partnered Calvert-Lewin in attack, with the latter missing the home side’s best chance to equalise when he failed to land a decent connection on Gordon’s teasing cross from the right after 65 minutes.
Ferguson can’t put his own imprint on the side in 90 minutes but even the oomph seemed lacking. Seamus Coleman was dropped to the bench but they didn’t mean a debut for recent £16 million capture Nathan Patterson, who dropped out of the squad altogether. Jonjoe Kenny, on loan at Celtic last season, stepped in last right back. Patterson was left sitting in the directors’ box, where he presumably wondered how on earth he could fail to get into this team. His time will come, probably sooner rather than later. Perhaps Villa, under his old Ibrox manager, might have been a better fit for him.
Gerrard and Ferguson – two men with big histories on Merseyside and even some in Govan – shared a brief handshake at the end. They barely interacted throughout the 90 minutes despite standing a matter of yards apart. It was fourth official Andy Madley who had to endure most of Ferguson’s ire.
The pitch quickly cleared but not the stands. Fans had little excuse to alter pre-match arrangements to stage a sit-in protest at what is happening at their club, with their team – club legend at the helm or nor – now flirting with relegation trouble.
“We want our club back!” and “Sack the Board!” was being heard chorused long after Gerrard had led his players off on what was a triumphant return to Liverpool for the former Rangers manager. Nine years younger than Ferguson, he already seems like the real deal.