Interview: Iain Ferguson on crossing the great Dundee divide

Together with purveyors of power pop ballads and owners of neon leg warmers, Iain Fergusonwas among those who didn't want the 1980s to end. Although his career straddled the 1970s and 1990s as well, the majority of his highlights came in the decade fashion forgot. 'And that was just my hair,' he quips.

Iain Ferguson, formerly of Dundee, Rangers, Dundee United, Hearts and Motherwell. Picture: John Devlin
Iain Ferguson, formerly of Dundee, Rangers, Dundee United, Hearts and Motherwell. Picture: John Devlin

He scored his first senior goal as a 16 year-old for Dundee in the last days of 1979, while he finally earned a Scottish Cup winner’s medal in his third final appearance when Motherwell defeated former side Dundee United in 1991, Ferguson opening the scoring in a 4-3 thriller.

But it was the 1980s on which he left his mark via a collection of memorable goals, chief of which was a diving header that secured Dundee United’s win over Barcelona in the Nou Camp 30 years ago next month. He also scored twice for Rangers against Inter Milan. While it was just the one for Hearts in a Uefa Cup quarter-final first leg against Bayern Munich, what a goal that was – and it proved the winner.

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We are meeting the afternoon after Arsenal were humbled by the German giants in the Champions League. How the London side could have done with some Fergie chutzpah, the then 27-year-old striker latching on to a free-kick tapped to him by Tosh McKinlay to lash an unstoppable right-foot drive past Raimond Aumann into the net.

“I had given my complementaries [tickets] to the guy who used to cut my hair because I was so out of the picture!” he recalls. “I didn’t know until the morning of the game I was playing. Me and Jimmy Sandison came in to replace Robbo [John 
Robertson] and Gary Mackay.”

He’d had an effort from the other side of the box parried by the German goalkeeper moments earlier. “I said to Tosh, just touch it inside, and as soon as it left my foot I thought ‘you might get close to that on the way back out’. I knew it was going in.”

He even played in games that are memorable for reasons other than 
Fergie howitzers. Such as when Rangers strike partner Ally McCoist was jeered by his own fans in a 1-0 home defeat to Dundee in 1985: “The ball kept falling to him rather than me, ‘Coisty kept missing!”

Then there was the hugely significant game between Dundee and Dundee United on the last day of the 1982-83 league campaign. Ferguson featured, scoring for Dundee to give their city rivals some nervy moments after early goals from Ralph Milne and Eamonn Bannon put United in sight of their maiden Scottish championship title.

So why, with all these memories to cherish, does a Google search for Iain Ferguson return as many links to the other Ian Ferguson, the one who scored the winner in the Scottish Cup final for St Mirren over Dundee United 30 years ago in May (Oh, “our” Ferguson was playing in that one too, and had a goal wrongly chalked off for offside minutes earlier).

Why are there only sketchy details of a genuinely storied career? Why, depressingly high up the search list, is there a link to an old story about Ferguson being huckled away by police from a sports gear stall he used to run at the Forge shopping centre in Glasgow’s east end, especially when all charges relating to supposedly stolen items were later dropped?

Let’s clear that up.

“That’s all done and dusted,” he says. “My ex bought some stuff from a guy who’d come in and sold it to her. She naively thought it was fine. It wasn’t. It [the case] got thrown out. Complete rubbish.

“I am doing sales jobs just now, car sales, the usual things. Stevie Kirk is working for Arnold Clark, Kevin 
Drinkell too. George McCluskey is driving a taxi in my local area. Everyone has to earn a living.

“Unfortunately we did not make the kind of money available now. We continue to work and earn a living. When you stop playing football, unless you stay in the game, you just go back to what you were – a normal guy. You do whatever you need to do.”

But is Ferguson really just a normal guy? In no way could he be said to have had a normal career – not by Scottish standards, certainly. You suspect the Forge incident 11 years ago might have something to do with Ferguson’s withdrawal. But he’s back on the radar now, doing hospitality at some of the myriad clubs he played for and speaking well on radio when invited, a more regular occurrence in recent times.

“To be perfectly honest, I did not go anywhere football-wise ’til two years ago,” he explains. “I was too busy. And anyway, I have never been one for going anywhere to be given a pat on the back. It is nice when it happens but I did not go looking for it.

“I did not look for publicity. I got on with my life. Two years ago it was the 25th anniversary of Motherwell winning the cup. They got us all together. I was on the radio, on Off the Ball with Stevie Kirk and Tam [Cowan] and 
Stuart [Cosgrove]. We had a laugh.

“It awakened people’s memories and reminded them that I might actually still be here.

“I have been back to Tynecastle four or five times recently,” he adds. “Robbo
keeps texting inviting me to such-and-such-a-game. They make you feel so welcome. They get you up on stage. Inevitably, every time I go, it’s ‘tell us about Bayern Munich’. That is OK. I don’t have an issue with that. The great thing is it is in the history books, no one can take it away (later he texts back to say, on reflection, this goal is his favourite out of the many crackers).

“I think it surprises people when they sit down and talk to me,” he continues. “They ask what my best goal was. They are surprised if I don’t say Barcelona. Why must it be? It is an iconic goal because I am the last Scot to score against Barcelona in the Nou Camp – and I do envisage that record outlasting me. I was watching when Celtic got a penalty earlier in the season and I was like: ‘I hope Scott Brown doesn’t take it’. Dembele stepped up and I thought ‘he is not Scottish, he can score if he wants!’ (He didn’t.)

“Big John Hartson, lovely fella, he scored there for Celtic. But he is Welsh and he was offside! That goal can never be taken away from me. I don’t wallow in it. I don’t ask for publicity about it but it comes up now and again.”

But it’s with Dundee’s meeting with Rangers tomorrow in mind that we’re meeting in a bar in Glasgow’s west end, where Ferguson lives. He strides in wearing a natty leather jacket and looking a bit like, well, a 1980s throwback. The first thing that needs to be said is how well he looks. The second? It’s a request from Fergie to fetch some beers.

There’s much ground to cover, including the 40 yards the ball travelled when he scored for Dundee United against Hearts from almost the halfway line in 1986. It’s yet another memorable strike from the Fergie Files.

But first he’s off to pose for photographs, like he used to for Shoot! picture spreads, a glamorous blonde often on his arm. Now 54, he’s a few months older than Mo Johnston, with whom he shared the same agent in Bill McMurdo for a spell. The footballers moved in similar circles, sharing an appetite for goals and extra-curricular pursuits.

“I’d like to think I was better looking than Maurice!” Ferguson says. “We all used to go into town together, dressed like in Miami Vice.

“It was the 80s,” he adds. “It was the best time to be alive. We as footballers had so much freedom and so much scope to go out to nightclubs with fans and not get hassle.

“Footballers are much wealthier now. But how many people at this moment in time will be able to be interviewed by someone at the end of their career and the reporter says: ‘remember that goal v Inter Milan, or remember that goal v Barcelona or Borussia Monchengladbach or Bayern Munich?’

“It’s all very well to go ‘I have a nice house and a nice motor’. But what did you win? Nothing. Who’d you play against in Europe… a qualifier for the Europa League if they are lucky.”

A Lanarkshire boy, it’s strange, considering he scored a decisive goal for Dundee United against Barcelona and also struck a League Cup winner for Rangers, to hear Ferguson say the first result he looks for is Dundee.

But he was associated with the Dens Park club from the age of 11, signing S forms for Dundee when he turned 13, despite playing for Fir Park boys’ club, a Motherwell feeder side. As if to rub it in further, he actually signed the contract on board the Dundee team bus while it was parked outside Fir Park after a game against Motherwell.

As Gordon Strachan often recalls, these were wild, if not always high, times at Dens. “I loved it,” says Ferguson. “Ten of us in digs in Broughty Ferry. Stewart McKimmie, Ray Stephen, Tosh, we were all in these digs. We had a landlady who had a family and a big room where we all watched telly. Some of us had cars. We drove to training, did our bit then went out and had a ball. We were 17, 18 and living the dream.

“Gordon [Strachan] was just leaving when I arrived. Of course there was a drinking culture. Did it make us bad players? I don’t think so. I remember Tommy Gemmell did say to me: ‘Do you drink son?’ I said: ‘No Mr Gemmell’. He said: ‘well you better learn’.”

Ferguson stayed behind after training with Gemmell and his assistant Willie Wallace, both Lisbon Lions, to hit shots at Scotland international squad goalkeeper Ally Donaldson.

“Willie pulled me aside. He said: ‘son, I am going to give you a tip. Every time you get a chance, put your head down and hit it as hard as you can, because the ball knows where it is going’. So that’s what I did.”

He did this well enough to catch the eye of Rangers, against whom he scored five goals for Dundee in just one season – 1983-84. It’s while recalling this episode that Ferguson makes a sudden declaration which makes the ears of those around us prick up.

“When I signed for Rangers I was drunk,” he announces. A Dundee golf day had ended the way it often did for the young and then single crew: a night out at Barracuda nightclub, then on to Fat Sam’s.

Ferguson’s deal at Dens was up and he was one of the first to move on freedom of contract, which pre-Bosman meant he could sign for another club with the fee decided by a tribunal. But with an end-of-season holiday in Magaluf with his Dundee team-mates to look forward to, he wasn’t worrying about his long-term future when he shambled into his digs at 4am.

His landlady woke him up a few hours later to say there was a call for him. ‘Who the hell can that be?’ wondered Ferguson. It was Alex Totten, Jock Wallace’s assistant at Ibrox. “Can you get here for 10am?” he asked.

“I had a quick shower, drove to Ibrox,” recalls Ferguson. “No mobile then, so I couldn’t phone anyone. Alex was waiting. He had something wrong with his finger. I thought it was one of those handshakes! He took me up the marble staircase, the usual thing. There’s Jock. I was still half-drunk. ‘Have a seat son’, he said. ‘Rangers want to sign you. Obviously you want to come here. You will get that, it’s a four-year contract. There you go’.

“It was not a lot of money. It was 1984. But what do you do? Do you say no to Jock Wallace?”

Wallace then asked for Ferguson’s shoe size. “I thought I was going to get a pair of boots. He said: ‘pick a pair of shoes up, there’s flannels, a blazer and a shirt there, too. We are going to Australia on tour on Monday’.”

So there was no trip to Majorca to say farewell to his Dundee teammates. “I drove to my mother and father’s house in Newarthill with all this stuff in my car,” says Ferguson. “‘Ok what just happened there?’” He sat outside the house for a few minutes, then went in. “I sat down. My dad said: ‘what’s up?’ I said: ‘I can’t be 100 per cent sure but I think I just signed for Rangers’.”

He scored the winner in the League Cup final in 1984 against Dundee United then got that double in a 3-1 win over Inter a few days later (Rangers lost 4-3 on aggregate). But he concedes his Ibrox spell must be viewed as disappointing. While he was among the first departures after Graeme Souness’ high-profile arrival, it wasn’t this revolution which spelled the end for him. He’d already been sidelined (although he does wonder if nutmegging Souness in one of the new player-manager’s first training sessions was a good idea).

Former club Dundee offered a lifeline when signing him in a proposed one-year loan deal after being rejected by Robert Fleck, another player finding it difficult to establish himself at Ibrox. Cruelly hammering home to Ferguson that his career had not only stalled but was seemingly moving backwards, he even found himself in his old digs when he returned to Dundee.

But he relished the chance to play football again, scoring twice in two league games near the start of the 1986-87 season, which turned out to be an annus mirabilis for Ferguson – just not with the Dundee club he expected.

What happened before the first of these games, a midweek clash against St Mirren, deserves to be dwelt upon. Remarkably, he held signing talks with Jim McLean at Dundee United before crossing the road to score 
the first in Dundee’s 2-1 win over 
St Mirren.

Walter Smith, Souness’ assistant, phoned to say there’d been an offer for him, one Rangers were happy to accept. “Who from?” Ferguson asked, naturally. “United”, replied Smith. “I went: ‘Man Utd?!’” recalls Ferguson. “Walter said: ‘no, you know Wee Jim has always liked you. Go and meet him at Tannadice, we have accepted the offer’. I told him I didn’t want to go to United. ‘I am Dundee, you know that’. He said: ‘Just go and see him’.”

So Ferguson did that. While he was still unsure about the move, bagging another goal for Dundee a few days later in the win over Hibs, by the end of the same season he’d adjusted, scoring in the Nou Camp for United as well as sharing the goals with pal Ian Redford in a brilliant Uefa Cup semi-final victory at Borussia Monchengladbach. He also played in the second leg of the final against IFK Gothenburg at Tannadice (he was suspended for the first leg).

Satisfyingly, seeing as Dundee baulked at paying the £140,000 Rangers wanted for him, he also struck twice in a Scottish Cup semi-final win over his old side at Tynecastle, daggers in the heart for Dark Blues fans.

The transition from Dundee to United was difficult at first. Ferguson says he “feigned” an ankle injury, or at least exaggerated the extent of it, before the first derby of the 
season at Dens.

But he won the United fans over, before, in a delightfully neat story arc, winning the Dundee fans back again in a third spell at Dens by scoring a penalty in a League Cup shoot-out win over United at Tannadice in 1996 as he wound down his playing days. He thumped the DFC badge on his shirt, McLean looking on grimly from a box above. Like Fergie that evening, we’ve come full circle.