Alan Pattullo: The Legend of ‘big’ Duncan Ferguson

IT WAS just something a player wasn’t supposed to do,” remarks Craig Levein. “Not a Scottish one, anyway.” The former Scotland manager is reflecting on the moment Duncan Ferguson teased the Tartan Army with a promise he couldn’t keep.

Duncan Ferguson (right) heads the ball away from Jurgen Kohler. Picture: SNS
Duncan Ferguson (right) heads the ball away from Jurgen Kohler. Picture: SNS

IT WAS just something a player wasn’t supposed to do,” remarks Craig Levein. “Not a Scottish one, anyway.” The former Scotland manager is reflecting on the moment Duncan Ferguson teased the Tartan Army with a promise he couldn’t keep.

But then who could? Who could have lived up to the potential glimpsed when Ferguson flipped himself up into the air on a spring night in Glasgow in 1993?

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On his return to earth, he discovered the world was at his feet and doors were opening before him – not closing behind him, as they soon would do. Levein does not, on the face of it, have too much to do with the Duncan Ferguson story. They never played together at the same club, and Levein’s career as a stylish centre-half with Heart of Midlothian was coming to an end as Ferguson’s was beginning to blossom. However, their paths did cross on one significant occasion, when Levein skippered a much-changed Scotland side against Germany, the then world champions, at Ibrox Stadium.

After nine call-offs from the original squad, the eventual starting XI were equipped with only 61 caps between them. To make matters worse, these unfamiliar international stand-ins were handed odd-looking salmon-pink and purple pinstriped change tops, worn only once before.

“Not only were we playing the world champions, we were being made to wear pink strips,” recalls Dave Bowman, one of three Dundee United players in the starting line-up. “All we needed was the mint sauce. It was like lambs to the slaughter.”

Ferguson was fresh from scoring a derby winner against Dundee for United and, having helped dispose of the team from across the street, his scope of ambition widened to include the world champions.

It was a big leap, quite literally. Ferguson being Ferguson, he took it all in his stride. Instead, it was the experienced Levein who made an uncharacteristic, game-deciding blunder, the details of which I am reading about in a café when I look up and am surprised to see a familiar-looking face.

Both my and Levein’s paths have crossed and in serendipitous fashion – fortunate for me, at least. I am seated in Starbucks in what used to be the Borders bookshop in Dundee, sifting through pages of recently photocopied match reports from the night Ferguson high-kicked his way into recent Scottish football folklore. Levein is sitting at a table in another corner of the coffee shop, with a locally based football agent.

As he leaves, he stops by my table. It could be a little awkward – spread out before me are newspaper cuttings, most of them blaming Levein for the error that led to an early goal, scored by Karl-Heinz Riedle, that eventually cost Scotland the match. He spots the cuttings and recalls his slip, though his expression doesn’t give much away.

I explain that I am writing a book about Duncan Ferguson. Levein’s response is succinct.

“Good luck,” he says, with a smile. Rarely have the two words sounded so loaded.

Levein can afford to smile. Although he would later endure a difficult spell as Scotland manager, he needn’t have worried about his error that night, when he lost sight of a long ball in the glare of the Ibrox floodlights. Now, if conversation turns to this particular match, only one incident is recalled; however, not necessarily with any great accuracy.

“The match was remembered by many for Duncan Ferguson hitting the crossbar with an overhead kick,” claimed the Evening Times in their Now You Know column in January 2010. Except now you didn’t know. Even the Scottish Football Association’s own website reports, in its archives section, that the game “will be remembered by many for Duncan Ferguson’s overhead volley which crashed off the crossbar – the closest he came to scoring in his seven appearances for Scotland”.

Compounding other basic factual errors made in relation to this match is the fact that this appearance is often referred to as Ferguson’s debut for Scotland, when, in fact, it was his fourth cap. Prior to the fixture, Berti Vogts, Germany’s manager, had suggested, if a little unconvincingly, that the world champions “feared” Ferguson.

Vogts would soon taste glory, and lead Germany to the Euro 96 title before an uncelebrated stint as Scotland manager brought him back into Ferguson’s orbit. Much lay in store for the striker, too. But that night at Ibrox, he had few worries about the future. The world was one eternal now.

Nevertheless, when Tom Boyd delivered a measured ball to the back post midway through the first half, what else was he supposed to do but flip himself into the air and seek to score his first Scotland goal with a scissor-kick volley? It had seemed like the most natural thing in the world for him to attempt to do.

Ferguson had been making a habit of acting rashly, of not thinking things through. But at Ibrox, this seemed to work in his favour – almost. According to Andy Roxburgh, the Scotland manager at the time, “Duncan was an instinctive player and it’s sometimes difficult to coach an instinctive player – just as they often find it hard to coach other players. A lot of top managers now were decent players, but they tended to be thinking players; they were guys who had to work hard at the game. You often found that the genius player was the one who didn’t have to think about it too much.”

Ferguson even helped start the move, chesting down a long pass forward and then funnelling the ball out wide to John Collins, who in turn fed Boyd. As the left-back’s right-footed cross arrives in his vicinity, Ferguson shrugs off the attention of his marker and fixes his gaze on the ball, which is dropping slightly behind him. While another player might have thought to chest it down, or instead try to reposition himself for a header, Ferguson simply begins to fall back. What was he thinking? Most probably he wasn’t thinking.

The ball drops out of the Govan sky and Ferguson times the connection with his left foot perfectly.

As so often happens, the reality has become distorted in the intervening years. Now the accepted version is that Ferguson’s spectacular effort from Boyd’s cross from the left cracked off the crossbar at the Broomloan Road end of the stadium.

A re-viewing of this segment of play, from a tape of the whole match obtained from BBC Scotland vaults, confirms that, in actual fact, the German goalkeeper Andreas Kopke was equal to the spectacular effort and prevented the ball from fizzing into the roof of the net with an excellent save, high to his left. He needed no help from the crossbar. Just over three years later, Kopke again proved his worth on British soil, though once more received minimal credit, when saving Gareth Southgate’s penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final shoot-out win over England at Wembley.

Even though it is more often than not inaccurately remembered today, there was considerable acclaim for both shot and save at the time. “That would have been one of the goals of any season,” remarked BBC Scotland commentator Jock Brown when the highlights were shown later that same night.

Nearly 20 years on, even Craig Brown, Roxburgh’s assistant that night, is at first adamant that the shot had hit the bar. He is taken aback when informed that he, too, has misremembered it. “What sticks with me is that, had the ball gone in, it would have been shown all around the world. Ferguson’s stock would have soared, if it didn’t anyway.”

It wasn’t a goal, granted. But, then again, perhaps it was better than one, since it contained something even more delicious – promise.

Typically, and despite his contention on the eve of the Germany match that his “eyes had been opened” after being charged with assault for a third time, a toe injury – rumoured to have been sustained in a bar brawl in the Menzieshill area of Dundee – saw Ferguson’s season arrive at a premature end just weeks later. It meant he missed out on the crucial next World Cup qualifying fixture in Lisbon against Portugal, a game he was all but guaranteed to start – and which Scotland lost 5–0.

The result made it virtually certain that Scotland would miss out on a first World Cup since 1970, to be held in the United States the following year, while Ferguson’s own momentum had been lost. After the “overhead kick” game, Blair Morgan, Ferguson’s lawyer, went for dinner with Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, then the Bayern Munich vice-president. Morgan stressed to the German legend that if Bayern signed Ferguson, and it didn’t work out, they would get their money back after a year.

Meanwhile, Vogts revealed that Guido Buchwald, “the best defender in Germany”, had returned to the dressing-room looking “shaken”. Ferguson, the Stuttgart centre-half admitted, had given him “a lot of problems”.

In the press, Patrick Barclay, writing in the Observer, wondered whether Ferguson’s consummate execution of one of the hardest tasks in football meant that the resemblance of the “long, lean” Scot to Marco van Basten could be “rather more than a question of build and style”. Several of Ferguson’s team-mates that night recall being just as impressed. Intriguingly, nearly all of them used the same word to describe Ferguson. He was “gallus”, an old Scottish term meaning swagger and an innate self-confidence, and it seemed to perfectly sum up Ferguson.

“It was Brazilian-like, as opposed to Scottish-like,” recalls goalkeeper Nicky Walker, while Brian Irvine, who played at centre-back that night, recalls someone who exuded confidence: “In a way, it was what you expected him to do, and if it had hit the back of the net, then that would have been normal, too.”

Scott Booth watched from the substitutes’ bench until appearing as a second-half replacement. “That horrible salmon and purple strip is one of the first things that comes to mind, but I suppose it made Duncan’s overhead kick look even more spectacular,” he says. “There was a salmon leaping that night.

“I could maybe have tried it, but I would have fallen flat on my arse and made myself look daft. Some players are able to pull it off. Duncan was one,” Booth adds.

Ferguson had grandstanded on a night when Scotland had been meant to bow meekly in front of superior opponents. He had helped divert the threat of a massacre and turned it into a fair fight. In the days afterwards, newspapers were full of comment pieces on the wonder-goal-that-wasn’t.

According to Barclay, Scotland had “lost the match but found a star”. He added: “It tests the memory to recall a more exciting young British centre-forward.”

When Ferguson awoke the next morning, he was a wanted man.

Roxburgh expresses the wish that he had been able to call on Ferguson on more occasions, but then he is not the only manager to have felt like this. The national coach was already coming to the end of his time in charge when Germany arrived in Scotland. Indeed, he lasted only three more games, resigning after a draw with Switzerland at Pittodrie that saw the Scots’ World Cup hopes finally extinguished.

Ferguson might have been aghast to see Jim McLean’s name linked to the Scotland post; however, having just announced that he was vacating the management role at Tannadice, a return to the dugout didn’t interest McLean. Instead, Craig Brown stepped up from the Under-21s. Ferguson could breathe again.

• Extracted from In Search of Duncan Ferguson - The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma, by Alan Pattullo, Mainstream Publishing, £18.99, from 11 September.