Duncan Ferguson: Glasgow kiss that lingered

ONE is now a painter and odd job man, and the other has recently been promoted to the first-team coaching staff at a top Premier League club in England.

ONE is now a painter and odd job man, and the other has recently been promoted to the first-team coaching staff at a top Premier League club in England.

The paths taken by Jock McStay and Duncan Ferguson were always likely to be divergent, and so it has proved.

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Ferguson is now back at Everton, the club he joined from Rangers, initially on loan, in October 1994 while escaping a problem that it seems reasonable to argue was of his own making. McStay, meanwhile, also now works for a top football club, it is just that he is employed in the maintenance department at Celtic. They live very different lives.

Why, then, is it impossible to mention McStay’s name without people linking him instantly to Ferguson? Why, when you type Jock – or John, his “Sunday” name – McStay into Google, is the first (indeed only) related term “Duncan Ferguson”? The answer is revealed by the first term that comes up when you type Duncan Ferguson’s name into the search bar: “headbutt”.

Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of an incident that ranks among the most controversial episodes in recent times in British football. By episodes, I really mean moments. Because it truly took only a few moments for Ferguson and McStay to tangle in the 35th minute of a Scottish Premier Division fixture between Rangers and Raith Rovers at Ibrox Park, on 16 April 1994. And yet the repercussions dragged on, due principally to several court adjournments, after Ferguson was charged with assault. In the formal language of court papers, Ferguson, it was decreed, “did lunge at him [McStay], seize hold of his clothing, butt him on the head and knock him to the ground, to his injury”. Donald Findlay, the then Rangers vice-chairman and high profile QC, was prohibited from acting as Ferguson’s counsel, because he was one of the 42,545 “witnesses” in the crowd that afternoon. “You cannot be an advocate in something to which you are a witness,” Findlay explained. He was, however, a member of the legal team unable to prevent Ferguson being handed a three-month prison sentence.

Although the 44 days Ferguson eventually served as an inmate might not sound like a long time, they would drag if you were sitting inside HMP Barlinnie, where he languished after creating football history by becoming the first British footballer to be convicted and then jailed for an on-field offence. The ramifications were many and varied. Included among them is that Scotland were unable to call on perhaps their brightest striking talent of the 1990s – and even 2000s. Ferguson eventually withdrew his services from the international team because he believed the Scottish Football Association, specifically chief executive Jim Farry, prejudiced the court proceedings by imposing an additional 12-game ban on him, a punishment that was later overturned by the Supreme Court in Edinburgh. Ferguson walked away from the international team after only seven caps and no goals. Not everyone mourned his loss. But he was granted sympathy, perhaps more so now than then, with similar offences committed on a football pitch tending not to end with the guilty party going to jail – just think Alan Pardew, or even Zinedine Zidane. Of course, Zidane did not once walk into a hotel bar in Anstruther wearing, according to the court testimony of a bar lady on duty that evening in November 1992, a lady’s ear-ring clipped to one of his ears and a women’s silk glove pulled up towards an elbow. A fracas ensued, which saw Ferguson, then at Dundee United, charged with assaulting a fisherman. Significantly, Ferguson was just over seven months into a year’s probation at the time of the clash with McStay.

“You Nutter!” screamed the headline on the back page of the Scottish News of the World the morning after the match. Ferguson was never one for engaging fully with the press, but what he felt was a hysterical reaction to the incident spelled the end of any hope that he might develop a normal relationship with journalists, although he has recently emerged from a long period of silence, and exile, to grant the occasional interview. It is here that I must declare an interest, since I have recently completed an unauthorised biography of Ferguson, due out later this year. Although endeavouring to concern myself with the full breadth of Ferguson’s career, taking in the multi-million pound moves, burglaries, tattoos and pigeons, the headbutt episode, and its repercussions, forms the central theme.

There were actually three protagonists, rather than just two: Ferguson, McStay and Kenny Clark, the referee, who missed the butt because, he claimed, he had turned his head to award a free-kick to Raith. Ferguson was eventually booked, but, somewhat comically, for the “crime” of leaving the field while celebrating scoring in the second-half in Rangers’ 4-0 win. It was the first goal the £4 million signing from Dundee United had scored for his new club, ending a drought lasting over 700 minutes. Profiled in that afternoon’s match programme, Ferguson conceded it was time to “make my mark”. Not only was he still Scotland’s most expensive player, he was also Britain’s. These truly were different times.

Of course, it might have been better for everyone concerned had Clark red-carded Ferguson for the headbutt. Scottish football would probably have been viewed to be policing itself adequately. The Procurator Fiscal would not have got involved. Like Clark, Rangers manager Walter Smith missed the incident, later explaining he had been walking down from his seat in the directors’ box to the dug-out.

“We were not asked about it afterwards,” claimed Smith. “It was a completely nothing incident. The lads in the press are usually pretty good at detecting something like that. The ref played on, never did anything about it. And then it blew up, and ended with Duncan going to court. Which to my mind was one of the most ludicrous things. It was the kind of thing that happens in football matches all over the place.”

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Innocuous perhaps, but it didn’t help Ferguson’s Rangers career. Smith sold him eight months later. “A couple of English clubs were in for him,” he said. “I had to say ‘I think this could be best for you’. He had to get away.”

There is always the danger of overlooking McStay, or at least underplaying how it must have felt to be reluctantly cast as the “complainer” in a courtroom drama that led to a 23-year-old footballer being sent to jail. Ferguson, McStay insisted, had given him a bloodied lip, though accusations that he made a meal of the challenge dogged him for years. McStay is in no doubt about the force with which Ferguson’s forehead contacted with his cheek. “In one of the photographs, you can see my hair flying back,” he stressed. “And people say he didn’t touch me!”

It was the time of Britpop. Blur and Oasis had begun their ascent of the charts (although Take That were at No.1 in the week of the headbutt). Does McStay still look back in anger now? Although I had spoken with him a few years ago for my book, I stopped by Celtic Park on Thursday to see him, prompted by the approaching anniversary. He is a slightly fuller figure now, but with the same thick wad of dark hair. We shook hands and spoke briefly about Raith Rovers’ victory over Rangers in the previous weekend’s Ramsdens Cup final, which McStay attended, sitting among the Raith fans.

People tend to forget that McStay missed the Stark’s Park club’s famous Coca-Cola Cup win over Celtic in November 1994 – he was released after nearly eight years with Raith on the eve of the season, a decision, he claims, was partly attributed to his role in the Ferguson controversy. “I was dropped like a brick,” he said. “I was treated like damaged goods, through no fault of my own.” When the trial eventually began, in May 1995, over a year after the incident, he arrived at Glasgow Sheriff Court alone. When asked in court for his occupation, and despite having signed for Clydebank, McStay answered “painter and decorator”.

But then neither did anyone expect the consequences to be quite so serious for Ferguson, at least not initially. The now blackened sandstone walls of Barlinnie lie just a mile or so from the table in the Jock Stein lounge where I sat with McStay on Thursday. Ferguson endured the sentence with stoicism. “He kept his head down,” said a Scottish Prison Service spokesman at the time. Ferguson did still have some more “moments” on the football field. He remains the equal highest owner of red cards (eight) in English Premier League history. Admirably, he has since developed into a promising coach, something no-one, including me when I embarked on research for my book more than five years ago, saw coming.

Ally McCoist, who along with Gordon Durie was the nearest Rangers player to the headbutt incident, is now of course manager at Ibrox, and, breaking away from preparations for yesterday’s Scottish Cup semi-final meeting against Dundee United, told me on Friday that “I can’t believe it’s been 20 years – and my opinion of the whole thing hasn’t changed.

“It was surreal. And I still don’t believe for a minute that Duncan Ferguson put the head on John McStay – I haven’t changed my opinion even after 20 years.

“I think there were two aggressive players showing intent. But I definitely did not think it was a headbutt. Looking back, the whole thing was crazy. I can’t speak for Duncan, but I think it ended up having a huge effect on him, he ended up going somewhere he would never have dreamed about in his worst nightmares.”

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On the day of the anniversary of such a defining episode in his life, Ferguson will be in the dug-out at Goodison Park as Everton host Crystal Palace. And what about McStay, younger cousin of Celtic legend Paul, and the less remembered victim, whose career, he agrees, “was all downhill” from the moment he collapsed to the Ibrox turf, the tall figure of Ferguson looming over him. What will McStay, now 48, be doing on 16 April, 20 years on? “Just the usual, pal,” he said, wiping his hands across his overalls, before gesturing towards the on-going renovation work taking place at Celtic Park, ahead of this summer’s Commonwealth Games. “Painting, always painting.”

n In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma is published by Mainstream in August.