We are sitting in Jock McStay’s kitchen. A former footballer, a Finnish composer and me. We are gathered because of one person – Duncan Ferguson.
This is strange because none of us has said more than a few words to him. But he has inspired a book, an orchestral piece and sparked the chain of events that led – in McStay’s case – to a life going off the rails.
This was the less well-reported consequence of a notorious clash of heads 25 years ago today. On 16 April, 1994, Rangers were en route to their sixth successive league title and chasing a treble.
Raith Rovers, their opponents that afternoon at Ibrox, were all but condemned to relegation.
Rangers were already a goal up when Ferguson and McStay challenged for the ball in the south-west corner of the stadium, between the main and Broomloan stands. Later, in court, more precise coordinates placing them at the scene of the alleged crime were required: “ten metres in-field and twenty to thirty metres from the Raith Rovers goal-line”.
The match programme that afternoon carried a feature on Ferguson, who was struggling to justify Rangers paying a British record fee of £4 million to sign him from Dundee United the previous summer.
“The fans are bound to get impatient but I’m feeling just as bad as them,” he said. He conceded it was time to make his mark and he did: just not in the way anyone expected or wanted. A headbutt on McStay saw him charged with assault.
“It was typical of Duncan Ferguson’s contentious career that he should prove capable of overshadowing his own success,” wrote Kevin McCarra in his match report for Scotland on Sunday.
The striker scored his first goal for Rangers later in the same game.
Ferguson eventually served 44 days in Barlinnie prison. McStay, meanwhile, endured a 20-year battle with depression after being let go by Raith Rovers shortly after the incident.
“No-one knows I had it,” McStay, 53, says. “No one apart from my wife really knows. I was on medication for 18 years. It changed me, put it that way.
“I am not blaming the headbutt,” he adds. “Things happen in life. Getting divorced as well. I stopped playing football at the same time. Everything just happened. Things happen in life you cannot handle.
“But I lost a bit of belief, hope. I could not handle not being at Raith Rovers anymore.”
He remembers a night out with teammates at Clydebank the following season when he tried – and failed – to spark the bonhomie he had known at Kirkcaldy, where he spent the happiest days of his career.
“They were all just sitting there,” he said. “I went and bought 20 shots to try and shake things up. It was not the same.”
McStay was on the rocks.
“That’s the thing, I was only 28 when it happened – it felt as if I was maybe in my 30s, at the end of my career. I was only 28. And that was it. Done.”
He contends that game at Ibrox finished him as a footballer. He subsequently drifted around several clubs.
Although quarter of a century ago, the controversy still seems topical because Scottish football is again in the dock for a perceived failure to police itself.
Incredibly, Ferguson was not even booked for leaving McStay flat on his back. Kenny Clark, the referee, said he had been looking the other way. If Ferguson had been shown a yellow or red card, everything might have been different.
A young footballer may have been spared jail for one thing.
Far less crucially, this gathering at McStay’s home in Larkhall would certainly not be happening. Osmo Tapio Räihälä was also a young man when Ferguson arrived in his orbit after signing for Everton. Rangers were keen to cut their losses. Initially signed on loan with Ian Durrant, Ferguson arrived for the press conference wearing a scarlet-coloured blazer.
“Like turning up in a green suit to sign for Rangers,” one local sports writer later told me when I researched my book, In Search of Duncan Ferguson.
From his base in Helsinki, Räihälä sensed a “lyrical quality” to Ferguson. He composed what he described as a “symphonic poem” called Barlinnie Nine, the centre forward’s number at Goodison Park.
An Evertonian “since birth”, Räihälä admits he got quizzical looks when he revealed who had inspired the work. “People are inspired by so many things, why not a footballer?” he asks, having found himself in Scotland to judge a music award days before the 25th anniversary of The Headbutt.
When I called him to suggest joining me to interview McStay, such an integral part of the story, he said he felt “goosebumps”.
There is currently a fresh headbutt storm brewing after Fleetwood Town manager Joey Barton’s alleged attack on an opposition manager.
Then there’s another, almost celebrated, headbutt delivered by Zinedine Zidane into the chest of Marco Materazzi. Apart from a red card, which led to those photographs of Zidane walking dead-eyed past the World Cup trophy sitting on a plinth next to the tunnel, he faced no significant, long-lasting punishment, certainly not compared to Ferguson – or prisoner 12718.
Ferguson was the first professional footballer to be jailed for an on-field offence. The real reason for what, on the face of it, seems an extremely harsh sentence occurred in an Anstruther hotel in November 1992, when Ferguson was still a young player at Dundee United.
Apparently mocking the dress sense of a South American team-mate, Ferguson walked into the bar wearing a lady’s earring and a silk glove while he had also tucked a flower behind an ear.
Unsurprisingly, he attracted both attention first and trouble. Ferguson attacked a fisherman who taunted him. He was still on probation for this offence when he and McStay crossed paths.
There was little sympathy for Ferguson from some quarters when he ended up in Barlinnie. But Everton fans still loved him. Several waited outside the gates of the prison when he was released one early November morning in 1995 and he was afforded a hero’s reception when he returned to the side.
Ferguson inspired another ovation in Helsinki, where Barlinnie Nine received a world premiere on 20 April 2005. On the very same night he enjoyed his own career encore when stooping to head home a famous winner against Manchester United at Goodison Park as Everton all but sealed a Champions League place.
“For a moment I was the most talked-about Finnish composer since Sibelius,” recalls Raihala. “But my 15 minutes of fame did not last.”
And what of McStay? He now works in the maintenance department at Celtic Park – news which might excite conspiracy theorists from all those years ago.
Ferguson v McStay was viewed, like so much life in the west of Scotland, through a prism of Rangers v Celtic, Protestant v Roman Catholic.
McStay recently also began coaching the Celtic girls’ Under-15 team. He has two young daughters with his second wife, Maxine, and is due to become a grandfather in July. Things are looking up.
While McStay’s name is always associated with Ferguson his own fate was quickly forgotten in the aftermath of the incident. He was dropped “like a brick” by Raith Rovers. Things have been patched up since.
McStay was inducted in the club’s Hall of Fame in 2015, deservedly so. He played 334 games for them and won a First Division title in 1993.
While the cut lip he sustained was tangible evidence of Ferguson’s headbutt having landed – some still debate the extent of the impact – the real blow was delivered a few months later when he was told my manager Jimmy Nicholl, on the eve of the 1994-95 league season, the new contract offer he was promised had been withdrawn. McStay suspects Nicholl’s Rangers ties might have had something to do with the decision.
He was in the squad photo at the start of the season but by the time Raith won the League Cup in November 1994 with a win over Celtic at Ibrox, he was forced to rely on a ticket left by a former team-mate to get in.
McStay’s already fragile state wasn’t helped by having to watch his cousin, Paul, miss the decisive penalty for Celtic in the shoot-out. “Because I should have been there on the pitch and wasn’t, I went back to my house and cried,” he says. He wanted Raith to win but not like this.
As he completes this tale, his eldest daughter, Olivia, 10, bursts in to the kitchen, soon to be joined by eight-year-old Gabriella – both are signed up at the Celtic girls’ academy.
Olivia takes after her father and is a steely right-back. When quizzed about this similarity, she says she wouldn’t know: the only footage she has seen of her dad is being headbutted.
Even now, if you type Jock McStay into Youtube, it’s this incident which comes up first.
The stigma, albeit undeserved, will always be there. Everton, where Ferguson is now on the coaching staff, are due to host a girls’ tournament this summer, which Celtic plan to attend.
“I would not go up to him,” says McStay. “If he came to me and shook my hand and said ‘All right?’ or if he didn’t, it would not bother me either way. I have never really held nothing against him.”
McStay is more interested in the future than the past. His daughters are exhibiting signs of serious football prowess – hardly surprising since as well as being blessed with a footballing father, Olivia and Gabriella’s mother is a cousin of former Celtic striker, Mark Burchill.
“We have already had two brothers, Paul and Willie, and there was Willie and Jimmy back in the day,” says McStay. “Hopefully one day they will be the first McStay sisters to play for Celtic.”