Rangers v Clyde: Prodigal son Ferguson returns
IT WILL be a strange experience for Barry Ferguson tomorrow night, stepping through the front door of his former club, introducing himself as the manager of Clyde and shaking hands with a few old friends, but please, spare him the one about walking into the wrong dressing room. “I was there for two or three years,” he smiles. “I know my way about Ibrox.”
Two or three years? Make that ten or 11, including two separate spells, during which he won 15 trophies, five of them league championships. Returning there with a League Two side for a second-round tie in the South Section of the Petrofac Training Cup shows just how much has changed for Ferguson, and indeed Rangers, since he left them, for a second time, in 2009.
While he was spending two seasons in the Premier League with Birmingham City, followed by three at Blackpool – latterly as caretaker player-manager – Rangers were heading for, and plunging into, the financial catastrophe that banished them to Scotland’s bottom tier and forced them to start again.
If you are defined by Rangers, as Ferguson is, it is a subject from which there is no escape. “It does hurt, but to be honest, I’m sick of talking about it,” he says. “What’s happened has happened. They got put down to League Two and they’ve done what they had to do. They’ve come through the leagues. I know there’s a lot of stuff about them not being great to watch, but they have a job to do to get back to the Premier League. I said at the very start, ‘I bet they go through in three years’, and they’re on course to do that.”
Ferguson played for Rangers 421 times, often as captain. He has a season ticket in the main stand. He still refers to them as “us”. Now 36, he is no more likely to be found criticising the Ibrox club than he is Ally McCoist, a friend, former team-mate and coach whose work in the last two years has been, he believes, unfairly maligned.
“As you can imagine, I’ve got into plenty arguments about it. His job for the board was to get us into the Premier League in three years and he’s sailed through League Two, League One and now he’s got the Championship, which is going to be more difficult because every club is full-time. It will be harder, but I still think, come the end of the season, Rangers will be top of the league. They have the best squad, and that’s no disrespect to Hibs, Hearts, Falkirk. They’re all good teams in that league.”
Ferguson is in the managers’ union now. Just as he followed McCoist on to the pitch at Ibrox, so has he followed him into the dugout, where there are new challenges and pressures. It begs the question: has the job changed him? Does Ferguson the manager behave differently from Ferguson the player?
“Are you trying to say I behaved badly as a player?” he inquires with the kind of smile that says he knows what you’re getting at. From drunken skirmishes as a youth to altercations with Paul le Guen and the Boozegate scandal that ended his international career, Ferguson was no angel, but neither was he a hell-raising idiot, otherwise he wouldn’t be where he is now.
“As you get older, you try to mature a bit and that’s what I’ve done over the years. I had a lot of growing up to do when I left Scotland, and I think I’ve done it. This is a new adventure for me and something I’ve been keen on doing for years. I’ve completed my badges. This is the next step.”
He first dipped his toe into the managerial waters seven months ago, when Paul Ince was sacked by Blackpool, for whom Ferguson was a senior player. Asked to take over till the end of the season, he and his assistant, Bob Malcolm, a former Rangers team-mate, guided the Lancashire club to three wins in their remaining 20 matches. They avoided relegation by two points, but Ferguson parted with the club amid reports that he and their controversial chairman, Karl Oyston, did not see eye to eye.
“I never had a problem with him,” insists Ferguson. “The guy has got a way of running a club, which I don’t think is right, but he is the owner, it’s his money, so he is entitled to do whatever he wants with it and run a club whatever way he wants. Some might agree, some might disagree.
“I don’t want to go into [what happened] behind the scenes. I was asked to keep them in the league, and I did. That was massive. But the things I had to deal with, some of which you wouldn’t believe, will help me for the future.”
It is safe to assume that the directors of Clyde will be less problematic, although there is no mistaking their ambition. Ferguson has been tasked with winning promotion, an achievement that was beyond them last season. Under Jim Duffy, who joined Greenock Morton in the summer, they finished fourth, earning a playoff that they lost on penalties to East Fife.
Whatever happens, it will have been an education for Ferguson. He had opportunities to extend his playing career, in England and abroad, but his priority was to learn the ropes of football management, preferably in a forgiving environment.
At Clyde, he has the opportunity to learn not only the nuts and bolts of management, but the wider mechanics of a football club. Shortly after taking over, he and Malcolm, again on his backroom staff, found themselves chauffeuring the team to training. “I had great fun that day, me and Bob driving along the motorway in the Clyde mini bus. So it’s all new, but it will be a great help to me in the future. I have the run of my budget as well. I decide where the money goes.”
So far, Ferguson has brought in five players, but the rest of his squad are inherited. None of them plays with his grace and vision, but he can live with that, provided they give him their all. “You have to keep in mind that these guys are playing in League Two. They are part-time. You can’t go in and think they’ll beat six men and nutmeg the ‘keeper. But there are good players. I’ve found myself surprised. I did some background on the squad before I took the job, but I’m really happy with what I’m seeing at training. There are guys in my squad who can play at a higher level, no doubt.”
Ferguson is refreshed by their commitment. Although they train just twice a week, he is in the process of introducing an extra session. Five of them have a day job that requires a 12-hour shift, starting at 6am. Tomorrow, they will be allowed to knock off an hour earlier than usual, which means they will, hopefully, make it to Ibrox on time.
“They’ll probably need to get changed into their tracksuits on the bus,” he says. “I have great respect for them. They don’t do it for the money. They do it for the love of playing football. It is a joy when I go out and train them because they work ever so hard.”
Technically, Ferguson is still one of them, but realistically, his registration as a player is for emergencies only. He played just twice during his period in charge at Blackpool, since when he has been troubled by an ankle injury. “I don’t think you can do both jobs,” he says. “I still keep myself fit, but you can’t prepare the team, train them and be involved.”
His squad is big enough and good enough to let him concentrate on the coaching, where he is as prone to moaning as he famously was in a Rangers shirt. As his players will testify, Ferguson is passionate, demanding and big on self-belief, a quality they will need in spades at Ibrox tomorrow.
In all his years there, he cannot remember Rangers losing to a lower-division side, but this time, he thinks it can happen. “I’ve got to be positive,” says Ferguson. “With 1 per cent of doubt in your mind, you’ll have no chance. I said to the boys last night, ‘if you’ve got one wee bit of doubt in you, there’s no point in turning up’.”
They’ll be there alright, hoping to hijack the manager’s homecoming.