Alan Pattullo: Scottish game has inverted rules of inflation

Rangers broke the British transfer record to sign Duncan Ferguson. Picture: SNS
Rangers broke the British transfer record to sign Duncan Ferguson. Picture: SNS
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It isn’t often Scottish football features among the lead items on ITV’s News at Ten. But this is what happened when Rangers broke the British transfer record, 25 years ago this week.

The hastily arranged press conference to unveil £4 million signing Duncan Ferguson took place on 14 July, 1993. It was the most talked about Scottish transfer since Mo Johnston’s arrival at Ibrox four years earlier.

Walter Smith had left Rangers’ Italian training camp at Il Ciocco a couple of days earlier sporting a deep suntan. He sought to put reporters on location with the team off the scent by claiming he was heading to the Champions League draw in Switzerland. Instead, he returned to Glasgow. A helicopter was hired to transport the Rangers manager across the Tuscan hills to Pisa.

These are the kind of details considered consistent with a story involving such a big-money, record-breaking transfer between two clubs. Except the clubs involved were both Scottish. That isn’t normal. Or at least it isn’t now. Not any longer.

“We are the biggest club in Britain and people had better realise it. There’s no limit to our ambition.” As an example of hubris, this statement from then Rangers chairman David Murray, made following Ferguson’s transfer from Dundee United, takes some beating. Twenty seasons later Rangers were lining up at Peterhead for their first match of the season in Scotland’s bottom tier.

No one is suggesting Ferguson’s purchase alone put the Ibrox side on the road to ruin. They were still to receive the tax advice that would eventually sink them. Murray was probably blissfully unaware of such terms as “side-letters”. Extravagance continued post-Ferguson.

The still remarkable fee of £12m paid to Chelsea for Tore Andre Flo was fully seven years later. Striker Odsonne Edouard’s recent £9m move to Celtic from Paris St German is still only the second highest in Scottish football history. Ferguson’s transfer is still the second highest between two Scottish clubs. Only Scott Brown’s move from Hibs to Celtic for £4.4m has exceeded the Ferguson fee when it comes to business conducted between Scottish teams.

Rangers were not to be resisted. The eventual capture of Ferguson, who was still just 21 and had only three Scotland caps to his name, illustrated Murray’s desire to bring the very best to Rangers – or at least those reckoned would turn into the very best.

The Ibrox club were even fined £5,000 by the Scottish Football League for making an illegal approach early in this aggressive campaign. They were not discouraged by Dundee United’s determination to sell Ferguson to an English club, preferably Leeds United. In fact, there’s the feeling Murray got a thrill from realising what having to outbid others, including the recent English champions, signified. As well as a striker with undoubted potential, Murray was chasing status.

Dundee United chairman Jim McLean (he had just stepped down as manager) intended to be obstructive – “who goes out of their way to make rivals stronger?” he asked. But this was before it became clear what Rangers were prepared to pay. The original deal was £3.75m with another £250,000 to be delivered once Ferguson reached a certain number of games for Rangers. One report from the time claimed this clause took effect at 200 matches, which seems optimistic in the extreme; he ended up playing just 23 times, scoring five goals.

The night prior to Ferguson’s unveiling press conference saw David Platt become the most expensive British footballer, when he joined Sampdoria from Juventus for £5.2m. Just a few days later Roy Keane signed for Manchester United from Nottingham Forest for £3.75m – the highest deal between English clubs but only the second highest between British ones. It was Manchester United’s biggest outlay to date.

So there was evidence on which Murray could base his claim that Rangers were the biggest club in the land. They were certainly the biggest in Scotland. The Ferguson deal was reckoned to have simply widened the gap between them and other Scottish clubs. Some wondered whether it could ever be closed.

Of their rivals, only Celtic had even broken the £1m barrier at this point. A quarter-of-a-century on, when Aberdeen do try and splash cash – they made a bid last week of £500,000 for striker John Marquis – it’s turned down by Doncaster Rovers.

The landscape has altered considerably of course due to Bosman. Rather than pay a fee, the preferred alternative is to wait and sign a player on freedom of contract. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s transfer took place at the end of the English Premier League’s inaugural season. The financial impact following its creation had yet to be felt. Scottish football was not seen as quite such a poor relation in comparison. However, the game up here has somehow managed to invert the rules of inflation in the time since.

At the time, a selection of Scottish football’s top tier clubs’ record transfers were as follows: Hearts – £750,000 for Derek Ferguson; Aberdeen – £650,000 for Hans Gilhaus (they’d break the £1m barrier for Paul Bernard a couple of years later); Hibs – £500,000 for Keith Wright. Dundee had recently spent £230,000 on Morten Wieghorst and 
St Johnstone splashed out £285,000 for Paul Wright.

It’s hard to imagine any of these clubs spending anything like these sums now on a single player. So Ferguson’s fee, while certainly high, was not completely outrageous. This didn’t stop the usual complaints about the soaring cost of footballers while nurses and other such crucial public service workers are underpaid. It’s much the same now. Indeed, the imbalance is far more extreme.

The size of price tag certainly didn’t help Ferguson, although he commanded a far greater one when moving from Everton to Newcastle United in 1999.

With impressive prescience, Hugh Keevins concluded a column for The Scotsmanfollowing Ferguson’s Rangers move with this bald statement: “As well as justifying his transfer fee…Duncan Disorderly will need to quickly develop a maturity beyond his years. In a game that is admittedly prone to hyperbole, it is no exaggeration to say that his behaviour over the coming months will shape the rest of his life.”

Ferguson was convicted for assaulting a fellow player, Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay, in 1995. When he next featured among the News at Ten headlines, it was after becoming the first professional footballer to be jailed for an on-field offence. But then that’s another story.