If that gives those of a certain age pause, then here’s something else. It’s 30 years ago today since the one-time wild child of Scottish football scored his first senior goal – a winner for Dundee United three minutes into extra time in a Scottish Cup third round replay against East Fife.
It very nearly did not happen. Not just the goal, but the entire Tannadice career that ended up benefitting the club to the tune of £4million. This fee, which took Ferguson to Rangers in July 1993, stands as Dundee United’s record transfer to this day. It’s unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. At the time, it was a landmark transfer – the record fee between two British clubs.
Ferguson ended up being worth all the strife – and there was plenty of that. Only weeks before he got on the scoresheet for the first time, he had put his entire football career in jeopardy by walking out of the club.
He was still a teenager when he took this extreme course of action. He was irked at being fined for returning home to Stirling in midweek without permission and then turning up late for training the next day. This, of course, was the era of the late Jim McLean, eight-year contracts and, pre-Bosman, players being sidelined for such crimes as refusing to sign a new contract.
It’s a different world to the one Thierry Small inhabits. It seems relevant to note that it was Ferguson who informed Small he was coming on against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup last weekend to become Everton’s youngest-ever player aged just 16 and 176 days.
Ferguson was a comparatively ancient 19 when he made his debut as a substitute – for the 17-year-old Christian Dailly - in a 2-1 win over Rangers at Ibrox in November 1990. Both Ferguson and Dailly were members of what was described as “the new breed” at the club. It was meant to be an exciting time, and often was, but their exuberance took a toll on McLean.
When the legendary manager retired in May 1993, he had already indicated that the decision – announced earlier that season – was down to a number of factors. However, featuring prominently among them, he wearily conceded, was something he referred to as “the Duncan Ferguson affair”.
Weeks after McLean stepped down as manager (he remained chairman), Ferguson was off to Ibrox. The fee went some way to paying for what is now known as the Eddie Thompson stand at Tannadice. As reported by former United teammate Grant Johnston, Ferguson, on his first visit back to the stadium, nodded towards the stand, where the letters DUFC were picked out in black lettering on the tangerine seats, and said: “That’s no’ right, there should be an N in it – DUNC!”
He always did have swagger. But Ferguson had to eat some humble pie when contacting McLean to say he was coming back to United to resume his career after ten days spent stewing at home in late 1990. The player had concluded, not unreasonably, that while the strict regime in place at United offered much to complain about, there was still no better place in the land to be a young footballer with a desire to better oneself.
Ferguson had to provide some remorseful words for the local press, including a promise he could not keep. “I was wrong. I was annoyed at the idea of not being paid, but it was my own fault,” he said. “I have been in trouble before, but it will not happen again.”
This media profile so early in his career meant the East Fife fans who turned up for a Scottish Cup replay on a wintry night at Tannadice on January 29 already had an idea who Ferguson was. These supporters were still lamenting their failure to put the tie to bed in the first game at Bayview, where their side held a 1-0 lead until the very last minute, Paddy Connolly equalising for the visitors. Ferguson was not in the squad that day, but he came in four days later as United again toiled against their part-time opponents.
There are two things to note about Ferguson’s first senior goal – it was not scored with his head, and, while decisive, it was not considered the best of the three goals scored that night. The volley from Stuart Wilson that put East Fife into the lead in front of just over 7,000 spectators was later voted goal of the month on Sportscene.
But Ferguson’s strike – after an assist for John Clark's equaliser – provided a glimpse of what he would later prove at bigger arenas, in front of far more people – he had good feet for a big man, and he was not likely to be cowed. This, after all, was only his third first-team appearance at Tannadice and yet he deftly clipped the ball home like a veteran.
Miodrag Krivokapic did much of the good work with a run from just inside the East Fife half. He found Ferguson in space to the left of the box, at the old Shed end of the ground. The striker did not even take a touch before lifting the ball with his favoured left foot over the advancing ‘keeper Ray Charles’ head.
McLean’s assessment was a masterpiece of tight-lipped taciturnity. “Duncan did everything we needed of him,” he said afterwards. He could perhaps sense there would be further Ferguson-related challenges to come.
According to one witness in the East Fife end that night, someone was even less impressed. On the way out, Donald Walker bumped into one of his school friends, who told him, with great certainty: “See that skinny laddie Ferguson, he’ll never make it.”