In the 90s: Glasgow Rangers (1993/94) – Duncan Ferguson and the drop in form

Rangers Duncan Ferguson In The 90s

Rangers were always going to find it impossible to top season 1992/93. A domestic treble and as close as you can come to a Champion’s League Final. Despite struggling to even achieve mediocrity, Rangers still managed to win the league with just 22 wins from 44 games and retain the league cup. Europe was over before it started, losing on away goals to Levski Sofia in the first round. Back to back trebles was denied at the last hurdle because of an incident that defined the career of Ally Maxwell, although Dave McPherson didn’t really do that well out of it either. It was an eventful season for Maxwell, being assaulted by a fan in the 4-2 New Year Od Firm victory at Parkhead as well.

Maxwell and McPherson’s not so finest moment

The fact the two protagonists were on the pitch at all is an indication of Rangers’ problems for the season. Injuries. Andy Goram, John Brown, Oleg Kutznetsov and Ally McCoist all spent significant time in the treatment room.

Rangers’ injury jinx strikes again

For those of you not old enough to remember, Kutznetsov signed for Rangers in his prime. At twenty-seven years old when he signed, he had finished 11th and 17th in recent Ballon d’Or polls. As good a centre half as there was in World football, he wasn’t a Giorgio Chiellini or Diego Godin type, he was more of a Gerard Pique. Stylish and elegant but also solid and reliable. He ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in his second game for the club and never recovered. He played again but he was never the same player. This was early 1990’s treatment protocols and injuries like these were career ending. It wouldn’t be the last time a new, key, Rangers player would suffer this injury and have their talents blunted.

Re-enforcements are bought

Rangers had a settled squad but it was evident that re-enforcements were needed up front. When McCoist or Hateley were injured, the shape would have to be changed. Walter Smith went big. Gordon Durie signed from Tottenham Hotspur for £1.2m in the November following another injury to McCoist. He could play on his own, with Hateley or McCoist, such was his versatility.

Buy an iconic Ally McCoist poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop
Buy an iconic Ally McCoist poster from the Football Bloody Hell shop

The biggest signing, however, was made in the summer. A twenty-one-year-old Scotland striker, 6 ft. 4 inches tall, strong, powerful and the brightest prospect in British football. The ageing Mark Hateley’s natural successor and a long-term partner for McCoist. Duncan Ferguson was signed for a British record of £4m from Dundee United in July 1993. A team that had just lost four times in sixty-four games had signed the best young player in the country. He’d scored 32 goals in his last two seasons and was only going to get better, right.

Every Rangers fan wanted us to sign Ferguson. Walter Smith had signed him for Dundee United, as a youth player, when he was assistant manager, so he was already on his radar. You couldn’t fail to be impressed with him. He was quick, great with the ball at his feet and unbelievable in the air. The similarities with Hateley were obvious, he was also a lefty, it was almost destiny that Ferguson would replace him. In March he had been outstanding for Scotland against Germany, the current World Champions – at Ibrox. Scotland fans were excited about this kid who played like he was ten years older.

Ferguson v Germany

The day Ferguson signed

I don’t really remember much about players signing for Rangers when I was young, mainly because there wasn’t a transfer window and it happened all the time. Tore Andre Flo, Ronald de Boer and Paul Gascoigne spring to mind, for obvious reasons, but that’s about it. The one I remember most of all though is Duncan Ferguson. There had been rumours. It was also an obvious signing for Rangers to make. Ally McCoist had suffered a broken leg on international duty and wouldn’t be back until the winter. Mark Hateley was 32 and that’s the equivalent of a 38-year-old nowadays!

The thing I remember most about Ferguson signing for Rangers is the newspapers. The hideous tie he had on with Walter Smith standing behind him. If there was a double act you wouldn’t mess with in Scottish football it would be Smith and Ferguson. Both looked like they couldn’t be happier. I was on holiday with my parents on the north-west coast of Scotland. The middle of nowhere. The visit to the nearest village (Lochinver, for anyone interested) seven miles away was the highlight of any trip. The board outside the newspaper shop said it all, “Ferguson signs for Gers”. I’d gone from bored to buzzing in seconds. I persuaded my Dad to get a Daily Record as it had the most coverage of the transfer, stories from former youth coaches and “sources” close to the player. It’s still the most excited I’ve been about a Rangers signing.

Personal qualities

Ferguson was born for the big stage. Not that he didn’t try in lesser fixtures but look at his record in games against Liverpool and Manchester United when he was at Everton. He was a player that thrived on the pressure. The Rangers jersey would not be too big for him. Not just psychologically but physically. I remember thinking that Ferguson looked huge. Bigger than Gough and Hateley. He wasn’t skinny either, at 22 he was years ahead of most players his age and height. Today, Fraser Hornby (coincidentally under Ferguson’s tutelage at Everton) in the Scotland Under 21 squad has unerring similarities.

Trials and retribution

There’s no doubt that Ferguson crossed the line in his football career. I never saw him as a dirty player, he was like a vigilante, righting the footballing wrongs on a weekly basis. He refereed his own games. You kick me, I’ll kick you. You elbow me, I’ll elbow you. Go in late and I’ll throw you halfway across the park! He was great entertainment.

James McFadden tells a story of him sitting on the bench with Ferguson. He was watching an opponent getting away with roughing a few Everton players up. Ferguson says to McFadden “look at him, he thinks he’s a hard man, he needs sorting out”. Ferguson gets subbed on and within a couple of minutes at the first corner, decks the “hard man”. He gets sent off and leaves the pitch with the “get it up ye” fist pump to the opposition fans. Who would be brave enough to tell him he was in the wrong?

Off the park, he wasn’t exactly an angel either. Alan Patullo’s excellent “In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma” gives a fascinating insight into what makes him tick. It also explains why an innocuous on-field incident became national news and led to a three-month jail sentence. Ferguson was on probation having already been convicted of assault three times. Once, on a police officer and additionally, a man on crutches. On each occasion, Ferguson was “well refreshed”. In one of the incidents, Ferguson was wearing a lady’s clip-on earring and glove pulled up to his elbow. No such thing as a quiet night out with Big Dunc. Because of his previous record, the incident on the 16th of April 1994 held greater significance.

The day his Rangers and Scotland career ended

Then teammate, Ally McCoist, still believes that Ferguson never head-butted John McStay, after a tussle for the ball. The referee, Kenny Clark, didn’t even book Ferguson for the confrontation. The irony is that Ferguson was booked later-on after scoring his first goal for the club. Walter Smith had tried playing Ferguson and Hateley up front together. It just didn’t work. Between Gordon Durie’s arrival and McCoist’s return to fitness, Ferguson only played 15 times this season. Smith had said Ferguson was bought as a long-term investment and would be given time, there was no rush. It didn’t help that the man he was there to replace scored 30 goals in 55 games and was borderline unplayable that season.

The aftermath

After the game, the witch hunt began. Every newspaper and news outlet went with the head-butt story. It was the type of incident that happens on a weekly basis. Ferguson was guilty of being overly aggressive and deserved, at worst, a retrospective suspension of a couple of games. To be charged by the Police and then receive a twelve-game ban on top of this from the Scottish Football Association was ridiculous. The punishment did not fit the crime. He was the first footballer in Britain to be charged by the Police for an on-field incident and there had been plenty worse before him. But they didn’t have the assault of a Police Officer on their records.

His relationship with the SFA was non-existent and he retired from international football with just seven caps to his name. The SFA basically punished him for going to jail. A twelve-game ban was a complete fabrication and no justification could be found in any rule book. The foul he committed was a 2-3 game ban at the most, depending on disciplinary points. He served five games of the ban (whilst at Everton), a judicial review overruling the SFA, deeming his punishment unlawful. But the damage had been done. A huge loss to his country when in 1996 and 1998 he would’ve been an asset at major tournaments. He could also have been the difference in subsequent years when Scotland failed to qualify for anything.

As I said at the beginning, this season was a bit of an anti-climax for Rangers fans. One that began with such excitement but ended in huge disappointment even though two trophies had been won. The season was all about Ferguson. The money spent on him, Hateley’s form and how to fit him into the team.

Is Ferguson a cult hero?

The other day I watched “A View from the Terrace” on BBC Scotland and they had a feature about cult heroes. Successful players can’t be cult heroes. A hero for one, will be a flop for another. See Filip Sebo for example. Ferguson, for me, is a cult hero. He didn’t score enough goals or win most fans over but I loved him all the same. I was gutted when he finally left in October 1994, especially as he had started the season well with four goals in six games. I followed his career at Everton and Newcastle, hoping one day he would return to replace Hateley but Rangers had moved on. He is one of, if not the most fascinating character in British football. I long for the day he steps into management so we get to hear more from him.

His three-month stint in Barlinnie Prison was maybe the best thing that ever happened to him. Ferguson cleaned up his act and his behaviour (off the field anyway) to the extent that he only had cause to deal with the Police when he was the victim. I use the term victim loosely. In 2001 and 2003 he had his house burgled, on each occasion the perpetrators ended up in hospital. One of them for three days.

If only they’d known whose house it was.