Two very clear memories of Duncan Ferguson are etched on my mind. With Everton rock bottom of the Premiership, drifting under the dubious direction of Mike Walker, just 14,505 pitched up at Selhurst Park to see the Blues play Palace. Early on, just in front of me, the new long, lean, angular centre-forward, accepted
an awkward throw-in instantly, turned, beat a man and whipped a cross into that area between the six yard box and the penalty spot. A murmur went round the fans – this was an upgrade on the previous month’s Number 9, one Brett Angel. The“chewing gum feet” on the end of so intimidating a physical presence had me thinking of Marco Van Basten – and I wasn’t alone.
Fast forward six months and I’m in the frenzied back room of the General Smuts
pub, reputedly the largest in London, the atmosphere acrid with cigarette smoke and heaving with Evertonians. Players names are chanted and cheered, but when it comes to Duncan Ferguson, out comes the full “Go West” and off come the shirts – hundreds
of them – swung above heads in tribute to the already legendary celebration of
his goal at Goodison the previous month that was enough to secure the points against
These two events capture the paradox at the heart of the man’s career. We lost
the game against Palace, but, without the big man – suspended or injured as was
so often the case – we won the game at Loftus Road (with a sensational last
minute free kick from Andy Hinchcliffe). As I once heard at Goodison late in his
career when he was hooked an hour into another lacklustre performance, “Some legend you are!” – acknowledging both Ferguson’s consistent inconsistency and his undisputed legend status.
So who was this most opaque of players? What compelled him to be such a compelling yet frustrating presence through some of Everton’s most difficult and
dangerous seasons? And where is he now, literally and metaphorically? Some
answers, but not all, can be found in Scottish journalist and long time Ferguson pursuer Alan Pattullo’s biography, which teases more than it delivers.
Or rather it delivers both too much and too little. The author has done his research and he’s damn well going to use it – so we get lots and lots of stuff about Jim McLean, Ferguson’s first manager at Dundee United and a long diversion into contemporary Finnish classical music, amongst other sidelines to the main narrative. That’s partly down to the subject’s non-cooperation with the author, a member of the long-snubbed press pack (a snub that bothered journos much more than it bothered fans) and partly down to the author’s unwillingness to rein in his verbosity.
If a certain long-windedness is forgivable (though there’s at least 100 pages could be edited from the text with no loss of clarity), the failure to deal with Ferguson’s many contradictions is a greater fault. He is both a rebel and a leader, sometimes described as quiet and sensitive, sometimes described as loud and insensitive. He is the obsessive trainer whom more than one colleague describes as not really liking the game. These strands needed pulling together and a stance taken.
The book ends with Ferguson’s bravado – for once considered rather than reactive – in his claim that he would take a break and then return to manage his beloved Everton. As unlikely as that sounded five or six years ago, Ferguson took that break, did his badges and has rapidly ascended to first team coach forming an unlikely alliance with the media-friendly, postgraduate degree holding Roberto Martinez. Precisely nobody would be surprised so see him move forward in the dugout when Roberto gets the call from a Champions League team and become Boss in title as well as reputation at Goodison.
Maybe, like so many footballers held in a state of arrested development, Duncan Disorderly has jumped from wild teenager to thoughtful middle-aged professional in one bound. And, like many of the managerial greats, his unfulfilled playing career may spur fulfilment off the pitch.
Watch this space.