A wild spirit reborn

Simon O'Hagan looks at the troubled times and bright potential of an ex plosive football talent
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The Independent Online
THE WORD the Scots use to describe Duncan Ferguson is "gallus", meaning arrogant, swashbuckling, happy-go-lucky. That's on one of his good days. Unfortunately, Ferguson has his bad days too, when the face he presents to the world is darker, uglier , and more troubled. As he sets about rebuilding his career, with Everton and in Athens today with Scotland, his biggest challenge lies in quelling the battle between these two sides to his nature.

Not since Charlie Nicholas brought his designer skills to Highbury 11 years ago has the arrival of a Scottish forward in English football created such a sense of anticipation as Ferguson's did at Goodison Park last month. Ferguson comes with a reputation, but, unlike Nicholas, there appears to be nothing fickle about the talent upon which it is founded.

Ask almost anybody in Scottish football how good Ferguson is and you have to jump out of the way to avoid the rush of superlatives. Put more simply, as his fellow-international and former Dundee United team-mate Billy McKinlay does: "He's got everything." It is his range of abilities that is most impressive about Ferguson, particularly since his build - 6ft 3in and 13-and-a-half stone - suggests a player who is very good at one thing, but one thing only.

Craig Brown, the Scotland manager, says Ferguson is "as aggressive a header of the ball as you will find", and given his physical attributes, so he should be. But as Brown adds, "he's far more skilful on the ground than you would imagine - a player who makes as many goals as he scores. He's got vision." But perhaps what really explains why nearly £8m has been spent on Ferguson in two transfers is that at 22 - 23 in nine days' time - he has the potential to be even better.

The corollary of that is that all too often potential goes unfulfilled. The element of risk in Joe Royle's £4.3m purchase of Ferguson from Rangers, completed last week, is greater than might be expected when such large sums are involved. But this has less to do with how far Ferguson, already an explosive centre-forward, can develop, than the wildness of his behaviour away from football.

In the numerous run-ins he has had with the law, Ferguson comes across merely as the latest in a line of sportsmen who have had difficulty keeping a grip on their lives in the face of success that has come suddenly and soon. Little in Ferguson's upbringing in Stirling prepared him for what would follow when, having been spotted by Dundee United at the age of 12, he made his first-team debut as a big, raw 18-year-old in 1990 and immediately established himself as a pivotal member of the side.

Under the formidable managership of Jim McLean, United were at that time one of the best footballing sides in Scotland. So it says a lot for Ferguson that, as Maurice Malpas, the United and Scotland defender, remembers, the team adapted to accommodate him. "He was naturally cut out for the role of target man, but when he joined United that wasn't the way we played," Malpas said. "But it was foolish not to use Duncan's assets, and so we tried to get the ball forward a bit more quickly." Ferguson, left- footed, "had pace, a great touch, and was good in the air", Malpas remembers. Put those three together and a defender's always going to have problems."

The player Ferguson reminded McLean of was Andy Gray, whose career path, which also featured Dundee United, Everton and Scotland, Ferguson seems to be following. But there was a difference. "Andy was more determined to prove himself every time he played," McLean says. "He didn't get carried away by the publicity. Unfortunately Duncan didn't show the same attitude."

Once removed from the protective embrace of Tannadice Park, a combination of drink and ill-chosen company put Ferguson in situations he should have turned his back on but couldn't. "As a big lad he got himself a bit of a reputation," Malpas said. "He wasthe type of person who would respond to provocation," McLean said Ferguson's problem was that he was unable to distinguish between his real friends and those he had to be wary of. Ferguson, or "Duncan Disorderly" as he became known, was dis covering something that Paul Gascoigne or Ian Botham, men who had similar experiences, could have warned him about - that it's hard to be a star and remain one of the lads at the same time. Someone in the pub will always want to take you on.

A more benign and docile Ferguson - the one who kept pigeons for a hobby - was what Dundee United saw. According to McKinlay, he didn't forget the youth team-mates he had left behind; flush with his first-team pay, he would buy them all lunch at McDonalds. "There was never any problem between Duncan and the other players," Malpas said.

Ferguson won his first two caps during a tour to the United States and Canada that was part of Scotland's warm-up for the 1992 European Championship finals. He hardly got a chance in Sweden, but his fourth international appearance, in a friendly against Germany at Hampden in March last year, was one that people in Scotland still talk about.

The Scots lost 1-0, but Ferguson's performance confirmed that he had the confidence to trouble the best defences. Pat Nevin, the Scotland winger, remembers that Ferguson gave Thomas Buchwald "a roasting" that night, in part because Buchwald had clatteredhim early on. This, Nevin says, wound Ferguson up sufficiently to get the best out of him, but not too much to provoke an indiscretion. "The bigger the stage, the better for Duncan," Malpas says.

By the end of the 1992-93 season, quite a myth had begun to build up around Ferguson. His strike rate - 28 goals in 77 matches for Dundee United - was relatively modest, but there was so much more to his game that Jim McLean was able to persuade Rangers to pay £3.5m for him, a record for a transfer between two Scottish clubs.

The move, however, coincided with two of the lowest points in Ferguson's career. In September last year he was convicted on an assault charge and put on a year's probation. Then in April this year he was involved in a head-butting incident with a Raith Rovers player, John McStay, as a result of which Ferguson will be appearing in court next month. A 12-match ban originally imposed on him by the Scottish Football Association has been suspended pending the outcome of the hearing.

Whatever that is, the consensus is that Ferguson's move to Everton under the steady hand of Joe Royle is the best thing that could have happened to him. His career had stalled in Glasgow, where the suffocating atmosphere of the city's football scene was not what he needed. In an English League where there seem to be any number of other outstanding strikers, Ferguson has the chance to regroup. But a lot depends on how he is handled. "You've got to be quite firm with him," Malpas says. "You can'

t let him get too blase or step out of line. But occasionally he needs an arm round his shoulders. If he gets the feeling he's not wanted, he'll play havoc."

Can Ferguson control the demon inside him? "It's not a question of whether he can control it," Malpas says. "He must control it. I still think he'll find that difficult." Jim McLean says: "He's got to show some maturity. He has the potential to be incredibly successful, but he knows there are pitfalls on the way. He's got everything he needs ability-wise. The rest is up to him."

Being responsible for Ferguson is a bit like having a wayward teenage son. You love him dearly - and there is something endearing about this awkward, gangling young man with the big smile - but you dread the knock on the door in the small hours.

For Craig Brown there really was an anxious wait last week while Ferguson travelled up to Scotland, his arrival at the team's hotel just outside Glasgow delayed by transfer paperwork at Everton. Eventually, Ferguson turned up, to be chaperoned through his press conference by Brown.

"Have you any worries about your temperament for such a big game?" Ferguson was asked. "I don't know what you mean by that question," came the smouldering reply. "I've only been sent off once since I was nine."

At which point another analogy sprang to mind - that of the wild animal in captivity. A splendid sight, but you wonder whether this was quite what nature intended.

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