Football: The pied piper who mixes magic with myth

Everton paid an unacceptable price to accommodate a player the supporters worshipped.
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IT was a surreal moment when Duncan Ferguson stepped back on to the Goodison pitch three years ago after his month in Glasgow's Barlinnie prison. The Everton striker was led out by a piper, like a returning hero rather than a humbled man who had paid his debt to society.

Yet, in a strange way, that moment was an apt summation of his relationship with the blue half of Merseyside. In effect, Big Dunc was the Pied Piper and the club's loyal supporters were the ones who got in line behind him.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin, of course, led all the rats back up from the river after the townspeople refused to pay him what he was due. The Pied Piper of Goodison walked away with his pockets bulging from a pounds 900,000 "loyalty" pay-off, but has left Everton with the waters of relegation lapping at their ankles.

Fairytale and myth. One, of course, is retold centuries on. How many Evertonians, though, will be regaling their grandchildren in years to come of the Big Dunc era at Goodison?

Four years, plenty of headlines, few goals and one trophy have marked the Scot's reign. But, oh the price. The great Harry Catterick would have winced at the football of recent years. In the Sixties, Everton's fluency earned it the tag of the School of Science, but The Fergie Years were more of an Approved School variety.

The perennial escapology trick has worn thin but, yet again, the club are involved in a relegation battle and a striker who has scored just four goals all season must bear his fair share of guilt. Behind the Fergie hype - which seems to hypnotise Evertonians - is the reality that the striker has created a shackled style of football wherever he has gone. From Joe Royle to Walter Smith, managers and team-mates have been imprisoned by the fruitless long-ball style that Ferguson illicits, even if it was not the intention. Rehabilitation is needed, and life without Fergie may be a good deal better.

For a man whose stock-in-trade is goals, the 26-year-old has kept the commodity strictly limited. At Dundee United, the club which nurtured him, he only once earned the honour of top scorer in his five seasons, in 1991-92 when his 17 goals earned him his Scotland debut at the age of 19 and a place at the European Championship finals.

But for United, a club like Everton, whose trademark passing style brought domestic trophies in the 1980s as well as a Uefa Cup final and European Cup semi-final, the price was heavier. Variety went out the window and team-mates were magnetically drawn to their lighthouse forward with squanderous high balls. United ended up on the rocks of relegation soon after Ferguson left for Rangers in the summer of 1993 for pounds 4m. At Ibrox, the Ferguson goal tally was in single figures. Mark Hateley, the man Ferguson was supposed to replace, outdid the tyro in the art of scoring. The Englishman and the Scotsman came to blows one day at training, with Hateley laying out Ferguson whose pranks were wearing thin.

That seems to be another unhappy spin-off of Ferguson. Colleagues become jaded by the swagger and the immaturity which is as much a feature off the pitch as on it. He left experienced players shaking their heads in resignation when he walked out of one of Andy Roxburgh's training routines just weeks before Scotland's Euro '92 finals in Sweden. This from a boy who had just been called up. Hateley says now: "I think Duncan is a bit older and wiser than he was when we were together at Ibrox. He has learned."

Hateley believes Newcastle can inspire Ferguson's return to Scotland colours. Yet no goals in seven appearances (and only one for the Under-21s) before his self-imposed international exile last season illustrated his false promise.

His last game, against Estonia in 1997, was an illustration of how Scotland were taken in by the striker. It was a 0-0 draw laced with route-one build- up, while Kevin Gallacher was sacrificed to a right-wing role. After Fergie's exit, Gallacher scored six goals in five games to get Scotland to the World Cup. One Scotland player confessed: "Everything about the set-up is better when he's not around. There's more harmony." Certainly, that is a view privately shared by several of Everton's new arrivals, particularly the foreigners who did not take to Ferguson's arrogant style.

The commonly misheld view on Merseyside three years ago was that Ferguson was imprisoned as a consequence of his head-butting offence as a Rangers player. The truth was that he was punished because he had been given a suspended sentence a year earlier for his third such assault. Now that Everton have dispensed with the myth, they may just get out of jail themselves.