Ferguson wears his national ambition on sleeve

Scotland's captain has the chance to shake off misunderstandings which have tarnished a glittering career.
Click to follow
The Independent Football

For a player with such an easy-going nature – off the pitch at least – Barry Ferguson has been misunderstood more than his fair share of times. He set a few records straight yesterday ahead of Scotland's vital Euro 2008 qualifying match with Italy at Hampden Park. Club versus country has been one bone of contention. Which matters more? It is a tough question for a 29-year-old who was in the Rangers first-team squad at 16 and is an Ibrox man to his marrow.

"When people have had a go and said that I never wanted to play for my country it was a lot of nonsense," he said. "I'm desperate to get to Euro 2008. This is the biggest game I've ever had for Scotland and probably in my whole career."

Has he been genuinely ambitious to push the limits of his undoubted talent, even when the going got tough? Some fans of Blackburn Rovers, for whom he played for one and a half seasons seasons between 2003 and 2005, might say no. He did, after all, return to Glasgow.

Yet the utmost aspiration in Ferguson's eyes is reaching a major stage in your country's shirt, something he has yet to do. "I've always wanted to get to a major championship with Scotland and that's always been my main aim since I started my international career. Now I'm three points away, one win from doing it."

Then there is another unanswered question, almost a year old, about why on earth he fell out so badly with Paul Le Guen, the French manager who took the helm at Rangers in 2006. Their entire professional relationship was lost in translation.

Yes, Le Guen came in with new ideas and perhaps dulled sensibilities. He arguably had no clue about Ferguson's revered status at the club or quite where to deploy him to his string-pulling best. Rather than make Ferguson an ally, the pair became enemies.

This was strange and atypical of Ferguson, a quiet man who goes the extra mile for people he does not even know (madcap journalists in Tbilisi, for example, who wanted supplementary interviews, in Georgian), and an extra 10 for those he does. When Marvin Andrews, a former Rangers defender and born-again Christian held a launch day for his latest DVD, it was advertised that all manner of sporting greats would be there. Only Ferguson, in his own time, showed up. Because that is what team-mates do.

But fall out with Le Guen he did, spectacularly so, to the point that on 1 January this year Le Guen stripped Ferguson of the Rangers captaincy. It seemed utterly inevitable that the player was finished in Scottish club football. Le Guen wanted him out. "He has had too much influence in the dressing room," the manager said. There was no way Ferguson would move to another Scottish club, so exile appeared certain.

What Le Guen had failed to see was that he and not Ferguson would be the one to go. Not because of any malicious campaign on Ferguson's behalf. Le Guen not only did not bond with a hugely influential captain – who at 23 was the youngest in the club's history and had led his side to four Scottish Premier League titles and seven domestic cups – but had dismissed the very notion of captaincy and in turn the embodiment of Rangers' ethos, as many fans saw it.

"I will be cremated in the jersey I wore the night I was first made captain of Rangers," said Ferguson, memorably, in his darkest hour.

Ultimately, it was Le Guen who went, Walter Smith who came in, and Alex McLeish (Ferguson's former Rangers manager) who replaced Smith in charge of the Scotland side. Ferguson's year went from potentially annus horribilis to almost annus mirabilis.

Naturally enough Ferguson does not want to dwell on the Le Guen affair. "I don't look back," he said. And for once he also knows that the captain's job today – he will wear the Scotland armband for the 26th time in his 43rd international – will not require much preparation. "I don't need to say much. We know what's at stake."

So is there a belief in the squad that they can beat the world champions? "The guys are buzzing in training and I don't think we'll sleep much tonight," he said.

"There's every chance," he added, "it's a one-off game. There will be a packed Hampden and the whole nation behind us. I'm sure we'll do it.

"It's a massive game and there's pressure on us to win. I enjoy the pressure and I think the rest of the guys enjoy the pressure. This is probably the best team I've played in, there's a lot of very good players.

"You see it in the very high level at training and you can see the way the team has played through the campaign. There have been some great results and I think the team can go a long way."

On the subject of pressure, Ferguson has known nothing like it before. He took a five-day holiday last week to escape it but even when he returned, reminders of a country's hopes were everywhere. "There's a lot of hype, but it's great. The nation's not been like this for a number of years. We want to make a bit of history.

"Even when I went to the garage there are people wishing you all the best. I'm used to Rangers fans saying 'good luck' and certain other fans not being quite as complimentary. But this time everyone you meet is right up for it. It's something I've never experienced before."

And the game plan? Have Scotland got to play safety-first football? "We have to be a wee bit cautious but, at the same time, we know we've got to get the three points.

"We'll go and try and win the game. We don't want to think about drawing then waiting for Wednesday's game in the Ukraine [France's final qualifier]. From the first whistle we'll try and rattle them, which we did against the Ukraine and we scored a couple of goals in the first 10 minutes."

As intentions go, there is nothing to misunderstand there.