The tragedy of Hughie Ferguson
He famously scored the Cardiff goal that won the FA Cup in 1927, but three years later he killed himself. James Corrigan tells the strange but sad story of the Scotsman who remains a great hero in Wales
Saturday 17 May 2008
Among the seething Cardiff City support in Wembley this afternoon will be a son and his elderly father clutching a stuffed black cat. Despite their Scottish accents and unusual fan accessory, the pair will go largely unnoticed as the Bluebirds are caught up in FA Cup final frenzy. Yet perhaps they should not. For there in their surname, and yes in that manky old moggie, lies a story that should touch the hearts of any footballing romantic. Cardiffian or not.
In 1927, Hughie Ferguson scored Cardiff's goal that defeated Arsenal and in that instant the English Cup was renamed. It was famously not the Scotsman's only contribution to the Celtic cause. For at Royal Birkdale golf course just before a fifth-round tie at Bolton, Ferguson had felt a black cat brush against his leg just as he was about to wage war on his "gutty". His drive went straight and he deemed it to have been a lucky enough omen to make enquiries where the cat lived.
So off to the Southport home Ferguson trotted, carrying Trixie. He knocked on the door and asked the startled owners if he could "borrow" the pet as Cardiff's lucky mascot for the rest of the Cup run. He offered two tickets for the final in exchange – when and if they made it – and that was that; another enchanting Cup tale in the making. Trixie's magic duly did the trick and there she can be seen in the old team photos and ensuing celebrations at Cardiff Town Hall. In fact, Trixie did not much fancy a return to the seaside and saw out the rest of her life at Ninian Park.
Except that was not that. After the final, Ferguson spotted a stuffed black cat in a shop window and purchased it for his wife. And today that black cat will be making the same journey up Wembley Way as the "real" one did 81 years ago. It will be taken up there by Ferguson's son and grandson who will doubtless have a tear in their eyes. The word "doubtless" must appear because of what happened next in the tragic tale of Hughie Ferguson.
In 1930, not even three years after being instrumental in taking the world's most famous trophy out of England for the first and so far only time, Ferguson was found dead at the Dundee stadium, Dens Park. A team of painters discovered his body prone on a gas ring in a kitchen at the back of the main stand with his cap drawn tightly around his head. The 33-year-old had not only left behind a wife, son and daughter, but also an unborn son.
Speaking to The Independent yesterday, his grandson, Hugh Jnr, tried to describe what it will be like at Wembley. "I went down to the semi-final and in a way toasted my grandad's memory then, but my father, Tom, who is 82, was ill and couldn't come with me," he said. "He is fit enough to travel down from Scotland this time, though, and I'm certain it will be emotional for him. I think he might struggle to keep it all in. You know, my father has never much talked about what happened to his dad and it's difficult to know how he will be feeling. I just know we'll both be cheering on Cardiff as much as anyone there and we hope the presence of the black cat helps. Legend says that it did in '27."
The cat has been lovingly stitched back together by Hugh Jnr's mother. "It's still got the original tartan ribbon as well," said the 51-year-old. "In fact I saw a few being carried down at the semi-final so we shouldn't look too odd and it will be funny that the other supporters realise the significance of our cat. I have my grandad's Cup-winners' medal so I'll give that a little rub. My family has always cheered on Cardiff and right until she died, when she was 97, my grandmother always looked out for their result, every Saturday without fail. It's a lovely story. Sad, yes. But still, a very proud story."
Best to begin at the beginning of the Fergusons' love affair with Cardiff. It was November 1925, and the Bluebirds, still smarting from their Cup final defeat against Sheffield United earlier that year, decided to break their transfer record to sign the little Glaswegian for £4,000 from Motherwell. The perfect evidence of what the Lanarkshire town thought of the striker who scored more than 100 goals in under four seasons, was provided in the closing down of the local steelworks for the workers to line the streets to wave Ferguson on his way.
Before too long the Welsh were similarly in awe. Of the 91 goals Ferguson scored in 138 games, one would inevitably stand out above all others – 23 April 1927. "It certainly wasn't my grandfather's best goal but it is the one for which he will forever be remembered," said Hugh Jnr. "There remains a bit of a conspiracy theory around it. The Arsenal goalkeeper, Dan Lewis, was Welsh, which cast some suspicion on him. He blamed the sheen that he said allowed the ball to slip through on the brand new jersey he was wearing and ever since it has been a superstition at Arsenal to put the goalkeeper's jersey through the wash before every game. They still do it to this day. Perhaps because of that, my grandfather never got the credit he deserved as the match-winner. But they all count. And boy did that one count."
Everything went largely to plan for a little while after the final. Ferguson scored five in a 7-0 win over Burnley, which is still a Cardiff record, but then a back injury struck and in 1929 he was transferred to Dundee for the used-goods price of £500. And within a few months he was dead.
The narrative always had it that Ferguson could not handle the abuse he was receiving from the Dundee crowd following just two goals in 17 appearances. His family have another theory, one that could, quite understandably, have made their grief that bit less of a burden to shoulder. "He was suffering from an imbalance of his inner-ear by the time he came up to play for Dundee," said his grandson. "There was something pressing down on his inner ear and the family believed it was a brain tumour that was never diagnosed.
"The result was that he kept falling down on the park, which didn't go down well with the Dundee fans. There were was a bit of barracking. That's how fans are. Hughie also suffered terribly from insomnia, so you can imagine how difficult things must have been for him."
For his wife, Jessie, it was unimaginably tough. She was pregnant with their third child, with little to console her barring the fact that her husband was still cherished in Motherwell and Cardiff. He still is, as his grandson proves with the occasional trip down to Ninian Park. "I travel a bit with my job as a salesman for a medical firm so whenever I'm in the area I'll give Cardiff a call and they look after me with a seat in the directors' box," he said. "They've sorted us out with final tickets and we're very grateful." Some say it is the least the club could do and it can only be hoped that Cardiff's first final since may help the Ferguson family at last gain some closure, however small, however irrelevant. Who knows, maybe the highs of that afternoon eight decades ago made the lows Ferguson was to suffer that much harder to bear and maybe Welsh football's finest hour did come at a terrible price? Football and the Fergusons will never know for sure.
"I often wonder what the poor man must have been going through," said Hugh Jnr. "He didn't live to see his children grow up, to see his youngest son, Jack, appear in two Olympics in water-polo. Of course, he wouldn't have been round to see Cardiff in the final again now but I'm sure he'll be watching. I know some people might say it's naff, but it'll be nice to think of him up there looking down with that black cat Trixie on his knee. That's surely what the FA Cup is all about."
Curse of the Cup final goalscorer Players who went into decline after hitting heights
Line-ups The teams for Wembley
NEIL YOUNG, MANCHESTER CITY, 1969
Young, a stylish inside-left, followed the winner in the 1969 final, as City beat Leicester 1-0, with a goal and a winner's medal in the European Cup-Winners' Cup final against Gornik Zabrze 12 months later. However, City sold him in 1972 and after unremarkable spells at Preston and Rochdale, he fell on hard times, had a turbulent private life and struggled to find a new career. At one stage he worked as a milkman. City, who reneged on a promised testimonial in the 1970s, eventually held a series of dinners in his honour in the late 1990s.
ALAN TAYLOR, WEST HAM, 1975
Taylor scored both goals as the Hammers beat Fulham 2-0. He was still with the club for the European Cup-Winners' Cup final defeat to Anderlecht in 1976 but left three years later with the Hammers back in the old Second Division. His subsequent career, blighted by injuries, saw a series of short-lived stints with the likes of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Cambridge United, Hull, Burnley, Bury and finally Norwich in 1988-89. After working as a milkman for a couple of years, he ran a newsagent's business in Norwich.
BOBBY STOKES, SOUTHAMPTON, 1976
Before scoring in the 83rd minute of the classic final shock over Manchester United, Stokes – who ironically was born in Portsmouth – had made more than 250 appearances for his beloved Saints. After it the 25-year-old went on to make just 11 more, before watching his career and private life spiral. By the time of his death in 1995 at the age of 44 – officially his demise was due to bronchial pneumonia, but few people doubt it was alcohol that killed him – he was cleaning up tables at a greasy spoon in Portsmouth and living with his parents.
LEE MARTIN, MANCHESTER UTD, 1990
After United had been held to a 3-3 draw in the 1990 final against Crystal Palace, Martin scored the only goal of the replay five days later. It secured a pivotal first trophy of Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial reign at Old Trafford. Martin was never as prominent for United again, playing at Celtic, Bristol Rovers and Huddersfield before retiring with a back injury. In January 2002, Martin, by then unemployed, was sentenced to 180 hours' community service and ordered to pay £522 after admitting benefit fraud.
1 Peter Enckelman
Age 31 Nationality Finland Caps 9
Previous finals Finnish Cup 1997 (TPS Turku, L)
Goalkeeper on loan from Blackburn. Infamous for letting a throw-in roll under his foot and into the goal against Birmingham while at Aston Villa. Vulnerable on crosses.
2 Kevin McNaughton
Age 25 Nationality Scotland Caps 3 Finals 0
One of three Scots in Dave Jones' squad, McNaughton often dresses as DangerMouse and is similarly slippery as a probing right-back. Nicknamed "Silver Fox" because of prematurely grey hair. Recently recalled to national squad.
12 Roger Johnson
Age 25 Nationality England Caps 0 Finals 0
Designer-stubbled centre-half who fell out with Tony Adams when the Portsmouth coach was manager at Wycombe. Dangerous predator at set pieces who scored in quarter-final. His presence will be needed against a big Pompey side.
6 Glenn Loovens
Age 24 Nationality Netherlands Caps 0
Finals 2002 Uefa Cup (Feyenoord, W)
Centre-half who grew up at Feyenoord with Arsenal's Robin van Persie. Partnership with Johnson has kept club captain Darren Purse out of the starting XI.
3 Tony Capaldi
Age 26 Nationality N Ireland Caps 21 Finals 0
Born in Norway, but plays for Northern Ireland, the left-back arrived from Plymouth on a Bosman in the summer. Long throw-in is a favourite Bluebirds' weapon. Began at Birmingham but never played for them.
7 Peter Whittingham
Age 23 Nationality England Caps 0 Finals 0
England Under-21 international was raved about when beginning at Aston Villa, but later deemed surplus and sold for £350,000. Fierce shot and something of a Cup specialist this season. Won the FA Youth Cup with Villa six years ago.
4 Gavin Rae
Age 30 Nationality Scotland Caps 12 Finals 0
The midfield muscle. Made debut for Rangers in Old Firm match. Former captain at Ibrox and offered new contract by Walter Smith, but opted for regular first-team football. First capped in 2001, recently recalled to national team.
10 Stephen McPhail
Age 28 Nationality Ireland Caps 10 Finals 0
Captain who also enjoys role as main playmaker. Played in Champions League semi-final when with Leeds and on way back up after dropping to League One with Barnsley. Sweet passer who has not fulfilled his early promise.
16 Joe Ledley
Age 21 Nationality Wales Caps 20 Finals 0
Local lad who joined club as a nine-year-old. Highly rated Welsh international who scored winning goal in semi-final. Nicknamed "Deadly Ledley" for his finishing prowess. Everton and Wolves both attempted to buy him this season.
36 Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink
Age 36 Nationality Netherlands Caps 23
Finals (see panel on page 77)
Veteran famous for moans and tantrums. First-rate striker who still has the touch. Lack of pace matches his bafflingly small medal haul. Just the Portuguese Cup to his famous name.
11 Paul Parry
Age 27 Nationality Wales Caps 11 Finals 0
Winger was converted into a striker in mid-season and has been a success with 11 goals. Pacey, skilful and referred to in Wales as the "poor man's Ryan Giggs". Not too poor, though.
1 David James
Age 37 Nationality England Caps 37 Previous finals FA Cup 1996 (Liverpool, Lost), 2000 (Aston Villa, L). League Cup 1995 (Liverpool, W)
Veteran keeper showing form of his life at 37, earning an England recall. Athletic shot-stopper but still prone to the occasional gaffe.
5 Glen Johnson
Age 23 Nationality England Caps 6 Finals 0
Sold to Chelsea for £6m soon after emerging at West Ham but struggled to maintain development, not helped by fragile temperament. Working with the former Hammers manager Harry Redknapp, the right-back has blossomed anew.
23 Sol Campbell
Age 33 Nationality England Caps 73
Finals Champions League 2006 (Arsenal, L), FA Cup 2002, 2005 (both Arsenal, WL), League Cup 1999 (Tottenham, W)
Another veteran who has flourished at Fratton Park earning a return to England colours.
15 Sylvain Distin
Age 30 Nationality France Caps 0 Finals French League Cup 2000 (Gueugnon, W)
The best free transfer signing of the season, he has formed a near impregnable partnership with Campbell not conceding in four Cup ties. Previously with Newcastle and Manchester City.
7 Hermann Hreidarsson
Age 33 Nationality Iceland Caps 73 Finals 0
Powerful left-back who is an aerial threat. Usually ends a season being relegated – he has gone down with Crystal Palace, Wimbledon, Ipswich and Charlton. Allegedly discovered by David "Kid" Jensen's Icelandic wife. Goes puffin-hunting.
17 John Utaka
Age 26 Nationality Nigeria Caps 30 Finals Egyptian Cup 2000 (Ismaily, W)
Winger signed for £7m in the summer from Rennes. He began season brightly then faded before being injured. Only just recovered but likely to play as he provides balance.
8 Papa Bouba Diop
Age 30 Nationality Senegal Caps 38 Finals 0
Big, imposing midfielder who became known as "The Wardrobe" when at Fulham. At one stage he was linked with a move to Manchester United but his star faded. Scored opening goal against France in the 2002 World Cup finals.
6 Lassana Diarra
Age 23 Nationality France Caps 10
Finals League Cup 2007 (Chelsea, W)
Left Chelsea for Arsenal in August, then moved again in January to get regular football. Impressive, energetic holding midfielder who can also play at right-back, and often does for France.
11 Sulley Muntari
Age 23 Nationality Ghana Caps 38 Finals 0
Lively midfielder with a strong shot signed for £7m from Udinese in summer. Scored the late penalty that knocked out Manchester United at Old Trafford in the quarter-finals. Dismissed twice this season, thrice in Serie A last season.
19 Niko Kranjcar
Age 23 Nationality Croatia Caps 39 Finals Croatian Cup 2001, 2002 (D Zagreb, WW)
Cultured midfielder operating on left flank for Portsmouth, though he can also play behind the forward. Played under his father's management at 2006 World Cup, joining Pompey soon after.
Age 31 Nationality Nigeria Caps 39
Finals Champions League 1995 (Ajax, W), FA Cup 2002, 2003 (both Arsenal, WW)
Languid, elegant player with huge feet who overcame serious heart trouble to forge fine career.
By Glenn Moore
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