Red card may force Everton to call time on Ferguson

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The Independent Football

Duncan Ferguson's latest four-match suspension and £10,000 FA fine could well have cast another shadow over his Everton future.

David Moyes, the Everton manager, in consultation with the Scottish striker, has decided that the ban will start immediately, ruling him out of both the Easter games, against Tottenham and Leeds, plus the matches with Chelsea and Blackburn.

Ferguson will then be available for the final three games of Everton's season, which they hope by then will see them clear of the relegation zone.

But this latest brush with authority - the red card and a one-match initial ban from the Leicester game served last weekend at Newcastle - and the two follow-up charges from the FA to add to the latest punishments, have not impressed the Goodison Park hierarchy. It could heighten their desire to offload the 32-year-old in the summer.

He will be out of contract in the summer of 2005, and usually senior players at this stage of their current agreements would be expecting talks on a new deal. This, claim senior sources at the club, will not happen.

Everton's financial plight has made Ferguson's £35,000-a-week salary a massive burden over recent seasons, and there have been moves in the past to move him out of the club. A loan move to Bradford was rejected mid-season.

His constant absences through injury and the run-in with Moyes and a subsequent ban from the training ground earlier this season, have increased the desire of the club's money men to see the back of the controversial striker.

After this latest problem - which included an attack on the Leicester midfielder Steffen Freund and a gesture to the fans, particularly when he was captain of the side at the Walkers Stadium - has been a severe embarrassment for the club.

There has also been the saga of Fulham striker Louis Boa-Morte's claims of alleged racial abuse by Ferguson, which the FA rejected through lack of evidence. Ferguson has always strongly denied the claim, but it was a further embarrassment for Everton who have worked tremendously hard off the pitch to eradicate their image of racial problems amongst fans.

The club could have manipulated the timing of the latest ban, allowing it to start on 19 April, or appealed in order to delay until next season most of the games Ferguson will miss.

But Ferguson, who had a back injury and would not have played at Newcastle, now has a groin problem and does not expect to be fit for Easter.

Moyes said: "Duncan can start his ban immediately. Duncan is injured just now and we do not think he is going to be available for the games over Easter, so we feel that we are better taking care of his ban now.

"To be honest we need Duncan just now because we are so short of players and I could have done with him for the games but he doesn't feel as if he will be fit. Therefore the best thing to do is get his ban out of the way and get him ready for the final three games of the season."

But whether those last three games of the season are his last for the club will depend on close-season negotiations.

Ferguson could even be offered a pay-off as Everton struggle to contain nearly £30m of debts. But there is also every chance that the Stirling-born player could sit on the final year of his contract and leave on a free transfer in 15 months.

But Ferguson's long-term future is only one of several summer problems for Moyes, who will have to cut his squad to save on wages and to achieve any measure of rebuilding.