The Fergie of Yore: Part II – Bulging nets all over Scotland
In the first installment of this three-part article about Sir Alex Ferguson’s days before taking over as Manchester United manager, we read about Ferguson’s boyhood, as well as his aspirations and exploits as a teenager. In this article, we will learn more about the lesser known side of him, that is, Ferguson the football player.
As mentioned in the previous article, Ferguson had promising enough seasons at his youth club Queen’s Park and St Johnstone. The only notable incident during his amateur days was a hat-trick scored for St Johnstone against Rangers at Ibrox. He immediately resolved to get a transfer from St Johnstone, and turn professional. To his extraordinary luck, Dunfermline Athletic, formerly managed by Jock Stein (manager of Celtic’s European Cup winning team), came knocking on his door and Ferguson quite willingly struck a deal with the Fife club. At Dunfermline’s East End Park, he discovered a second home, and along with it, new brothers, as the club thrived in a harmonious and jolly atmosphere. He was to make friends for life at Dunfermline, and most noteworthy among then was a certain Willie Callaghan.
In his first season with Dunfermline in 1964/65, Ferguson did what was expected from him and became the club’s leading scorer as his team lost out on the league title by one-tenth of the proverbial whisker, losing out to Kilmarnock on goal average (goal difference came into existence only some years later). Nevertheless, Ferguson’s team had one more opportunity at glory, for they had managed to reach the final of the Scottish Cup. Their opponents were Celtic, who were now managed – with a touch of irony – by none other than Jock Stein. The result seems so very irrelevant when considering what preceded the actual game!
Of the three strikers fit to play on the day, Willie Cunningham, the Dunfermline manager, chose to drop his leading scorer, Ferguson, but decided to keep the team line-up to himself until an hour to kick-off, whence he announced that he would be reading out the team names. Ferguson was distraught that, contrary to his belief, his name wasn’t announced at the end of the list. And mind you, back in those days, there was no concept of substitutes either. Naturally, something snapped, and Ferguson erupted. “You bastard!” he roared at the boss, and continued ranting and raving, consumed by a cocktail of fury, disappointment and frustration, ignoring repeated warnings from the Club Chairman to get a hold of himself.
That the incident was only used by Ferguson to grow into a finer player was clearly manifest in his second season, when he notched up forty five goals in fifty games in all competitions. At the end of the season, he proceeded to secure his future in football by completing his coaching qualifications. He returned to Dunfermline as a certified coach at twenty five, and agreed to another season with them, after being promised a pay rise and a transfer the following season. Dunfermline had a bad season and slithered to eighth, a slump which could be attributed to an uncharacteristically long dry spell for Ferguson, who also was sidelined with an injury later.
However, everything around him wasn’t going as awry (for him, that is) as it was at East End Park. Rangers were getting more and more frustrated by the impeccable ascent of the Stein Machine at Celtic, and set about searching for strikers after a wholesale export of their own incompetent ones. Ferguson’s stars were shining bright. Or so he was to believe until he actually came to experience the putrid system of administration practised at Ibrox and his nose hairs curled at the rancid reek of Protestant bigotry prevalent in the Blue half of Glasgow.
Ferguson arrived at Glasgow Rangers in the summer of 1967, and from then on he wished he never had left Dunfermline. The ominous signs were obvious and in front of his eyes from the very day he put pen to paper at Ibrox. It all began with a club director questioning Ferguson if his wife was indeed a Roman Catholic and if they were indeed married in a Catholic Church. Upon being answered in the negative about the latter question, the director heaved an audibly curt sigh of relief. However, Ferguson was able to conceal his distaste for the director’s audacity under the ceremonious occasion of having signed for his dream club.
Rangers were under unparalleled pressure from supporters, what with Celtic having won the European Cup under Stein and along with it the distinction of being the first –and only –Scottish club to do so, overshadowing Rangers’ European Cup winners’ Cup victory in the final over a Bayern Munich team comprising of Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier and Franz Beckenbauer. And then, fate decided to play its cruel hand. Scot Symon, the much revered Rangers manager, was sacked, and Ferguson didn’t exactly take a liking to his successor, Davie White. Although, he vented his frustration on the opposition, thankfully, and his resentment became his driving force, as he became the club’s leading scorer that season.
But he was growing more disgusted with the shamelessly ill-concealed bigotry, most discernible in the form of the Rangers’ PR officer, Willie Allison, who Ferguson describes as a ‘muck-spreader’ and a ‘diseased zealot’. The muck that Allison spread, was that Ferguson’s eldest son Mark was christened in a Catholic Church (which was proved untrue and entirely baseless). But Ferguson did cross the line when he got drunk with a teammate and went to Allison to give him a dressing down after reading a story in the papers about his days at Rangers being numbered.
The story turned out to be true, however, as the following season White asked him to accept a transfer to Hibernian as part of a makeweight deal to sign Hibs’ Colin Stein. Ferguson refused, and White promptly responded by dumping him into the reserve squad. Stein was signed nevertheless, breaking the Scottish transfer record of £65,000 that Rangers had shelled out to secure the services of Ferguson. He was picked for the Cup final against Celtic, thanks to Stein being ruled out due to injury, and was made the prime scapegoat in a 4-0 chastening. White accused him of not properly picking up the Celtic captain Billy McNeill at corners, and being the primary reason for Celtic’s first goal after all of two minutes.
Ferguson never trained with the first team again, let alone play for them. He was made to train with the apprentices, but was further demoted after White spotted him coaching them during a session. On one occasion, he was left on the bench while playing for the third team. Yes, Ferguson was given a taste of hell long before he would ever get a chance to visit it. And there, a career which would have been one of Scotland’s finest and most distinguished, but for lack of discipline, was torn apart. The theatre of his boyhood dreams turned out to be one of his most hellish nightmares.
He was approached by Nottingham Forest the next season, but he headed to Falkirk, managed by his old boss Willie Cunningham, the bastard. No description of his time at Falkirk would be necessary, nor would it be advisory to waste time dwelling on his not-so-golden sunset at Ayr United.
Ferguson was one bad-a** player on the pitch, with his devil-may-care attitude and his indifferent outlook to cracking ribs with his elbows. He was to allude to his two bony weapons while naming a section of his pub Fergie’s as ‘The Elbow Room’, vainly trying to cash in on his decreasing popularity. If you looked at him from his waist down and cut out his torso and face, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell him and Roy Keane apart. Atleast not their tackles, anyway. But what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for with a smart ability to cash in on mistakes made by the opposition defence to score lots of goals.
His crowd-pleasing energy and his combative spirit was the focal point of discussions about him at the time, although some did believe he liked to save his breath for the job of putting the ball into the back of the net and did not contribute much apart from goals to the team, thereby failing to keep to date with the modern striker, whose responsibilities aren’t restricted to scoring goals but also include forming his team’s first line of defence by trying to intercept or win the ball back in the opposition half.
Maybe Ferguson wasn’t destined for greatness as a player, for then the glory fate had in store for him as a manger would have been too much to take. But he was a good player, and that goes without saying.
In the next part of the article, we will take a look at the clubs he managed before succeeding Ron Atkinson at United. Please leave your opinions about the article and any suggestions for the next one in the comments box.