For Evertonians the 1990’s were a rollercoaster ride of very occasional ups and far too many downs. The club had declined quite alarmingly from its mid-80’s heyday when trophies and Cup Finals were an annual occurrence. Poor management both on and off the field had led the Blues to the edge of the abyss and relegation from the Premier League, of which ironically Everton had been a leading player in its creation. The famous last day escape of the 1993-94 season, when only an inspired comeback at home to Wimbledon coupled with favourable results elsewhere, meant the Toffees escaped the top flight trap door by the skin of their teeth.
Year upon year the club had overspent on the wrong players. The club badge sports the Latin phrase ‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’ – Nothing But The Best Is Good Enough. Anybody who had seen Brett Angell in the Royal Blue jersey knew this ethos no longer pushed the club forward.
Early in the 1994-95 campaign and after a dreadful start, the soon-to-be-sacked boss Mike Walker searched far and wide for a saviour. A goalscorer. A talisman. Someone to put some fight back into this dying beast. He found the answer in Glasgow. That man was Duncan Ferguson.
Ferguson was the bright young thing of Scottish football. After impressing at Dundee United, Rangers came calling and were suitably convinced to fork out the princely sum (for 1993) of £4 million for his services. Six feet four inches tall, strong, superb in the air, excellent touch and a good finisher, his credentials were obvious. However, his dream move to Rangers would turn into a nightmare. His failure to make an impact at Ibrox was coupled with several unsavoury incidents away from it which required intervention from Her Majesty’s Constabulary. Indeed the only significant impact Ferguson did make on the pitch in Glasgow’s south side was with the face of Raith Rovers’ John McStay. This infamous headbutting incident would eventually lead to a three month spell in Barlinnie Prison.
The Big Man proved to be an instant hit with the Goodison Park faithful. Rangers were persuaded to let the striker leave for good when they managed to recoup their £4 million outlay as Ferguson moved south to escape the Glasgow goldfish bowl. ‘Big Dunc’, as he became affectionately known wrote himself into Everton folklore in his first Merseyside derby when he terrorised the Liverpool centre backs and bagged himself a trademark headed goal. As Everton hauled themselves away from danger through the rest of the season, new manager Joe Royle had galvanised Ferguson and his teammates into a tough tackling, no-nonsense outfit. Their uncompromising midfield had earned itself the nickname ‘The Dogs of War’ and with Ferguson as the spearhead, Everton reached the FA Cup Final where they upset the odds and defeated the seemingly unbeatable Manchester United. Earlier in the league campaign, Duncan Ferguson had scored the winner against United at Goodison Park and his namesake and fellow countryman in charge of the Red Devils must have sighed with relief when the Everton target-man was only a substitute for the Wembley showpiece. But Everton’s greatest asset, team spirit, saw them through to the undoubted highlight of an otherwise miserable decade.
Ferguson himself could only make the bench for the Cup final. Injury had afflicted him on and off throughout the season and this pattern repeated itself on an all-too-frequent basis during his career. Although he was a fearsome physical specimen when in full cry, it is safe to assume that his physiology was not capable of meeting the constant demands of the intense nature of professional football. Repeated niggles to back, groin and hamstring are testament to this, however it never dented the cult hero status he achieved and retains even to this day amongst the blue half of Merseyside.
During his first spell with Everton such was the love affair between the fans and Ferguson, earned through his determination and up-and-at-them style on the field, that he had the club crest with the number 9 tattooed on his arm, a move that would elevate him to God-like proportions. So when in 1998, chairman Peter Johnson, an already unpopular figure amongst supporters, sold Ferguson to Newcastle United for £8 million behind manager Walter Smith’s back, Evertonians were devastated. From that moment of betrayal, Johnson was finished at Goodison. It was a shrewd move by Bill Kenwright, who took over the helm at Everton from Johnson, to bring the ever popular Scot back to Goodison in 2000.
Ferguson’s second spell at Everton was a stop-start affair, as again injuries constantly plagued him. This in no way diminished his standing amongst the fans, but as David Moyes came into the hotseat at Goodison, Big Dunc also found his starting appearances more limited. Although he became a useful weapon from the bench, grabbing important goals, particularly in the 2004-05 as Everton miraculously finished in 4th place earning themselves a place in Champions League qualifying.
In the following season’s qualifying tie, Ferguson would be involved in a hugely controversial incident against Spanish side Villareal. His seemingly legal goal which brought Everton back into the game and on course for qualification for the group stage was inexplicably chalked off by well-respected Italian referee Pierluigi Collina, who retired from officiating immediately after this game. Evertonians still claim something fishy transpired around this game.
Duncan was never far away from blowing his top either on or off the pitch. He was dismissed an incredible total of nine times during his career, usually because of his aggressive and confrontational style being taken one step too far. Many opponents can testify to the ferocity of Ferguson’s fists and elbows. His style would probably have been better suited to a bygone era.
His handiness with his fists did however prove very useful during a break in at his home, when he caught and ‘detained’ one of the intruders until the Police arrived. The unlucky burglar spent the next 3 days in hospital.
As game time decreased and injuries began to take their toll, Duncan Ferguson finally retired from the game in 2006. Although his career stats show he failed to hit 100 league goals in total and rarely made 30 appearances a season, his warrior-like style and commitment to the Everton cause, particularly during a low ebb in the club’s fortunes, will forever make him a legend to Evertonians.