Belfast Telegraph

John Laverty: Duncan Ferguson will make sure his players are afraid of no one... except him

Duncan Ferguson
Duncan Ferguson
John Laverty

By John Laverty

It was the worst decision since curiosity got the better of Pandora. Two hoods were sitting together in early January 2001, wondering how to pay for Christmas excesses. A light bulb went on above their heads (it was closing time, after all).

Hood 1: "There's a Premier League footballer living in a converted barn down the road. Let's do his place."

Hood 2: "Who is it?"

Hood 1: "Dunno, but sure they're all loaded."

Hood 2: "What if he's there when we go in?"

Hood 1: "Don't matter. What's he gonna do against the two of us?"

Two hours later, Hood 1 - aka Barry Dawson - was in hospital, where he'd spend the next three days. The other, Michael Pratt, somehow got out of the house and fled in terror.

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Ferguson and John McStay
Ferguson and John McStay

Their intended 'victim' was one Duncan Ferguson, a man who dwarfed his would-be burglars in both size and rap sheet.

 

A quick Google search by Dumb and Dumber would have revealed that the ostensibly unobtrusive citizen of Ormskirk, Lancashire once had the notorious Barlinnie Prison as his address after becoming the first professional footballer to be jailed for an on-the-field assault on an opponent, Raith Rovers' John McStay.

It was his fourth conviction, having previously been found guilty of headbutting a police officer, punching and kicking a postman and decking a fisherman during a pub brawl.

Rangers, who had shelled out a then British record £4m transfer fee to Dundee United for the powerful centre-forward, opted to cut their losses and offloaded their volatile liability to Everton.

On the eve of his first Merseyside derby, he failed a breathalyser test - earning him the nickname Duncan Disorderly - but still scored against Liverpool.

The 6ft 4in monster's 'tackling' of the hapless burglars in 2001 was widely reported at the time but clearly escaped the attention of Mr Carl Bishop who, two years later, ascertained that an Everton player had just moved into a leafy avenue in Formby, Merseyside and would therefore be rich pickings.

After evading the security system, he came across a rather large anti-intruder device he hadn't reckoned with - and he too ended up in the local infirmary.

And now, after a decade and a half of relative obscurity, Scotland's answer to fearsome former Crusaders hard man Kirk Hunter has suddenly returned to the limelight as caretaker manager of the Toffees - possibly the most terrifying boss ever to grace the Premier League.

He got off to a wonderful start with Saturday's 3-1 victory over "Frank Lampard's Chelsea" (copyright all tabloids), a result that surprised even the long-suffering Goodison fans who were used to seeing regular capitulations under recently deposed manager Marco Silva.

But why would Everton players be scared of their opponents when the man leading them makes Roy Keane - another hothead he regularly clashed with - look like Mother Theresa?

I know what it's like to be confronted by the former Scottish international striker.

Bit of previous: Ferguson squares up to Roy Keane
Bit of previous: Ferguson squares up to Roy Keane

It happened in the mid '90s, in the lobby bar of Glasgow's Moat International Hotel.

While attempting to explain to the barman what I wanted, I felt a pair of piercing blue eyes boring into me from a couple of feet away.

Bravely, I whimpered: "Erm, I know who you are, Mr Ferguson. Do you think you might know me from somewhere?"

He replied: "Nay son, ah've never seen ye in mah life. But ah recognise that accent. Ballymena, right?"

Floored by Duncan Disorderly, and he hadn't laid a finger on me.

Me: "How on earth did you know that?" Him: "Mah good pal is fray Ballymena. Ye might even know him. Michael O'Neill?"

Me: "Of course I know Michael. We were at the same school, and my girlfriend lived next door to him."

Him: "Aye, him an' me were at Dundee United taegether. Any pal o' Michael's a pal o' mine. A wee dram, son? Barman, get this boy a pint o' heavy..."

What surprised me most over the brief period we spent together was how softly spoken and mild-mannered the notoriously media-shy Ferguson was. Articulate too, and deceptively intelligent.

Turns out he doesn't drag his knuckles or eat babies for breakfast.

He was, however, a keen pigeon fancier. He's hugely popular at Everton - exemplified by the way he and the ball-boys embraced after the morale-boosting goals on Saturday.

The most telling stat from that match, however, was this: against Chelsea, Everton players made more tackles in a Premier League match - 37 - than at any time in the last DECADE, and double their season's average. And none of the visiting players got decked.

It remains to be seen whether Duncan Cowan Ferguson has the tactical nous to manage a Premier League club on a permanent basis but there's little doubt that, now 47, he has matured immeasurably.

You still wouldn't cross Big Dunc, though, and it's a little too early to rebrand the Stirling native as football's gentle giant.

To quote Walter White in that pivotal scene in Breaking Bad - and as a gentle reminder to aspiring burglars in the Formby area: "I am not IN danger… I AM the danger."

When it comes to recruiting fans, Sky's no longer the limit

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." If you're a poetry aficionado, you'll recognise that as a Charles Baudelaire remark.

Otherwise, devious Verbal Gint from hit movie The Usual Suspects gets the credit. It could, however, be adopted by Amazon as a catchphrase.

Those notorious tax avoiders, who somehow managed to make plain cardboard desirable, have now dipped their toes into live Premier League football.

My first instinct was to castigate them for a chronic lack of originality; the same commentators, presenters, pundits and format as rivals Sky and BT; Jermaine Jenas informing us, like he did on Tuesday night, that this was "a game both teams will want to win".

But then it dawned that this is what the streaming masters wanted, a way to make you believe this is merely a natural progression - and a reason for fans to pay yet another subscription for something they believed they already had.

For a mere £90m loss leader, Amazon has bought the rights to stream 20 PL games each year for the next three seasons. All you have to do is sign up for a free 30-day trial of its Prime service - by happy coincidence during the year's busiest retail period, not to mention a potentially pivotal time in the title race.

Last week's launch was reportedly a resounding success, with record-breaking sign-ups to a service that will cost £7.99 a month after the trial. By then you'll have been treated to all the Boxing Day fixtures live. Who'd want to 'opt out' after that?

One commentator claimed this was a return to 'free-to-air' live footy; you've got to be kidding. Amazon is the most efficient cash-making business in history; owner Jeff Bezos didn't become the world's richest man by giving things away.

The company uses certain techniques to inveigle themselves into your psyche; the excitement at that little cardboard box arriving will overshadow any vexation at seeing the local book shop or electronics store closing for the last time.

It's all so American - no surprise when you consider that seven of the top-flight teams now have some form of US ownership while Sky is now a fully-fledged Yank operation after being bought by Comcast last year.

It remains to be seen, however, if Amazon have timed this right. One industry survey recently found that 52% of fans said they may cancel their sports streaming services within the next five years. On the other hand, the Amazon model will make it a lot easier for the big clubs to negotiate their own rights in future.

Amazon won't reveal any profits they make from their Premier League adventure but you can be sure that, if fans aren't 'monetised' to their satisfaction, they'll be off the scene quicker than one of their poorly paid staff finally granted a rare toilet break.

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