SCOTTISH football lacks for any number of things. One of the less remarked upon is the decline of the high-profile maverick player, those individuals distinguished from the journeyman pack by their playing style, actions or personality. Sometimes the three can combine to produce a figure who transcends the game, its fleeting results and quickly forgotten incidents. Two such individuals, Jim Baxter and Duncan Ferguson, are the subject of recent biographies by, respectively, Rangers TV’s Tom Miller and Scotsman sports journalist Alan Pattullo.
As a blanket description, the maverick label can obscure sometimes wildly divergent personalities. Baxter was buoyant, impish and eager to please. Ferguson, on the other hand, was withdrawn, sullen and prone to the sort of aggression that would culminate in notoriety and Barlinnie. Baxter loved football but cut his career short after allowing himself a bloated slide into the high-maintenance category. Ferguson, as a number of interviews attest, seemed to hate football. He just wanted to spend time with his pigeons, although the game at least allowed him to buy them £20,000 dovecots and floodlit runways. Baxter was a cultured player who regularly found himself in the company of legends such as Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano when a world select team was required. His confidence and imagination with the ball was, of course, epitomised by the keepie-uppies performed at Wembley in 1967, one of Scottish football’s enduring reference points.
Ferguson, as Pattullo makes clear, was a more than capable player with the ball at his feet but his game was defined by his height, physicality and ability in the air. Scottish football, or so it has been said, emphasises physical toughness from the earliest stages but it often seems to be the case that it really takes to heart those players who resist this conditioning. Ferguson was sometimes a two-thirds Hobbesian character on the pitch: He could be nasty and brutish, while Baxter played with a grace that endeared him to even some opposition fans. Ferguson, at various stages, was not even viewed with much fondness by his own.
The defining moment in Ferguson’s career was the head butt on Raith Rovers player Jock McStay, for which he would eventually serve 44 days behind bars, and it understandably features prominently in Pattullo’s book. In a short space of time, Ferguson went from being the most expensive player transferred between two British clubs to the first professional footballer jailed for something that happened on the pitch. Football thrusts incredible accelerations in circumstances on unreasonably young men but this experience must have been more damaging than most.
For all the apparent differences in the personalities and playing styles of the two subjects, it is nevertheless possible to identify common themes and traits across the two books. Baxter was the beating-heart of Scot Symon’s great Rangers side of the early 1960s, Ferguson was the dull headache of Walter Smith’s in the 1990s. Every action was measured against his £4m transfer fee and Ferguson was usually found wanting. The two men’s careers featured frustrating spells at clubs in the north-east of England: Baxter at Sunderland and Ferguson at Newcastle. They both found it difficult to deal with aspects of the football grind; Slim Jim with training and Big Dunc with games in which there was little at stake. Miller’s book suggests Symon and other managers were remarkably indulgent with Baxter, something which can probably be attributed to his charm and the leeway the one-time miner could extract on account of his ability on the pitch. But might his career have been prolonged significantly if he had been made to conform to the fitness standards of other players? Almost certainly.
Baxter enjoyed playing football and this, particularly in his early career, counteracted the effects of the previous night’s drinking and the lack of training. Miller has collected plenty of evidence from former teammates about his unorthodox fitness regime. Ferguson often toiled to raise an interest. Pattullo recounts a story from former player turned broadcaster Pat Nevin. It was half-time during Ferguson’s international debut in a friendly against the United States shortly before the 1992 European Championships. Ferguson had radiated indifference and, when challenged by then manager Andy Roxburgh to account for his performance, replied that he was unable to rouse himself for ‘park games’. Even the mini atom bomb that was Jim McLean struggled at times. Emptying himself of his renowned fury could often produce little more than a shrug of the shoulders or another quip. In Ferguson’s nonchalance, McLean found his nemesis. But towards the end of his career, through a combination of maturity and impending retirement, Ferguson seemed to become more engaged. In contrast to Baxter, he kept himself well-conditioned despite a reputation for hard-partying as a younger man.
Pattullo’s book ends on a note of redemption, giving it an unexpected uplifting feel. We learn that Ferguson has inspired a Finnish conductor to write an opera called Barlinnie Nine. It is first performed on the night Ferguson scores a winning goal for Everton against Manchester United, lending credence to the argument running throughout the book that it was the big games that brought out his best. By the book’s conclusion, Ferguson is back at Everton coaching youth teams with the sort of diligence he seemed consciously to reject for much of his playing career. Baxter’s life after football, some thirty years, is largely accounted for by his ownership of a pub and the speaking tours he took part in with Jimmy Johnstone, another mercurial talent.
Baxter’s talents were more extravagant and squandered more recklessly. Ferguson’s full potential was always out of reach because he was so susceptible to injury. Yet the former is held in higher esteem by the Scottish footballing public because he starred in iconic victories over England. To the extent that such a thing is possible, he was not defined by the Old Firm rivalry and Celtic fans marked his passing with a banner proclaiming he was simply the best. Yet, when dealing with an individual without Baxter’s qualities, would we be so forgiving of the shortcomings? The escapades and behaviour Miller chronicles suggest he came close to being an alcoholic with a gambling addiction. The case is reasonably made, however, that this was all coping mechanism to help him deal with a corrosive, half-exposed secret about his parentage – the couple he grew up calling his parents were in fact his auntie and uncle – which he was only forced to confront in later life.
Despite the difficult circumstances they provided Baxter with a stable upbringing in Fife mining country, the success of which is perhaps best demonstrated by the regular return visits he made as an adult and the anguish he experienced on their behalf when dealing with his biological mother’s late statement of her status. Ferguson’s childhood was spent in a Bannockburn that Pattullo depicts as a rough-and-tumble, working-class place few tourists would be impressed with. Ferguson’s high school is described ‘as a place that helped create a sense of alienation’ while the town suffers from perceiving itself as being in the shadow of Stirling. The reader is invited to draw the inevitable connections between place and character.
Ferguson was tormented by a sense of injustice about the way the Scottish football authorities had treated him in the Jock McStay case and he withdrew his labour. This was hardly a move likely to endear him to the fans of the national team given the paltry number of his appearances. Pattullo memorably suggests the Scotland fans craved a player who could replicate the ‘gap-toothed primal passion’ of Joe Jordan. The importance of the McStay incident in framing his legacy is difficult to measure precisely. Scotland, after all, is able to demonstrate a strange fascination with violent characters, while many football fans shout for worse on a weekly basis. Of more importance is the contrast between Ferguson’s profile and his hostility towards the media, that crucial channel of communication between players and fans. The broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove observes that with Ferguson ‘you never felt he was properly part of Scottish society’. Miller’s book, by way of contrast, boasts a testimony from Gordon Brown.
Pattullo teases out the complexities of his subject meticulously in what amounts to one of the most impressive football books of recent times. The writing is sharp, his handling of a complex character sympathetic without being sycophantic and the level of research is impressive. If someone ever crossed paths with Ferguson then Pattullo probably tracked them down and he weighs interview material effectively with his own analysis. The exhaustive list of interviewees did not include Ferguson himself, with a number of approaches being rejected. The section on Barlinnie testifies that Pattullo is an excellent journalist, not just an excellent sports journalist, if such a cases requires to be made.
Without knowing the details, Miller’s book feels like it had an ambitious deadline and word count. Chapters at the end reflecting on Baxter’s relationship with the likes of Willie Henderson and Willie Johnston are interesting but not essential. Likewise, there is a section on players who moved to Rangers in circumstances similar to Baxter’s that lingers too long to justify itself. Like Pattullo, Miller has spoken to an impressive cast-list but he doesn’t use the material with enough discretion. Not only should this last line have been removed by either Miller or his editors, but the value of the insight is rendered questionable.
The two books present interesting studies in the effects of football fame on the vulnerabilities of complicated individuals and they offer compelling evidence of the importance of playing style and personality in shaping carers and legacies. But more than all that, they leave you questioning whether Scottish football is capable of fostering characters able to combine excellence, controversy and weakness in the way it once was.
In Search of Duncan Ferguson: The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma
Mainstream Digital, £18.99, ISBN 978 1845963927, PP336
Slim Jim: Simply the Best
Black & White Publishing, £9.99, ISBN 978 1845027834, PP256