4000 Holes


Saturday, 9 September 2023

Let's get something out of the way first. Whenever you mention Mike Ferguson to any Rovers supporter of a certain age, they will almost always touch on that day at Ewood on 25th March 1967: a four-pointer at the top of the Second Division versus Coventry City (managed by Jimmy Hill). 

It was a day of anticipation which descended into madness as the red mist descended on Fergie. Having been engaged in a battle all afternoon with the City full back Dietmar Bruck, and feeling aggrieved that the referee was offering him no protection, Fergie's patience snapped as he tangled with the German again but this time he decided to get his retaliation in first and swung an elbow which caught Bruck clean on the jaw. Almost without waiting for his marching orders and after delivering a verbal volley towards the referee, Fergie stormed down the tunnel kicking the trainer's bucket as he went. Needless to say, Rovers lost the game, 1–0, and with it any chance of a promotion back to Division One.

Make no mistake about it, Mike Ferguson was a footballer par excellence. He was first and foremost an entertainer and whilst he could excite and frustrate almost within minutes, he was ultimately a crowd pleaser, a fans' hero and one of Ewood's favourite sons. As a winger he turned in some dazzling performances – he had wonderful balance, quick feet and had that turn of speed which bewildered defenders. He could also operate at inside forward and provide the openings for other teammates. 

Fergie was, above all, a team player who relished wearing the famous blue and white shirt and there can be no doubt that he always provided full value for money. He was even asked to operate as a right full back by then Rovers manager, Eddie Quigley, which I don't believe he particularly enjoyed but this didn't diminish his enthusiasm for his love of playing for the club.

His mentor was the little magician, Bryan Douglas, and he learned much from Duggie which enabled him to develop his game and make him an even better player than he perhaps thought he could be. He was also Duggie's 'minder' and on those occasions (and there were many) where Douglas was getting a rough ride, Fergie would 'step in' to redress the balance.

Mike Ferguson made 220 League appearances for the Rovers, scoring 29 goals in a spell between 1962 and 1968 before moving to Aston Villa. Following a short spell at Queens Park Rangers, Ferguson joined Cambridge United, followed by, in quick succession, Los Angeles Aztecs, Rochdale and Halifax Town. Managerial/coaching appointments followed at IA Akranes in Iceland, APOEL Nicosia and Evagoras Paphos in Greece. He also worked alongside Malcolm Allison as a member of the Kuwait National Team. In addition he worked for his old pal and team mate, Terry Venables, as a scout leading up to Euro 1996.

The class, skills and poise of Ferguson far outweighed the negative aspects which surfaced now and then. Yes, he was mercurial but that was part of his attraction to Rovers supporters and what made him such an important player in a forward line in those early 60s which entertained and excited not only at Ewood but away from home.

The sum of Ferguson's success was perhaps bewildering considering that his career might easily have stalled even before it had barely started. After a youth career as an amateur with Plymouth Argyle, Ferguson's return to East Lancashire with Accrington Stanley was showing early promise in the 1960/61 season. With serious storm clouds hovering over Peel Park, that promise looked to have been extinguished when the club, despite the best efforts of many who held the club close to their hearts, tragically lost their Football League status in 1962. 

Ironically, having played 23 games that season, Ferguson's only goal for the club at Doncaster Rovers was the last goal to be scored by Stanley in that era. Even then the fates conspired for the Football League to step in and officially expunge the goal since Stanley were unable to fulfil their League commitments. Ferguson had agonised over a move to Workington Town at a fee of £3,500 which he subsequently turned down, but he was to admit that he had felt a certain amount of guilt, particularly when the full extent of Stanley's financial woes were laid bare by the straight-talking PFA Secretary Cliff Lloyd, on the Monday following what was to be Stanley's final League game.

With football sentiment perhaps in short supply, Rovers, along with other clubs, notably Preston North End, were circling round the beleaguered club. Rovers manager Jack Marshall stole a march by tracking down the young Ferguson and, following negotiation with the Football League (for it was they who had held the player's registration), signed the winger for a modest fee. It is difficult to pin down the exact figure. I have heard and read variations of £1,500 to £2,500 and figures in between. This move was typical of Mr Marshall who was soon to have a proven track record of dealing in the unexpected. 

As with any signing there is always that element of risk attached but the general belief around Ewood was that they had unearthed a diamond, who, with a bit of polishing, would sparkle and shine. Safe to say that is exactly what happened – Fergie's reciprocal love affair with Rovers had started. 

Initially signed as a striker, the young Ferguson was converted to a right winger, the manager believing that he had the necessary creativity and also the predatory instincts of a striker which earmarked him as a double threat to defences. To say Ferguson excelled in his role as a right winger would be an understatement, since it brought with it the creative instincts of the player and added to this flair was a short fuse which was never far from being detonated – but this was Fergie.

Mike Ferguson made his Rovers League debut on the first day of the 1962/63 season. He featured at inside left but it was another debutant, the diminutive Bobby Craig (ex-Sheffield Wednesday) who grabbed a hat trick in a 3–3 draw at Ipswich. Fergie scored his first league goal just five games in at Molineux in a 4–2 defeat by Wolves. Although he scored again in the next game at Sheffield United (1–1), Rovers supporters had to wait until the 37th game of the season for a first home league goal when he scored in a 6–1 demolition of Birmingham City. Fergie did oblige in the final game of the season with two goals against Spurs at Ewood. Ferguson played 30 games that first season scoring seven times, and flitting throughout the season between outside right and inside left as Rovers finished in 11th place.

Fergie is
congratulated by Malcolm Darling

Ferguson's Rovers career came to an end in 1968 (his final game being in the 1–1 home draw with Cardiff City on 27th April), when Aston Villa's then record transfer fee £50,000 was paid for his services. Signed by the ex-Burnley stalwart Tommy Cummings, the move to the Midlands didn't prove successful as Cummings lost his job to be replaced by Tommy Docherty in December 1968, who became Doug Ellis's first manager. 

You would have thought it more than likely that Ferguson would be a good fit for The Doc, but nothing could have been further from the truth as his first team appearances became increasingly limited. In November 1969, after only 38 appearances and just two goals, the mercurial Fergie was on his way again, this time to Shepherd’s Bush and Queens Park Rangers.  Loftus Road seemed to be ideal for a player with flair, imagination and a free spirit and Fergie was in the best of company with the ultra-talented Rodney Marsh and Terry Venables around him.

Such was Ferguson's confidence in his own ability that when Marsh moved north to Manchester City there was a reluctance for anyone at Rangers to even contemplate wearing Marsh's number 10 jersey. Ferguson was no shrinking violet and he informed manager Gordon Jago that he was more than happy to wear it – and wear it he did. Three years and 68 games later (2 goals), Ferguson, still only 30, moved again in quick succession to Cambridge United, Rochdale and Halifax Town – he even squeezed in a brief spell with Los Angeles Aztecs.

My abiding memory of Fergie was the hunched shoulders, his hands clutching the cuffs of his blue and white jersey and his relish in facing up defenders, skipping past them and, if in the mood, beating them again. An exuberant member of ‘Marshall's Misfits’, Ferguson exuded quality and class, whilst perhaps lacking the subtlety of his mentor, the genius that was Bryan Douglas, like Duggie he did have the innate ability to beat an opponent in a variety of ways. He had quick feet, deftness of touch and an unquenchable thirst for hard work. 

Fergie played in a Rovers era where the accent was on pure football entertainment and he, and the team, didn't disappoint. Crushing victories over that great Tottenham Hotspur team and West Ham United were perhaps the pinnacle of sheer brilliance but the fayre being served up by the Rovers at Ewood and First Division grounds across the country was football excellence and Fergie was pivotal in that success story. 

The added value was encapsulated one Saturday on 5th September 1964 at Villa Park where Rovers fashioned a 4–0 victory – their first away win of the season. In the 78th minute and leading by three goals to nil, two of which were 'made' by Ferguson, the game was elevated above the unimaginable when, for all of us privileged to see it, Fergie fashioned arguably the greatest individual goal scored by a Rovers player. (I would maybe argue that a similar effort by Bryan Douglas v West Bromwich Albion was in fact the greatest but that would be mere pedantry – Duggie himself, as modest as ever, had no qualms in pronouncing Fergie's goal the greatest he'd ever seen). 

Ferguson who had already plagued the Villa defence throughout the game picked up the ball out on the right just inside the Villa half, beat 3 players before moving into the centre of the pitch, and with footwork and body swerve that would have done credit to Fred Astaire and Franz Klammer, almost effortlessly took the ball around four Villa defenders, all of whom were scrambling on their hands and knees including the keeper, Geoff Sidebottom, before drawing him out, waltzing round him to simply tap the ball into an empty net. 

To say pandemonium ensued would be an understatement. All four sides of the ground, the terraces and everyone in the stands rose as one man to give Fergie a standing ovation. Nor did it end there – in those final minutes remaining in the game every time Ferguson received the ball supporters from both teams were on their feet again to applaud him. A remarkable goal by a remarkable player.

Fergie was also the recipient of a controversial penalty manoeuvre at Ewood in a 2nd Round League Cup tie versus Barrow in 1966. The Douglas/Ferguson combo predated a similar penalty by Johan Cruyff, together with a Messi/Suarez interpretation and a failed attempt by Pires and Henry for Arsenal. On something of mud heap of an Ewood pitch, Douglas stepped up and simply played a delicate forward and sideways pass which Ferguson, running in from the edge of the box, finished clinically past ex-Rovers keeper Fred Else. Fred looked bewildered and questioned the validity of the spot kick, whilst Duggie and Fergie, almost in unison shrugged shoulders. Douglas was some years later to admit that the pair had in fact rehearsed the kick in training and thus ruled out any spontaneity.

My feeling has always been Ferguson could and should have played for England, that's how good he was. Mike Ferguson sadly passed away on 27th August 2019 aged 76 years – fittingly Rovers supporters were able to pay their appreciation and respect to a wonderful footballer and entertainer.

Talking of entertainers, the last word goes to Mike Ferguson himself who once said: "I will never forget the pleasure of playing in the same team as Ronnie Clayton, Fred Pickering, Bryan Douglas and all the others. It was the best team I ever played in by a mile, and I played in some good teams........when you came to watch us back then you would be entertained, no doubt about it ........we were a phenomenal team, an absolutely phenomenal side." (Lancashire Telegraph)

There you have it. Altogether now: "Fergie, Fergie, I'd walk a million miles for one of your goals – Fergie"

*This article was originally published in the landmark Issue 100 of 4,000 Holes in February 2020. Please support the fanzine by considering a subscription via this link or buying the occasional copy. It is really appreciated by all of the contributors. Thank you.

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