Duncan Ferguson: ‘The food is lovely at Forest Green – I’ve just had two burrito wraps’
Duncan Ferguson apologises three times for keeping me waiting while he eats his lunch: before, after and during. He’ll just be another 15 minutes, he says, bounding out his office. Seven later, he emerges again and beckons me inside the room he is sharing with the medical staff of Forest Green Rovers, the club he has managed since January. It is not going brilliantly.
Nine games in and Ferguson is still waiting for his first win. Rovers, as they were when he arrived, are bottom of League One. Life at the world’s first vegan football club is not all bad. “The food’s lovely,” he says, “I’ve just had two burrito wrap chilli things. I can’t tell the difference. I’m not a big meat eater, I like the odd steak, don’t get me wrong, but I prefer fish and vegetables.”
When appointed, Ferguson and Forest Green did not seem a natural match. The former striker’s career was built on physicality with thumping headers a trademark on his way to 68 Premier League goals, still a record for a Scotsman. Taking his first manager's job at a club with a right-on reputation seemed designed to prove that people had misunderstood him. “That’s not in my mind at all,” he says. “I am who I am, and the people who know me know what I’m all about. I wanted to be a manager, it wasn’t about changing what anyone thought.”
Their training ground is within a council-run facility shared with National League South side Chippenham Town, 24 miles from Forest Green’s stadium in Gloucestershire. There is an unloved vibe to the place, the gym under a marquee which floods every time it rains, the trophy cabinet with a pennant from an under-10s tour match against Ynystawe, a village outside Swansea. The only clues that a third-tier team train here are the FGR emblems stuck to doors on laminated A4.
Ferguson experienced comparative luxury in his player days but is unbothered. “I got brought up in tenements with me and my two sisters in one room. Where we used to train at Dundee United wasn’t actually a pitch, it was a hill. I don’t mind roughing it a wee bit.”
His career reached Rangers and Newcastle United, but Ferguson is pure Everton. He came on as a substitute when they won their last trophy, the FA Cup in 1995. Five months later he began 44 days inside HMP Barlinnie for headbutting Raith Rovers’ Jock McStay while at Rangers. He was the first footballer ever to be jailed for something which happened on the pitch.
“In my opinion it was an absolutely minuscule incident which will probably follow both of us around forever. To incarcerate a young man who was not a danger to society, who had a career and had never done community service, I think it was wrong.
“I think people have got more sympathetic. At the time people thought ‘yeah, bang him up, he’s broken probation,’ which I had.”
Indeed it was not Ferguson’s first conviction for assault. He was also charged with drink driving during 1995 and was sent off eight times overall in the Premier League. It is difficult to square that rap sheet with the lean and genial man in the club cagoule who has welcomed me into his office. Relaxed, funny and teetotal for 15 years, I tell him that I think people still have the wrong idea about him. For the only moment during our time together there is a glimmer of irritation.
“Why do you think it’s wrong, you’ve only just met me?” I cite a handful of podcast appearances and the flash of menace passes as quickly as it had arrived. “I didn’t know what a podcast was, I thought it was a gang of whales, a pod.”
Animals are never far away for Ferguson. “I used to train and race greyhounds, I kept ferrets, I had rabbits. I love dogs.” He is also a pigeon-fancier and still keeps 20 birds, down from a peak of about 60. “Some people keep hundreds. Less is best. It’s calming, It takes your mind off the football.”
He met most of his small social circle of friends on the pigeon-racing circuit. “When I was younger I was never a big mixer or talker. I’m still not. When I first went to Everton most of my mates were 50, now they’re 80 and passing away. I never had many friends, I suppose. I still don’t.”
Sean Dyche has his support as Everton manager, their first since Colin Harvey who Ferguson has neither played for nor worked with at the club. He held several roles during 11 years of coaching at Goodison as well as two promising stints as caretaker, coming close to the permanent job when Frank Lampard was appointed. “I was down to the last two. I went down to London.” Why were Everton conducting their interviews in London? “The chairman is down there, Farhad Moshiri is down there, and Frank’s down there.” A three-note staccato laugh, as it dawns on him that the writing was on the wall. “Maybe that’s why it was in London.”
Everton will be with him forever, in his heart, his memories and on his left bicep. He was so touched by the letters he received from young fans in prison he took part in a competition with a local paper, inviting designs for an Everton tattoo. “There were all these pictures of Everton badges with wee pigeons around them, it was fantastic.” He paid £40 of his own money to have the winning, pigeon-free, design applied. Any regrets? “Not at all. I’m an Evertonian. I love the club, I love the people.”
What would it take for a Forest Green equivalent? “I’ve signed a five-year contract and we’re hoping to build the club, take it up as far as we can. So maybe then, if I’m still here five years from now, I’ll get a Forest Green tattoo.”
Roll on 2028.