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Duncan Ferguson’s Dundee United days: From bar brawls to British record transfer

30 years ago the striker joined Rangers for £4 million, at the time a British record fee. Now he is set to return to Tannadice as Inverness manager.

Duncan Ferguson hit the headlines on and off the field during his playing days.
Duncan Ferguson hit the headlines on and off the field during his playing days.

Duncan Ferguson only made 88 first-team appearances for Dundee United.

But the cult of Big Dunc lives on thanks to his unforgettable antics, both on and off the pitch, in the City of Discovery.

Thirty years ago, the striker, then 21, joined Rangers for £4 million, at the time a British record fee and one that remains the biggest sale in United’s history.

His move to the Old Firm goldfish bowl brought the curtain down on an exhilarating five years at United, during three of which the Stirling-born youngster starred in the senior ranks.

Tannadice legend Maurice Malpas told us: “He was a fit lad and he trained well. That was a given – you couldn’t come in and mess about at Tannadice.

“Our training was played at a fast pace. Big Dunc liked the hurly-burly in training and in games.”

Now Ferguson is set to return to Tannadice as manager of Inverness Caley Thistle.

This is the story of his time as a United player.

‘He did some stupid stuff’

Former Tangerines captain Malpas – a league and Scottish Cup winner with the club who was capped 55 times for Scotland – is honest when asked about Ferguson’s wild side.

He adds: “I never had any problems with him. He was an honest, naive and immature big lad.

“On the park he was someone you wanted on your team. He was quick, he wanted to turn and he wanted to run.

“He did some stupid stuff but he was immature and just never really matured.”

Tangerines historian Peter Rundo remembers Ferguson making an impact in the reserve ranks before becoming a key member of the Class of 1990, the first ever United side to win the BP Scottish Youth Cup.

Dundee United’s BP Youth Cup heroes of 1990.

He says: “I watched the youth games whenever I could and they reached the final of the Youth Cup three years running. He certainly played in one of them.

“He was part of the 1990 team that included Christian Dailly, Gary Bollan, Grant Johnson and Andy McLaren. It was a very strong team.”

An 18-year-old Ferguson made his debut for Jim McLean’s first team against Rangers at Ibrox on November 10, 1990, coming off the bench to set up the first of the visitors’ goals in a 2-1 victory.

It was around this time, however, his off-field antics changed the course of his career.

Fight in The Rock

In 2019, he told Everton’s Toffee TV: “The first injury I ever had was when I broke my big toe.

“I broke it in a fight in a pub called The Rock in Menzieshill in Dundee.

“It never got fixed and to this day I think everything came from that big toe and that fight in The Rock in Menzieshill, when I was 18.”

Gary Menzies, the man Ferguson fought with that night, gave his version of events to the Evening Telegraph in November 2019.

Mr Menzies said: “He broke it kicking a toilet door in another pub later that night when he booted it in frustration.

“It all started with an argument over a woman (my ex-wife).

“Duncan then started to get up off his bar stool while I was standing – and as I am a lot smaller than him I stuck the nut on him.

“I wasn’t going to wait until he stood to his full height.

Gary Menzies’ account of fight with Duncan Ferguson.
Duncan Ferguson faces media as he arrives at court in Cupar in September 1993.

“Dunc eventually went to the Ascot Bar with a couple of people in a taxi later on the night of the fight and kicked the toilet door in anger at what had happened – and that’s when he broke his toe.”

Trouble was never far from Ferguson in the early years of his career.

In 1991, he was convicted of head-butting a policeman in Stirling and fined £125.

March 1993 saw him fined £250 for punching and kicking a postman who was on crutches and five months later the striker – now a Rangers player – was found guilty of assaulting a fisherman in a pub in Anstruther, Fife.

Peter Rundo.

The Scotland international was a headache for United boss McLean, famed for his iron grip on his players.

Former match programme editor Rundo says: “I don’t think Jim McLean could quite handle Big Dunc. He was so strong-willed.

“He was once made to dig drains and take on some ground staff duties as punishment for whatever misbehaviour had been happening.

“Obviously, his off-field antics didn’t help him.”

‘He was going to batter him’

Speaking on the Open Goal podcast in 2018, former teammate Andy McLaren offered a fascinating insight into the pair’s relationship.

He said: “Big Dunc had [Jim McLean] on toast because he was terrified from Big Dunc’s da.

“I think he said something to Big Dunc one day and Big Dunc has went and told his da, and his da has come up to Tannadice.

“I think Big Dunc’s da was going to batter him.”

As transfers go, Ferguson to Rangers was a flop: 21 games, five goals and 44 days in prison.

Perhaps typical of events involving him and his manager-turned-chairman Jim McLean, the deal itself was a saga.

David Murray’s Gers – fined £5,000 for tapping up the player months earlier – initially offered £2.5m.

Former Rangers chairman David Murray.

Leeds United, who just a year earlier were English champions before allowing star man Eric Cantona to leave for Old Trafford, upped the ante by putting another million on the table.

Chelsea matched that offer, although nothing concrete emerged from Bayern Munich who were supposedly monitoring the situation.

Ferguson and his agent Dennis Roach headed south for talks at Elland Road before rejecting Leeds, while McLean insisted he didn’t want his prized asset going to Ibrox.

But money talks and Murray – whose spending bravado proved to be the undoing of his Light Blues legacy – gave Dundee United four million reasons to allow the forward to make his dream switch.

Raith’s Jock McStay lies on ground after Duncan Ferguson headbutt. Image: SNS.

At his Ibrox unveiling, Ferguson said: “My heart was never in a move to Leeds…this is the biggest day of my life.”

But things would never be the same again after April 16, 1994 – the day he headbutted Raith Rovers player Jock McStay during a league game at Ibrox.

Jail time in Barlinnie, a 12-match ban (he only served five after a judicial review) and the end of his seven-cap Scotland career followed, which Ferguson says is his greatest regret.

‘Duncan Ferguson was a real handful’

McLean later said: “Duncan Ferguson could have been as good as Andy Gray.

“But his heart has never been in football in my opinion. It’s been a job and a way in and a way to money.”

Malpas, 60, told us: “He was obviously a decent player, he’s a legend at Everton.

Dundee United legend Maurice Malpas.

“The fans loved him at Newcastle and they loved him at Tannadice even though he wasn’t here very long.

“He should’ve got more caps, but that’s life.

“I used to enjoy playing against him – he was honest. He could score with either foot, a header.

“He was a real, real handful. Put all that together and you’ve got a decent footballer.”