A tale of sloth, indulged for years
#6: DARREN FERGUSON
Signed: January 1994 from Manchester United, £250,000
Left: June 1999, contract expired
He was: The embodiment of trying to run after a three course Christmas dinner
For a while in the mid 90s, Wolves were perceived to be a moneybags club in the second tier, with resources (and attendant expectations) way above the scale of most of our competitors. If the start of that status can ever be pinpointed then it is probably at the start of the 1993/4 season; Sir Jack Hayward was seeing his vision of a redeveloped Molineux take shape with the new Billy Wright stand opened in time for the season opener against Bristol City to add to the year-old North Bank and the rapidly under construction South Bank which would be complete before Christmas. Sir Jack pumped appreciable funds into the playing squad for the first time in his tenure during this summer with the ground now close to finished, as Kevin Keen, David Kelly and Geoff Thomas all arrived along with veteran Cyrille Regis and there was a palpable sense of optimism around the club. With ambitions this time around most definitely focused on promotion to the Premier League, we made a reasonable enough start but were dealt a crushing blow in our eighth game of the season when Geoff Thomas sustained a bad knee injury thanks to rent-a-thug Lee Howey. A run of two wins in eleven games (incorporating eight draws – some prototype Glenn Hoddle football more than a decade before he actually pitched up here) left us mired in the familiar ground of mid-table by the time we reached Christmas 1993.
With Thomas now confirmed as being out for the season and Paul Cook flattering to deceive as ever – if a Wolves player’s reputation has ever been skewed by misty-eyed nostalgia, it’s Mr “one very good game followed by four appalling ones” – Graham Turner looked at bolstering our central midfield. In January 1994 he signed Chris Marsden and Darren Ferguson for £100,000 and £250,000 respectively. Both went straight into the team as we beat top of the table Crystal Palace for the second time in back-to-back Saturdays at Molineux, having also knocked them out of the FA Cup the previous week before the pair’s arrival. Ferguson was much the higher profile of the two signings, arriving as he did from reigning Premier League champions Manchester United. Although I’m sure even at that stage he knew that he was destined to be known as “son of Alex” for the rest of his life, he had played enough games in the 1992/3 season to win a Premier League medal of his very own. With this top level experience behind him and just about to turn 22, there did theoretically seem plenty of scope for him to develop at Wolves and make a career in his own right.
It quickly became apparent that Ferguson’s Manchester United heritage was a straightforward case of nepotism; he didn’t look anything like a top level player and wasn’t really having any kind of noticeable impact on games. Specifically he looked slow in both mind and body, had no particular range of passing and it was hard to see what he was actually contributing. This didn’t go unnoticed by the fans and he began to attract boos within his first couple of months at the club. Our season itself rapidly turned sour after that win over Palace on Ferguson’s debut, as four defeats in five league games – including a home Black Country Derby against West Brom – and a cup exit at Hoddle’s Chelsea spelt the end for Graham Turner’s seven and a half year tenure at the club. Former England manager Graham Taylor came in as his successor and oversaw a small upturn in form which led to the season quietly petering out in 8th place. At this point, Ferguson really needed to do more to stake a claim for a place under the new manager as he hadn’t offered anything of note so far. It would probably have been fair to cut him a little slack at this stage; after all he was still a young player adapting to a new division, playing with an entirely different calibre of team mate than he was used to, trying to settle into a new club where there had already been a change of manager within his first couple of months. Although he certainly was nothing like a Man Utd player – more David Bellion than David Beckham – maybe there was still a chance for him to make an impact at this level. Let it never be said that I can’t be optimistic every now and then.
In 1994/5 he was in and out of the team for the first half of the season with Geoff Thomas still suffering from some injury issues, but was more on the fringes by the turn of the year with two from Neil Emblen, Gordon Cowans and Mark Rankine being preferred. And if Mark Rankine is a better central midfielder than you, you really should be reassessing your choice of career. The season ended in heartbreaking playoff failure at the hands of Bolton and by this time we could make a proper assessment of where Darren Ferguson stood as a footballer. It’s fair to say that it was not a favourable one. For a start he never really looked fit, struggling to get around the pitch and having fairly obvious weight issues, which is always unacceptable in a professional. But I could forgive a bit of tubbiness if he were offering much of anything. As it was, he offered about as much as Sid Owen did to the world of music. It was still hard to work out what he was actually supposed to be in the team for. He couldn’t dictate play with his passing. He couldn’t run with the ball (or indeed run full stop). He was criminally lazy. After 18 months at the club, he had failed to score a single goal. So we can say that on the attacking front, he was sorely lacking. Any thought of playing him deeper in a two man central midfield was comprehensively ruled out due to him being hands down, the worst tackler I have ever seen in a Wolves shirt. In all his time here, I’m not sure I saw him win ten tackles. He’d either just let his opponent breeze past him – and once he was gone, Ferguson certainly wasn’t catching him – or commit a foul in some kind of petty manner. Everyone used to have a giggle at Paul Scholes never being able to tackle at any stage of his career. Oh Paul, what are you like, hacking away at your opposite number’s shins. But that is Paul Scholes, who was one of the best footballers in Europe for over a decade, who brought so, so much to every team he played in. When you are Paul Scholes, you can get away with tackling being a bit of a write off. When you are Darren Ferguson, chubby United reject who is struggling to hold down a place in an already mediocre second tier midfield, you cannot.
Ferguson was in and out of the team again in 1995/6 – being pushed down the pecking order by fellow Tat member Mark Atkins – and it was apparent by this stage that we’d bought someone who didn’t really have any further development in him, what we saw was what we had, and he was never likely to be able to hold down a regular place in even a moderate team in this division. At his absolute best he was just about average for this level; more frequently he was a waste of a shirt. An XL shirt at that. He did at least get his first goal for the club in a League Cup victory over Coventry at the end of November 1995, a mere 22 months after his debut. He was more out of the picture in 1996/7; having scored a fortuitous goal at Swindon at the end of September and followed it up with another at home to Bolton in the very next game – move over, Frank Lampard – he picked up a red card in injury time of the latter game for a petulant swing of the arm and after his suspension didn’t feature at all in the league for five months. Mercifully he seemed to be on his way out of the club with his contract up in the summer. He made his way back on to the subs bench in March 1997 and got back into the starting XI against QPR at the end of the month. From thereon he got a run of games and performed reasonably well by his own standards, scoring a fine free kick in a 4-1 win over Southend and started both legs of the playoff defeat to Crystal Palace. Somehow, off the back of those nine fairly unremarkable games at the end of the season – a run in which the team’s form stuttered to such an extent that we missed out on automatic promotion, so he can hardly be said to have had a key influence on proceedings – the club decided to hand him a new two year contract. There are many decisions in this series that are beyond comprehension and this is up there with the very strangest. He had never been a prolonged regular here, nor had he had any real impact when he did play. He’d had three and a half years to make his case and had fundamentally failed to do so. It finally looked like we were to be rid of a cumbersome burden on the team and the wage bill…and yet we kept him hanging around. As you can imagine, I was well pleased with this decision at the time.
For the first time in his Wolves career, he did actually become a first choice in the opening half of the 1997/8 season. Nothing had really changed, he picked up yellow cards on a regular basis but did little else and fell out of contention through January and February 1998, eventually spending three months out of the team and only reappearing on the final day dead rubber at Tranmere. This was the season when Carl Robinson made his first team breakthrough; he was no world beater at all, but he looked an immeasurably better player than Ferguson, with an actual goal threat and the semblance of a work ethic just for a start. It was hard to see why we’d extended the latter’s career here when we knew that Robinson was at the club and ready to start playing at senior level. Ferguson made just two league starts in 1998/9 to make a further mockery of that two year deal; it was a contract penned in 1997, and then through the whole of 1998 he made a mere six league starts. We packed him off on a six month loan to Sparta Rotterdam in January 1999 – a relief, as if he wasn’t at the club, then we weren’t going to be tempted to extend his deal again – where he scored one goal in 14 appearances and then finally, his contract expired and that was that. He was gone, at last. Five and a half years of frequent on field anonymity and questionable professionalism at an end.
In the summer of 1999, he moved on to Wrexham (at the time in the third tier) where he remained for the next seven and a half years as they flitted between the bottom two divisions, eventually playing over 300 games for them and scoring more than 50 goals. In truth this was, and always should have been, his natural level; you can see how the small amount of technical ability that he had would make him look reasonable playing further down the pyramid, it was higher up that said technical ability was nothing out of the ordinary and everything else about him showed him up as a bit of a chump. By now into his mid 30s, he applied for the vacant Wrexham manager’s job in January 2007 but failed to attain it, the post instead going to future Wolves assistant manager Brian Carey.
Instead he left Wrexham on 20 January 2007 to become the new manager at Peterborough United. After a 10th placed finish in those first four months in charge, his first full season in charge ended with automatic promotion to League One, finishing in 2nd place. Remarkably, back-to-back promotions followed as they finished 2nd in League One, above the likes of Leeds and this was a major feather in Ferguson’s cap. For a time, he was being talked of as a future managerial star. However, the swift rise through the divisions and the size of the club relative to their peers in the Championship probably conspired against the Posh, and Ferguson left the club by mutual consent on 9 November 2009 with them bottom of the table on 11 points from 16 games. In January 2010, he became the new manager of Preston North End with them in 16th place and eight points clear of safety; he directed them to a 17th placed finish and seven points clear of the drop zone. There was no such serenity in the following season as, deeply unpopular with supporters, Ferguson was sacked on 29 December 2010 with Preston bottom of the Championship on 19 points from 22 games. This was beginning to give off the strong impression that like all managers, he had a very definite ceiling; his being League One.
He was out of work for a matter of days as Peterborough reappointed him as manager on 12 January 2011. Taking over with them 5th in the table, the old adage of “never go back” did not apply in this instance as he maintained that playoff position, finishing 4th and scoring 61 goals in his 24 games in charge, before defeating MK Dons and Huddersfield Town in the playoffs to secure an immediate return to the Championship – passing Preston on the way. Ferguson finally had a bit of success in the second tier in the 2011/12 as he managed to secure Posh’s safety, albeit by a narrower margin than seemed to be the case at first glance – they finished 10 points clear of Portsmouth who occupied the final relegation spot having been deducted 10 points for going into administration. Without that deduction, the margin for Posh would have been just two points, but survival is survival. He couldn’t repeat the trick in 2012/13 and they were relegated in 22nd place along with Wolves – their 54 points is a record tally for any relegated team, which I’m sure was of no consolation. Peterborough finished 6th in League One in 2013/14, albeit well short of the points totals of the five teams above them, and were defeated in the playoffs by Leyton Orient.
A bright start to 2014/15 was wiped out by bad form from October onwards and Ferguson once again left London Road by mutual consent on 21 February 2015, leaving them 15th in the table. He took the vacant job at Doncaster Rovers on 16 October 2015 with them sitting in 20th place in League One and an initial new manager bounce saw them climb to 11th by early January. A horror run of four points from a possible 48 followed which mired them back in a relegation fight and they were eventually relegated to League Two. The Doncaster board kept faith with Ferguson and his first piece of business was to sign Tommy Rowe on a free transfer following a successful loan spell (amongst the detritus of relegation) and the expiry of his Wolves contract. There is a small parallel between the two’s careers, as Rowe himself is too good to be playing in League Two at this stage of his career, but is not really a Championship player (thankfully we only gave him two rather than five and a half years to prove this). Rovers currently sit in the top three of League Two and appear well poised for Ferguson to earn the fourth promotion of his post-playing career. He probably has a managerial career in Leagues One and Two available to him for as long as he wants, but he is highly unlikely to get another chance any higher than that unless he takes and keeps a team there.
But back to his time at Wolves, which is the real focus here. He was a perfect symbol for our lack of serious attention to having a proper central midfield right through the 1990s – a state of affairs only really corrected when Dave Jones bought Alex Rae and Colin Cameron in 2001. A symbol of low energy and low end product, his attitude was frequently extremely poor and he had nothing like the talent to back that mindset up. That we kept him on for an additional two years after three and a half years of persistent non-achievement was borderline certifiable – in fact we released Gavin Mahon during his time at the club and he went on to be ten times the Championship midfielder that Ferguson ever was, as well as playing in the Premier League. There are footballers who take their ability and extract the absolute maximum from it; Dave Edwards would be a good example of this, whatever I think about the merits of him being an automatic choice as we enter 2017. That Ferguson ended up spending his theoretical peak years drifting along in the bottom two tiers says a lot about him. He never gave the impression that he was ever interested in working on his game; why should he, after all he is Darren Ferguson. His father is one of the greatest managers in world football of all time but he proves that nepotism can blind all – it was extremely hard to take his claim in his autobiography that dear Darren was “the best footballer at the club” in his time here seriously. But still, that nepotism and the semblance of a left foot got Darren a long way. A long way further than his talent or dedication ever deserved.