Signings of the Summer: Barry Ferguson
Rangers to Birmingham, £1million.
Humans are at their most dangerous when they have something to prove. This is particularly true of athletes. Whether they have suffered injuries, need to justify a price tag, or been criticised for performance, the need to demonstrate that they can still perform is essential.
In the best sportsmen, criticism burns deep in their blood helping to motivate them for the task at hand.
They need to prove they can still handle it at the top.
When Barry Ferguson accompanied international team mate Allan McGregor to a late night-drinking session following Scotland’s World Cup qualifier defeat to Holland, he compromised his position as a senior member of the squad.
When the pair were relegated to the bench for the subsequent match against Iceland, the childish gestures aimed at the gathering media all but sealed their fate—their international future was in tatters.
Stripped of both the Rangers and Scotland captaincies and told he would never play for his country again, Ferguson’s career was in tatters. He issued a public apology but it didn’t make a difference. Humiliated by the relentless press and disowned by the club he supported since a boy, Ferguson’s Rangers career was over.
The irony of the situation was that Rangers manager Walter Smith had ended what he started for Ferguson, after giving him his first appearances as a professional during his first stint as coach at Ibrox. However, it was not until Dick Advocaat was given the manager’s job in 1998 that Ferguson began to establish himself as a first team regular. In that season, he was a vital cog in the Rangers wheel that won the Scottish treble of the Premier League, Scottish Cup and League Cup.
The performances of Ferguson proved so influential that he was given a massive six-year contract the following season. High standards continued to be set by the midfielder into the new millennium, as he won the Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year award in 2000 and was awarded the Rangers captaincy later that year, fulfilling a childhood dream.
He retained the armband when Alex McLeish became Rangers manager in 2001, leading Rangers to another domestic treble in the 2002-03 season, scoring 18 goals from midfield and securing another Writers' Player of the Year award, as well as the Players' Player of the Year award.
Having won everything that was possible to win in the limited environment of Scotland, Ferguson turned his attention southwards as the bright lights of the English Premier League shone. As a fellow Scot and Rangers man, Graeme Souness was a keen admirer of the talents of Ferguson and had no doubt that he could justify his £7.5million price tag and replicate the form he showed north of the border for Blackburn Rovers.
His spell at Ewood Park lasted just 16 months. While he did show glimpses of the brilliance that had earned him such a lofty reputation, injuries provided unwelcome interruptions from action. His adamant admirer Graeme Souness had left and been replaced as manager by Mark Hughes, who didn’t value him as highly as his predecessor.
Ferguson was missing his boyhood club—and particularly the Old Firm games which set adrenaline pumping so intensely.
After securing a move back to Glasgow, he spoke to BBC Sport about the difference in the Old Firm and Lancashire derbies.
"There were 27,038 at the Reebok and I have to be brutally honest. That's when I looked round and Rangers really started tugging," he said.
"I was brought up dreaming of representing Rangers against Celtic."
It was obvious where Ferguson’s heart and head lay. But his second spell at Rangers did not bring the success that his first did. Despite helping Rangers continue their march to the league title in the second half of the 2004-05 season, the following year saw the club limp to an extremely poor third-place finish.
With Alex McLeish having his contract terminated, the highly-rated Paul Le Guen took the Rangers hot seat. His tenure was a nightmare, and claimed he was undermined by certain individuals inside the club, including Mr. Rangers himself—Barry Ferguson.
The following couple of seasons under Walter Smith provided a return to success though; a UEFA Cup Final appearance in 2008 the apex. However injuries continued to affect him on a regular basis, missing the first four months of the 2008-09 season due to another ankle injury.
Regardless of his juvenile antics on the substitute’s bench earlier this year, Ferguson’s ability cannot be doubted. From the middle of the park, he provides energy, grit, and tenacity which can spread throughout a team. He is the type of player that a player would rather have on his side than on the opposition.
Yes, time is not on his side. At 31, perhaps the legs can’t do what they did five years ago. And in the Premier League, that could be fatal. Is he destined to be remembered simply as an excellent SPL player?
But providing he stays fit, he must surely be worth a gamble. Also, it can’t be ignored that Birmingham manager Alex McLeish has worked with Ferguson before—and got the best out of him. With Birmingham looking to scrap its way to 17th place or above this season, miracles won’t be expected of Ferguson.
In players such as Sebastian Larsson and Keith Fahey, they have the youth alongside Ferguson that can do his running if need be.
There is no guarantee that Ferguson is a shoe-in to start for Birmingham. The likes of Lee Carsley and Lee Bowyer will also be looking to take that role. But as Alex McLeish said after securing Ferguson’s services, Ferguson has "unfinished business in England."
A player with something to prove is a powerful tool.
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