Twenty years ago, in a time when men were men, tattoos were for sailors and only basketball players had their names on their backs, Raith Rovers travelled to Ibrox to be steamrolled by Glasgow Rangers. Rangers won 4-0 en route to another title (something you don’t read too often these days) but the match will be forever remembered as The Day That Big Dunc Head Butted That Guy From Rovers Whose Name Eludes Me Just Now.
Ferguson was no stranger to the red mist that descends, in particular where taxis were involved. He was fined in 1991 for assaulting a police officer and then in 1993 he was fined £200 for assaulting a man on crutches in a taxi queue.
Ferguson was a Big Money Signing, costing Rangers £4m from Dundee United, but he hadn’t yet scored for his new club when Rovers came to visit on 16 April 1994. Big Dunc did break his scoring drought in the second half – but that’s not the incident from that game that lingers in the memory.
In the first half, Ferguson and Rovers defender Jock McStay had something of a coming together near the corner flag. McStay went down like a sack of spuds, but the referee and linesman somehow saw nothing. Ferguson saw neither yellow nor red – although he did get booked in the second half for leaving the field while celebrating his goal.
Perhaps if the ref had dealt with the headbutt at the time we wouldn’t be talking about the incident 20 years later. Instead, after a trial and an appeal, Ferguson was sent to Glasgow’s Barlinnie jail, where he served 44 days of the three-month sentence.
The trial itself was unusual, with McStay appearing as a witness for the defence and Donald Findlay, then Rangers vice-chairman and a high profile QC, being prohibited from acting as Ferguson’s brief because he was one of the 42,545 “witnesses” in the crowd that afternoon.
Further complicating matters was the 12-game suspension dished out by the Scottish FA. The suspension was seen by some to prejudice the trial. In the end, the suspension was overturned by the Supreme Court in Edinburgh.
The suspension – and perceived lack of support from the SFA – led to Ferguson turning his back on the Scottish national team. He’d only played for Scotland seven times and hadn’t scored, so he wasn’t missed by some.
By the time the sentence was handed down in 1995 (following an unsuccessful appeal against the severity of the original sentence) Ferguson was an Everton player. The club stuck by its player, who went on to play two stints on Merseyside and is now a coach at the club.
So it was that Duncan Ferguson became the first British footballer (a term we might not be able to use to refer to Scottish players in the not-too-distant future) to go to jail for an incident that occurred on the football pitch.
McStay’s career went to the dogs after the 93-94 season. When he appeared in Ferguson’s defence, he gave his occupation as “painter and decorator”. He now works at Celtic as a maintenance man.
In Canada, an ice hockey player was found guilty of assault after whacking an opponent with his stick. Marty McSorley, sporting a fine hockey mullet, cracked Donald Brashear with just a few seconds remaining in the game.
McSorley was suspended for the remainder of the season, twenty-three games and had to forfeit approximately $72,000 in salary. But that wasn’t enough for British Columbia crown prosecutors, who charged him with assault with a weapon. He was sentenced to 18 months probation.
The slashing blow struck by McSorley is considered normal but illegal in ice hockey. (A bit like biting when playing against Suarez.) The court found that Brashear had not consented to the attack and that McSorley knowingly struck his opponent in the head.
The NHL stated at the time that it considered that the matter had been dealt with internally, and that it would have preferred that the crown did not prosecute him.
In 1988, Minnesota’s Dino Ciccarelli was sentenced to one day in jail and fined $1,000 for striking Toronto defender Luke Richardson several times in the head with his stick.
Returning to Ferguson, thieves broke into his house in 2001. They erred by breaking in while Ferguson was at home. One of the intruders head butted Ferguson – oh the irony – and he was also struck in the head by a bottle. Ferguson disarmed and detained one of the hapless thieves until police arrived.