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The Merseyside Derby: Duncan and the ‘Dogs of War’

It’s just over 25 years since a Monday night Merseyside derby immortalised Duncan Ferguson and unleashed the ‘dogs of war’.

Preparations for a game between Liverpool and Everton can take many forms. Given the scale and evolving nature of the coronavirus outbreak, it's unlikely that the forthcoming derby - when or if it takes place - will witness the usual pre-match clichés. Revenge for a Curtis Jones wonderstrike seems less of a priority when a global pandemic is at your doorstep.

Whatever the nature of Carlo Ancelotti and Jürgen Klopp's planning, it’s unlikely either will be encouraging their players to emulate Duncan Ferguson’s approach to his first match against Liverpool, just over 25 years ago. The fixture fell on a Monday night, giving the Scotsman - who was facing a court case after being charged for an alleged assault while on probation - a free weekend.

‘Out on the lash’

Unfortunately, ‘free’ is a slightly inaccurate description of how Ferguson’s days off panned out. In Alan Pattullo’s excellent ‘The Life and Crimes of a Footballing Enigma’, the author describes how, after spending Saturday, in Ferguson’s own words, ‘out on the lash’, the Everton striker was caught driving through a bus station with a ‘no entry’ sign. The police officer, a Liverpool fan, was not in a forgiving mood.

As Ferguson was led to St Anne Street Police Station, he gave his hotel key to the now understandably distressed female companion who had been sitting in his passenger seat. ‘I will be back’, he told her. ‘I don’t know when, but I will be back.’

The police station provided some respite, with Everton-supporting policemen passing jugs of water to Ferguson through the latch in his cell. Unfortunately for the quick-thinking Toffees fans, this plan faced a significant challenge: their new signing had drunk five bottles of red wine.

Ferguson was eventually allowed to leave at six o’clock the following morning and returned to his hotel, picking up a key from reception and returning to his room. ‘And the girl is only still there, isn’t she?’, Ferguson recounts.

‘Do you not realise the state we’re in?’

The story is indicative of a turbulent period in Everton’s history. Ferguson arrived at the club alongside Scotland teammate Ian Durrant, or ‘Durant’ according to the surname emblazoned on the midfielder’s official club shirt. As Paul Rideout, who had previously played for Rangers, Durrant’s former club, said at the start of his new teammate’s first training session: ‘Jesus Christ, Durranty, what the fuck are you doing here? Do you not realise the state we’re in?’

Rideout’s warning came in the early part of the 1994-95 season, when Everton occupied last place in the league table and looked to Brett Angel – described by Neville Southall as possessing a ‘first touch like a tackle’ – for salvation. The team’s poor form mirrored their previous season’s efforts, when only a last-day 3-2 win against Wimbledon – after being 2-0 down – saved Everton from relegation.

Mike Walker, brought in to arrest the club’s descent into mid-table obscurity after the 1992-93 season, was on borrowed time as manager. His attempt to introduce a possession-based game had born poor results and dressing room unrest. In the ‘Binman Chronicles’, Southall’s autobiography, the former Everton goalkeeper describes Dave Watson’s reaction to a 4-0 defeat against Manchester City and Walker’s subsequent criticism of the players’ fitness.

‘Listen, you twat. If you don’t sign some players, you are going to get us relegated,’ said Watson.

‘I know what I’m doing’, Walker answered.

‘No, you f*****g idiot. Sign some players.’

Whilst Watson’s criticism was in part a reflection of more systemic problems Everton faced - the club’s only pre-season signing was Vinny Samways - Walker’s refusal to adopt different tactics meant that sympathy was in short supply. As Southall notes, ‘we’d pass the ball 50 times without it leaving our half, give the ball away and our opponents would score.’

The dogs of war
Walker was sacked after securing only one win and eight points from the team’s first 14 games of the 1994-95 season. Enter Joe Royle. The former Oldham manager immediately introduced a more direct style of play, with a focus on pressing and defensive solidity. Key to this approach was a midfield trio of Barry Horne, John Ebrell and Joe Parkinson.

In a radio interview given shortly after joining the club, Royle championed the need for a ‘dogs of war’ mentality. Whilst his intention was to underline the importance of a ‘needs must’ approach to taking Everton away from the relegation zone, Horne, Ebrell and Parkinson provided a living embodiment of the moniker.

Whilst all three players were able to do a lot more than just tackle, there’s little doubt that Royle’s desire for a more combative presence in the middle of the park played to their strengths. As Southall memorably puts it, ‘Barry wasn’t Maradona, but he didn’t make a career out of trying to be Maradona. Barry made a career out of being Barry.’

The change in style had a dramatic effect on results. Everton enjoyed a seven-match unbeaten run following Royle’s appointment and went on to comfortably avoid relegation. They also won the FA Cup, beating Spurs 4-1 in the semi-final and winning 1-0 against Manchester United at Wembley. Royle’s pragmatism, typified by his plan to ‘stifle United in midfield’ in the final, was vindicated.

‘You could almost see the lad turn green’

Heroism, rather than pragmatism, was very much to the fore in Royle’s first Merseyside derby as manager, though. After an uneventful first half, Duncan Ferguson, fresh from his spell in a police cell just 48 hours previously, was upended by a tackle from Neil Ruddock. Picking himself up from the floor, Ferguson bore the look of a man intent on exacting revenge. As Royle put it, ‘you could almost see the lad turning green’.

Whilst Incredible Hulk comparisons might be far-fetched, Ferguson’s response to the Ruddock tackle was talismanic. In the second half, he leapt highest from a corner to head Everton in front, setting the scene for a 2-0 victory from which Everton never looked back.

As the club's assistant manager, Ferguson is now ideally-placed to inspire similar heroics from the likes of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Whether he'll be imploring Everton’s current number nine to emulate his own Merseyside derby preparations of some 25 years ago, is a different matter.

This piece has kindly been written for @TFHBs by John Nassoori - you can follow him on Twitter @JohnNassoori! Thanks!

©The Football History Boys, 2020

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