Neil Forsyth assesses the fallout from the Ferguson/McGregor incident and the somewhat muddled response of their superiors
The Scottish national team has a long, celebrated history of alcohol-fuelled moments of madness and it was about time another one came stumbling into view. After all, it’s been more than 30 years since the glory days of the 1970s – when a drunk Jimmy Johnstone stole a rowing boat during a Scotland camp and was rescued by the coastguard, then the Scotland career of Billy Bremner and two others ended after an altercation in a Copenhagen nightclub following a European Championship game.
Since then it’s been slim pickings on the heavy boozing front. Jim Bett and Maurice Johnston broke the curfew at Italia 90, and James McFadden missed the plane back from Hong Kong in 2002 after a night on the Tsing Tao lasted longer than planned, but other than that we’ve entered an era of grudging professionalism. Or we had, until the recent World Cup double header with Holland and Iceland.
After an uninspiring, though expected, defeat to Holland the team flew back to Scotland and arrived at their Loch Lomond hotel around 4am. This was Sunday morning, with the now vital game at home to Iceland on the Wednesday evening. The hotel laid on food after which the majority of the squad went to their beds. Up to six players began drinking in the hotel’s bar but at some point the merry band dwindled to just goalkeeper Allan McGregor and Scotland captain Barry Ferguson. Perhaps transfixed by day breaking over Loch Lomond, they remained until discovered by Scotland staff at noon.
Scotland manager George Burley immediately banished them, only to reconsider after they apologised and other players voiced support. It was decided they would be on the bench for the Iceland game but, by the Wednesday, the story had broken and their names were booed when announced at Hampden. It transpired that Walter Smith, club manager for both players at Rangers, had instructed them to accept their punishment and keep a low profile.
So, all in all, it’s hard to imagine the thought process for what happened next. As photographers captured Ferguson and McGregor taking their seats, the two executed a synchronised gesture that culminated in V-signs. It’s not a novel manoeuvre, being more often performed by schoolchildren through the back windows of buses on the motorway. Ferguson, it must be reiterated, was at that point the Scotland captain. He was also 31 years old. McGregor can best be described as misled, at worst imbecilic. It took two days for the issue to hit home. Some of the press missed it, some couldn’t believe the gesture was deliberate, but enough printed the photos for the fans to decide. Burley and SFA chief executive Gordon Smith, not convinced of the relevance of the pair’s antics, announced the matter closed only to be contradicted by SFA president George Peat.
Enter an apoplectic Walter Smith. When the players returned to Rangers on the Friday they were sent home with a fortnight’s suspension. Smith briefed reporters off the record that they would not play for Rangers again, a position since softened. The same day, the SFA announced the two wouldn’t be considered for Scotland selection again. The point of contention is whether or not the SFA stiffened their hand after Smith’s decisive move, but it’s more likely to have been the deluge of emails and phone calls from fans after the publication of the V-sign photos.
Either way, it was an astonishingly strong pair of judgments and provoked a high level of agreement from supporters, including official Rangers groups. Elsewhere, some of the reaction veered into the crusading region of moral indignation. Playing football for your country, and certainly captaining it, is an extraordinary honour and with it comes responsibility. However, anyone who looks to footballers for behavioural guidance in tricky social situations will surely live a life of grave disappointment.
The end result is muddied by the fact international bans only tend to last until the manager changes. Ferguson, one of the most talented Scotland players of his generation, is a fading force who is unlikely to be capped again. McGregor, at 27, and a strong contender with Craig Gordon for the goalkeeper’s position, is a different matter. They retain the support of Scotland’s players but then if a footballer was found cowering in an alley holding a bloodied knife over a corpse, there would be a team-mate ready with: “The big man knows he’s made a mistake but he’s apologised and the boys are right behind him.” More importantly, the fans are generally unmoved. The SFA were winded by the outrage and have announced they will issue a new code of conduct to players. Don’t make indecent gestures while a substitute and, if you’re captain, please don’t get drunk between the hours of 4am and lunchtime. That should do it.
From WSC 268 June 2009