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'There's no hard-luck story with me. I wasn't good enough to play Premier League football'

Ex-Ireland underage international Barry Ferguson looks back on his career with Coventry, Longford and others.

Barry Ferguson pictured with Thomas Heary at the U20 World Cup in 1999.
Barry Ferguson pictured with Thomas Heary at the U20 World Cup in 1999.
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

IT’S HARDLY A surprise that Barry Ferguson became a footballer. In many ways, it felt like destiny.

His father played domestically with Drogheda. His brother represented Ireland at various age groups. A number of people on both his mum and dad’s side of the family played the game at a decent level.

And now, his son, Evan, is considered one of most promising young players in the League of Ireland, while his daughter Ellie has captained the Irish schools team and earlier this year undertook a football scholarship in the US.

“Everything revolved around sport,” he tells The42, of his childhood.

“If it wasn’t training, you were out on the road playing football. That was what all your time went on.

My brother would be older than me by four or five years. So even from a young age, I’d be trying to hang on to his coattails. I’d be getting involved with his games with his mates, so you’d be playing against lads who would be four or five years older than you. They’re taking care of you, looking after you, but everything revolved around the game.”

Growing up in Artane, Ferguson represented St Kevin’s Boys from the age of around four onwards. He later moved to Home Farm and won a couple of All-Ireland titles with a team that included Stephen McPhail and Richard Dunne, who would go on to represent Leeds and Man City among others.

“Everybody there wanted to be a footballer. That was the goal. And obviously, Stephen and Richard were the most successful two out of the group. 

“Stephen would have started out on the left and he’d just ghost past players and put crosses on a pin. He was just a general all-rounder. He could do anything with a football. Physically, he wouldn’t have looked great, but no one could catch him and that’s with the ball at his feet. The best part of it was probably his brain. He just seemed to see things that others didn’t.”

Ultimately, “four of five players” went away from that illustrious youth side at U16 level, but Ferguson wasn’t one of them. Instead, he linked up with the senior team, Home Farm Everton, who were playing in the League of Ireland’s First Division at the time.

After a while though, Ferguson got his big move. After impressing in a pre-season tournament, it became apparent that there was interest from Coventry, who were a Premier League club at that stage.

stephen-mcphail-1392000 Future Leeds star Stephen McPhail played with Ferguson at underage level. Source: Allsport/INPHO

A fee was promptly agreed and the Dubliner, by then in his late teens, saw his life change in an instant.

“I flew over with my dad on the Wednesday, signed for Coventry on the Thursday, trained on the Friday and played on the Saturday in an U19s friendly. I came home Saturday night, flew out Monday morning, the red-eye flight. So in the space of a few days, I’d upped sticks and moved away. It was fantastic for me at the time, everything I wanted to do my whole life. I moved over there on the Monday and that was it, I was a professional footballer. 

“We had a game on Tuesday or Thursday away to Tranmere. That was my first reserve game. I played centre-half with [ex-Ireland international] Liam Daish.

“Was it tough? My general experience was that it was brilliant. I obviously didn’t love every minute of it, because there were times in life where things were very hard. It’s only when you came through it that you thought: ‘I really enjoyed that.’

“There were times where you were homesick. I would have been from a really close family, but you weren’t too far away from home and they would have been over, so that wasn’t a major issue.

I played a lot of reserve football. I would’ve have been the 17th or 18th man back then. I travelled with the first team for two or three years, seeing how everything happens.”

Ferguson was far from the only Irish player at the club, another factor that helped him feel less homesick. Gary Breen, Barry Quinn, Willie Boland, Barry Prenderville and Daire Doyle were all on the books, while Robbie Keane would subsequently join, with the Sky Blues breaking the British transfer record for a teenager to sign him in a £6 million deal.

“To the people that knew him at 13 or 14, it was obvious what Robbie was going to become. I had a torrid time playing against him for Home Farm in the DDSL,” he recalls.

“You see loads of talents like that, but you have to make the most of it, and to be fair to Robbie, he made the most of it. I think he got every ounce and every goal out of himself that he possibly could. He very rarely missed games or training.”

gordon-strachan-1741999 Ferguson worked under Gordon Strachan at Coventry. Source: ALLSPORT/INPHO

Gordon Strachan had only recently retired from playing and was in his first managerial job. As a taskmaster, Ferguson found the former Manchester United and Scotland player hard but fair.

“It was a strange time when, one week, you’re sitting down watching Match of the Day, listening to Gordon Strachan talking, the players getting interviewed on a Saturday, and then a week later, you’re getting changed with these lads and Gordon’s taking the training session.

It was very surreal and it takes a few weeks for it to sink in. They’re not just made up on the telly. These lads are normal lads.

“Gordon was a really good manager. He could be tough at times, but it’s the same as every other profession when you’re striving for the best — you have to have a few different sides to you. But he was quite good to me. Within a couple of months, I would have been training fairly regularly with the first team and playing reserve-team football [on a consistent basis].”

the-ireland-team The Irish team pictured at the U20 World Cup in 1999. Source: INPHO

Not long after signing for Coventry, Ferguson was picked as part of the Ireland squad that travelled to the U20 World Cup in Nigeria. They ultimately made it to the round of 16 and went out against the tournament hosts on penalties.

“It was just an amazing time. Obviously Brian Kerr and Noel O’Reilly were in charge. One of the biggest things and proudest memories I’ve ever had in my career is playing for Ireland. Nothing beats standing there for the national anthem with a green jersey and facing the tricolour. It’s an amazing feeling and very emotional to be part of that. I was lucky enough to do it a good few times at underage level.

“We went to Nigeria. We were together for a very long time over a period. Where we trained, we’d have thousands of people watching. So there was massive interest over there for football, games were packed.

But my biggest memory is that it was a long time. The food wasn’t great. And we were devastated to miss out on penalties. Thomas Heary missed [the decisive spot kick]. There wasn’t much said [after the game], but within half an hour, we were delighted to be going home.

“We travelled for the Nigeria game to a different place. It was a real rich place and the food was amazing. It was hard to see the contrast of one place to another.

“But the players we had over there — Damien Duff and Robbie Keane were brilliant. Stephen McPhail, Jason Gavin, Richie Sadlier, there was a lot of talent over there that went on to have great careers.”

He continues: “Noel [O'Reilly] would get the guitar out. It was like being tucked in by your mam before bed — you’d have a singsong with Noel. You just felt Irish, no matter where you were in the world, you felt at home.

“It’s very hard to describe the buy in [Brian and Noel] got from players. You would have done anything that they ever asked you to do. The two of them were brilliant. Team talks and all that type of stuff, you just wanted to go out and win and fight and do whatever you could to get a result.”

Life in England, however, was proving to be less satisfactory.

“Reserve football over there felt a little bit fake. I was doing quite well. We were playing against really big teams. We were in Arsenal’s group, Chelsea, Leeds, Spurs, all of them.

“I would have played against Peter Crouch, Robert Pires — massive names. But a lot of them, when they were playing in the reserves, didn’t really try. So I felt it was a little bit fake and I was getting lots of pats on the back for doing really well.

“But again, I knew myself that it was fake. I was lucky enough to play in the League of Ireland before I went over. I lost my tooth, I had black eyes, I was cut open. I was sitting in Beaumont Hospital three or four times. That was within a year of playing senior football in Ireland.

“And then, playing reserve football, it was like a non-contact sport. You learn loads from the game and from players, positionally, that you’re playing with and against. But I felt it wasn’t really that competitive.”

brian-kerr-and-noel-oreilly Ferguson was coached by Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly at underage level. Source: INPHO

After expressing his frustration with the status quo to Strachan, Ferguson was permitted to go out on loan on a few occasions.

“I had a few choices and Colchester probably wasn’t a great choice for me. I only played a couple of times — it didn’t work out great.

I then ended up going to Hartlepool and absolutely loved it. It’s a real footballing town. I played well and I knew I was comfortable at that level. And I signed another three months on the Wednesday or Thursday, they were delighted with me as well. I fitted in with every part of life up there. But I got injured on the Friday and I was out for 8-10 weeks. I sprained my ankle in training, did ligaments and the whole lot and that was the end of that.”

A subsequent stint at Northampton was more akin to the Colchester experience than the Hartlepool one.

“You can be spoilt, coming from a Premier League training ground facility. My first training session with Northampton was in a concrete car park. So I didn’t settle there at all and I would have only played a couple of times. 

“Straight away, you get a feeling when you join somewhere. With the Hartlepool one, I played the first game and I knew: ‘I’m going to play here.’ It’s up to me then. With Northampton and Colchester, you sometimes wondered: has the manager seen you? Or is he just taking a punt on you? You get a feeling that they’re unsure and then you become unsure, that then affects your confidence and all of that sort of stuff.”

alan-mathews Alan Mathews persuaded Ferguson to join Longford. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

With no first-team breakthrough forthcoming, Ferguson left Coventry in the summer of 2002, opting to return home and sign for Longford. He gives an honest overall assessment of his time in England.

“I don’t really believe in bad luck. I think you find your level. And there’s no hard-luck story with me. I wasn’t good enough to play Premier League football. Then you have to make decisions on your life and career. I made a decision to come home and to play League of Ireland.

“Looking back 10 years after I retired, I wasn’t good enough to play Premier League football and I probably found my level being a decent League of Ireland player.

“I don’t like listening to players talk about stories of homesickness, and that is a big part of life, but I came home because I wasn’t at the level to play over there. In my head, it’s simple, and I found my level here.

Could I have played League One, League Two or Championship? We’ll never know. But I have no regrets. I worked really hard over there. I tried my best. I probably spent a year injured in my time there. I had a couple of operations and stuff like that, but when I look back at it, I wasn’t at the level to play over there.

“My wife just had a baby that April. I was coming to the end of my contract and I would have kept in touch with the league back here and with my old coach, Alan Mathews. I would have spoken to Alan once a month for the previous four years and got on really well with him.

“A few teams from the league had come in for me over the two or three years, and I just said I’d give it another go. Alan was going into Longford. I didn’t really have to think about it too much. I trusted Alan that he’d look after me a little bit and to be fair, he did.

“I signed for Longford and it was brilliant. We probably had a tough few months just starting off — there were a couple of new players coming in. After that, it was nothing but positives. We went on to be really successful. And again, there were a lot of really good players from that team who went on to have really good careers here and in the UK.

“We were all learning still. There were a couple of experienced players, but it just worked for three years, it came together. We were never going to win a league — that’s probably not down to us. Bohs were brilliant, Shels were brilliant, Cork were brilliant, Derry were decent at that time. So there were five or six teams that were at a really good level, and there were some serious players on other teams. Every week, you were going out having really competitive games.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

Before Ferguson arrived at the club, they had never won the FAI Cup. Between 2003 and 2004, Mathews’ side secured the trophy on back-to-back occasions, while also claiming the League Cup in 2004.

“The first one against Pat’s, we were beaten by them probably a month before in a League Cup final and I missed a penalty in injury time to equalise. So there was a big build-up to that.

“We were probably second favourites going into that cup final after Pat’s beating us beforehand, but there was no one in our dressing room who thought we were second favourites. We fancied ourselves to win the game. We probably did enough to get a draw or beat them in the League Cup.

“And we played really well on the day, kept Pat’s to very little, and won 2-0 — Shane Barrett and Sean Francis got two really good goals. The FAI Cup final was played earlier [than it is now]. There were three-five league games after it. You couldn’t go celebrating a win for two weeks and really enjoy it. 

On a personal note, you’re lifting the trophy and all my family were at the game. My daughter’s on the pitch lifting the trophy. It was a really good atmosphere.

“Then, the second [FAI Cup win], my son was born the week before it on the Monday or Tuesday. My wife had a C-section. So she was in hospital until the Saturday.

“I remember coming and going from training. I was suspended for the game, but Alan wanted me doing all the press. He wanted to keep it as normal like the last one. But I remember picking my wife up from the hospital, pulling up outside the house, I didn’t even stop the car, left the keys running in the car, helped her inside with Evan and Sarah’s mam was over. And then I went off to the game.

“When you’re looking back on stuff like that, [you realise] I was just so focused on the game and trying to support the lads as best I could. Then Graham Gartland played with Sean Dillon at the back and they were brilliant. We were 1-0 down with five minutes to go and went on to win 2-1. Alan Kirby got a goal and Paul Keegan scored the winner. It was an amazing couple of years. We got to four cup finals in a row. As a group, we were disappointed, because I think we went out in the quarter-finals to UCD a year after. So we wanted more.”

Having made over 100 appearances in four years with Longford, with his contract set to expire, Ferguson was snapped up by Gareth Farrelly’s Bohs, as the defender agreed a three-year contract with the club. It was full-time football, though as part of the deal, the club allowed him to go to college, with Ferguson studying sports management in UCD.

gareth-farrelly Ferguson linked up with Gareth Farrelly at Bohs. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The move didn’t work out as planned, however. Bohs found themselves struggling towards the bottom of the table and Farrelly left towards the end of the 2006 season. Ferguson acknowledges that his own individual performances during this spell were below par.

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“I would have played most of the games, but I didn’t have a good year,” he says.

“I did a lot of work in the gym. I wasn’t quick anyway, but I felt that I couldn’t move. I got too big. I probably put on too much muscle and I didn’t feel agile.

“But I wanted to be stronger. I wanted to be quicker. And in trying to do that, I made myself too big. 

With Gareth going, Sean Connor came in at the end and a role had come up that I’d seen in the FAI. I applied for it. It was probably three quarters of the way through the season. I wasn’t having a good time on the pitch. I had a three-year deal at Bohs, which was brilliant.

“But I applied for the job, not expecting to get it. I’d never had a proper job. But I went to the interview and I got it. I said [to Bohs]: ‘Look, I’ve been accepted for this job.’ I think Sean was happy enough to get me off the wage bill as well, because he was looking to bring a few lads in from Sligo. So it worked well all round. I took the job with the FAI and signed for Shamrock Rovers, so that was a bit of a change. Going from Bohs to Rovers is not a path many people take.

“But I had a really good time. My first year at Rovers was probably one of my best. And again, half the next year was really good. There are a few things that happened at Rovers at that time. I ended up leaving on deadline day in the second year and going to Sporting Fingal.”

barry-ferguson-celebrates-scoring Ferguson pictured during his time at Shamrock Rovers. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Unfortunately, Ferguson’s time with Liam Buckley’s side didn’t last long either. After 13 appearances for the club, a serious hip injury forced him to retire in 2009, aged just 29.

“You start to get little hunches in your career and it’s very hard to pinpoint why you do things a certain way. But I sort of managed my career by instinct and you get gut feelings about stuff and about your life as well.

“When I was at Longford, there were a lot of young lads coming home from England. There was a player there, a fella called Dara Sheridan. Dara was pushing education to these young lads the whole time. He kept doing the same to me: ‘It’s really good, it’ll open your eyes.’

I wasn’t a big studier in school. But I went back and did sports management in UCD, probably because I was listening to Dara. And I absolutely loved it. It was totally different to school. You worked hard if you wanted to, if you didn’t, they didn’t really care. You just didn’t get the marks you wanted. 

“It was the best decision I ever made. I went there and was comfortable playing football then. Because when I got the FAI job, I sort of went: ‘Right, I can play here.’

“I was gutted not to be in the dressing room [after retiring]. To be 29 and not have another five or six years of playing, I was gutted. 

“But I bumped into a player at last year’s cup final. They were retired. He was going: ‘Do you miss it?’ And he was saying: ‘I miss playing passes,’ and this and that. I missed waking up stiff. 

“I miss that competitiveness. The bruises, the cuts and just feeling like you’ve been through a war. Waking up on a Saturday morning stumbling around the house, that’s what I miss.

“I was lucky enough that I’d made really good decisions, I’d gone back to college, I’d got a job.

“Obviously, the football money was a massive part of our life as a family. But it wasn’t the end of the world. I could still pay my mortgage and support the kids.”

barry-ferguson Ferguson now works for the FAI as a development officer in Meath. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Nowadays, Ferguson works as a development officer for the FAI in Meath.

“I did leave the association for a couple of years,” he adds. “I was working with people with disabilities, trying to [help them with] jobs and college and education. I really enjoyed that, but the learning I took from it was that I love sport and I probably will spend the rest of my time in sport if I can.

“I’ve grown up in football my whole life. There’s something about people and exercise and all of that type of stuff that makes it a great environment to work in.”

And while Ferguson’s playing days are behind him, he remains an avid watcher of games. Moreover, his son Evan recently hit the headlines, after making his senior league debut with Bohs aged just 14.

Evan’s been flying. He’s had a really good year. And the main thing is he’s enjoying his football. He’s at a stage now where he just wants to play. He’s in a really good environment. Kevin’s and Bohs have really looked after him. So we’re delighted with that.”

Nevertheless, Bohs’ decision to field a 14-year-old in a men’s game drew criticism in some quarters. What did his father make of this response?

“Everybody’s entitled to an opinion and that’s fine. There’s a lot of people commenting that had never met Evan, never even seen or spoke to him. So it’s very hard to have an opinion on something that no one knows anything about.

“Keith [Long] made that decision because he spoke to him and met him. Evan made that decision because he knows Keith. The people at St Kevin’s have known him for the last 10 years. So he’s developed relationships with all these people that have made calculated decisions.

“So people are entitled to make these decisions and with Twitter and social media, you can’t really change anything like that. So we’re not too bothered. It was a fantastic achievement and probably not enough people said that.”

Whether Evan goes on to follow in his father’s footsteps and carve out a career in the game remains to be seen, but the youngster certainly has a decent chance if he can take heed of his father’s advice.

“My whole career was based on hard work,” Ferguson concludes. “Anybody that works as hard as they can in the right way to try to get to their goal, I genuinely believe anyone could do anything they want in this world if they put a decent plan together. I’m a big believer in that, and it [applies to] football.

“If you look at the top teams around the world, they all have players in it where people will go: ‘Jeez, he’s not brilliant.’ But, they’re there. And they’re there for a reason.”

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Paul Fennessy

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