The 1965/66 League of Ireland season saw Waterford FC, perennial runners-up, finally crowned champions. They’d been led by Shamrock Rovers legend Paddy Coad who returned home and added a valuable honour to a trophy- laden playing and managerial career – perhaps the sweetest being a first league triumph for his boyhood club.
Coad called time on coaching at the end of the following season and The Blues’ directors turned to an unheralded Scottish journeyman who’d lined out for Dunfermline, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy, Partick Thistle, Barnsley and Doncaster Rovers before becoming player-manager at Kilcohan Park.
Twenty-six year old Martin Ferguson was tasked with leading the club to a second league title. It was hoped the new man would follow the rather illustrious line of Scotsmen to play for Waterford such as Jimmy Gauld (the biggest attraction in Irish football in 1954/55), Ed McIlvenny (who captained the United States at the 1950 World Cup), and the ‘Penalty King’ Jimmy McQuaide who had scored from the spot in English, Scottish, Irish and Northern Ireland leagues.
Martin wasn’t the only Ferguson on the move that summer when a month later his brother Alex transferred from Dunfermline Athletic to Glasgow Rangers for £60,000. The siblings’ future football careers were about to take wildly different paths.
It all started rather well in the south-east of Ireland, even with a little glamour as the Blues played host to a Leeds United side featuring Jack Charlton and John Giles in a testimonial for Peter Fitzgerald. Ferguson’s first competitive home league win came on the 19th November against Shamrock Rovers at Kilcohan Park and went like something out of a Hotspur comic strip.
The Scotsman scored the winning goal in the dying minutes leading to a pitch invasion and the new boss being carried off shoulder high by adoring supporters. Yet less than three months later a statement released by Waterford revealed he’d been sacked.
No reason was put forward for the dismissal but it appears it was the result of an unpopular substitution. When Ferguson called Shamie ‘Major’ Coad (brother of the previous manager) ashore with 15 minutes to go as Waterford chased for an equaliser against Dundalk, it led to an angry reaction from fans and,
in contrast to his league debut, the need for the manager to be escorted from the ground.
Having played 25 games scoring four goals, Ferguson’s stint in the League of Ireland was brief but not a complete disaster. How many managers have been ousted with their team
on top of the league by a point? He was replaced by Vinny Maguire who would also hold the dual role of player-coach and who steered Waterford to a second title. It could have been a league and cup double only for Shamrock Rovers.
But what factors led to the younger Ferguson being shown the door? He was tasked with leading the League of Ireland’s ‘most expensive team’ adding Terry Stafford and Cork Hibernians centre-half Jackie Morley – a controversial transfer at the time as Morley was something of a hate figure for the Blues before becoming a cult hero at Kilcohan
– as the club sought to compete with reigning champions Dundalk.
Though Waterford’s lead was reduced to a single point having been three ahead (after what turned out to be Ferguson’s final game), all was still to play for after the Dundalk game. A bemused club board responded to Shamie Coad’s transfer request by relieving Ferguson
of his duties in what local papers described as ‘major blunder’ by the manager in substituting ‘the Major.’
Demonstrating where supporters’ sympathies lay, the crowd that had been baying for Ferguson waited to applaud Coad. What might seem an overreaction nowadays, in the late ‘60s, only one substitute was permitted – used more in case of injury rather than from a tactical viewpoint. Only a couple of seasons previously, no subs were permitted at all.
Shamie Coad was very much the linkman for the Waterford side and operated in a classic No. 10 role. The fact he was replaced by the player-coach himself just after conceding to Dundalk in front of a then record crowd at Kilcohan was a humiliation the fans’ favourite was unwilling
to take. There were also rumours that Peter Bryan and former Coventry winger Johnny Matthews were unhappy at the club and it was easier to replace the manager than the whole team.
Ferguson wished Waterford the best as he sought compensation from his former employers. Aside from his financial circumstances, he also had his wedding to plan and pay for, now that he was out of a job.
Perhaps the nature of supporters’ loyalties was best surmised by Leo Dunne in the Waterford News from the time: “Fickle fortune sways.
If Martin Ferguson had scored a goal when he came on against Dundalk, he would have been chaired all the way to Ballybricken and he would still be Waterford’s manager.”It also left the question of a budding coaching career cut short.
Then, nearly 30 years later, as Chief European Scout for his brother Alex, he was involved in bringing Waterford man John O’Shea to Manchester United. The tale of one Ferguson’s journey from Dunfermline to Old Trafford is far better known than the other Fergie and his time spent by the River Suir.
This article appears in Issue 7 of the Póg Mo Goal magazine. Order here.
Adam Caul is a Dublin based graphic and sportswear designer. Instagram: action_cures_fear