There have been, at the last count, 15 managerial changes in the SPFL this season. Most of the sackings have probably been deserved: at St Mirren, Alan Stubbs undid the good work of Jack Ross within three reckless months; Paul Hartley’s dismal summer recruitment drive saw Falkirk plummet to the bottom of the Championship; and Dave Mackay, once seen as such a promising young manager, was bulleted after he could not correct Stirling Albion’s nine-month run of wayward results.
Stenhousemuir’s decision to remove Brown Ferguson from his post is perhaps the strangest of the campaign so far. Ferguson was unexpectedly dismissed on Tuesday evening following his side’s recent defeat to Stranraer. Although results this term have been up and down, the Warriors, promoted to League 1 via the play-offs in May and operating under financial constraints, have been performing how most right-minded people expected them to: mostly competitive, occasionally good, sometimes poor, and sitting in the lower reaches of the table, a handful of points from the top four. Quite what else the club’s board of directors wanted from the team at this point in such a tight division isn’t quite clear; where they expect it to go from here remains to be seen.
“Looking at a number of factors including performances to date this season, and the challenges we face in League 1, we believe that now is a sensible time to make a change in the management of the team,” read a statement on the Stenhousemuir website. “With some new direction, we believe we have a strong, talented squad that can go on to reach its full potential over the remainder of the season.”
If anything, it could not have been an easy decision to make. Ferguson enjoyed a seven-year association with Stenhousemuir, almost four of those as manager, and is well regarded by players, staff and supporters at Ochilview. At the annual meet-the-manager forums and other club events he came across as warm and approachable and someone who always seemed keen to talk to fans and share his plans and ambitions for the football team. One example of his class came at a quiz night at Ochilview in February – his team, which included assistant manager Jim Paterson and coach Colin McMenamin, won the contest and they donated their prize money to the club.
Ferguson’s response to his sacking was typically dignified. “I’m extremely disappointed to be leaving but I leave holding the club in high regard,” he wrote on Twitter yesterday. “The club, and the team, is progressing and getting stronger and I hope it will continue to do so.” My own interactions with Ferguson have been uniformly positive, something that consciously informs this article. My first conversation with him was, I think, in the immediate aftermath of Stenhousemuir’s play-off victory over Queen’s Park in 2015. He spoke about working with a young group of players and the challenges involved in coaching them to the required standard for League 1; his insight left me questioning whether or not my own opinion held any value (and actually played a small part in the decline and fall of Tell Him He’s Pelé). For me at least, he was always someone worth listening to.
He will be missed at Ochilview. Ferguson’s relationship with Stenhousemuir began in 2011 when he joined from Alloa Athletic after the Wasps’ demotion to the old Third Division. A talented ball-playing midfielder, he integrated well with his new club, briefly earning the nickname “El Gol” after scoring in three consecutive league matches, and generally performed well for two-and-half years.
After Martyn Corrigan’s dismissal in January 2014, Ferguson oversaw the team on an interim basis – including a 3-3 draw with Rangers at Ibrox – until Scott Booth’s appointment as manager, when he retired from playing and settled into a new role as Booth’s assistant. Booth’s 12 months at Stenhousemuir started positively but ended with the club shambling towards the bottom of the table with both players and supporters dissatisfied with the manager and his methods and he was sacked after a dire display against Peterhead in February 2015. The previous month, the club had warned of a troubling financial outlook ahead and encouraged supporters get behind the team; the situation was miserable.
Ferguson was asked to take lead the side once again and he was the right man at the right time for the Warriors. He brought Colin McMenamin and Stewart Greacen into his coaching staff, simplified training and instigated a back-to-basics approach on the pitch, before being offered the managerial post two months later. It had a galvanising effect on both players and fans and the team secured their League 1 safety after defeating East Fife and then Queen’s Park in the play-offs.
His first full season as manager, 2015/16, saw Stenhousemuir finish the year in eighth, avoiding the relegation play-off place on the final day after Cowdenbeath failed to beat Stranraer. The campaign had its moments and, at one point, the team had aspirations of gatecrashing the top four but a poor sequence of results over the final third of the season, exacerbated by poor goalkeeping and feeble defending, derailed any such notions.
The 2016/17 campaign was cast under the shadow of squeezed finances and a constrictive budget. Stenhousemuir began the season with a small, shallow squad and wouldn’t win a league game until the beginning of October; relegation was the likeliest outcome. Even so, the board announced their three-year plan and contracted Ferguson until 2019, a show of confidence in difficult circumstances. To their credit, the team finished the season in strong form after bringing in players like Willis Furtado, David Marsh, Oli Shaw, Connor Duthie, Mason Robertson and Graham Bowman, recruited after a generous cash injection from the Supporters Trust, and switching to an ingenious three-at-the-back system, but a draw with Brechin City on the final game of the season saw the Warriors drop in League 2 for the first time in eight years. It is perhaps a little simplistic but if Ferguson started the season with the squad that finished it, relegation would have been avoided.
The manager was tasked with bringing the club back into League 1 at the first attempt and succeeded. Ferguson overhauled the playing staff, virtually assembling a brand new squad, and negotiated a series of hazards and potholes en route to a fourth-place finish. After relegating Queen’s Park, it was captain Mick Dunlop who powered home two first-leg headers in the play-off final victory over Peterhead to secure promotion, the third in Stenhousemuir’s history. The final whistle to the second leg at Balmoor was a glorious moment. It seems churlish to grumble about it now but the promotion must be seen as a qualified success – the team finished 23 points behind champions Montrose, relied heavily on Mark McGuigan’s goals or a spark of magic from Harry Paton, and struggled against some of the division’s worst sides. An above-average League 2 team had entered the division above and expectations were tempered for the current campaign with survival the priority.
There had been some fine moments this term, chiefly beating Brechin City on the opening day despite playing the second half with 10 men, McGuigan’s 94th-minute winner against Montrose and the first away triumph of the season at Airdrieonians. There have also been several alarming performances, especially the four defeats to Forfar Athletic and Stranraer, and there are concerns about the side’s defensive and attacking capabilities, the deployment of McGuigan as a target man, and poor use substitutions. But Stenhousemuir are not adrift, nowhere near it, and have the potential to motor up the table; it is hard to fathom just why Ferguson was removed from his post.
He concluded his Twitter message with “expectations need to be realistic while long-term ambitions remain high”. When Martyn Corrigan left Stenhousemuir there was an outcry, mainly from his players, who felt the board and supporters were getting carried away and were not in tune with the realities facing a club of their size. It is worth pointing out the Warriors were firmly established in League 1 at the time and had narrowly missed out on a top-four finish in the previous two seasons. Before Corrigan’s sacking, there had been a real sense of drift for months and it seemed as though he was no longer able to get the best from a good squad of players. This is not the case now, four years later.
Having interviewed a number of players and managers for the Pelé Podcast, there is a tendency to say “that’s football” when describing various frustrations and setbacks. Ferguson will probably feel the same. There is an unfairness and capriciousness to the sport that disappoints more often than it delights but he will leave Ochilview with his head held high and he, his players and his staff should be proud of what they achieved at Stenhousemuir.