When Iain Ferguson arrived at Heart of Midlothian in the summer of 1988, the centre-forward had some rather sizeable shoes to fill. The striker joined in a £350,000 move from Dundee United, matching Hearts’ record transfer fee at the time, but it wasn’t the size of the price tag that led to high expectations – it was the lofty standards set by his predecessor.

Ferguson had the unenviable task of replacing John Robertson after the Hearts legend joined Newcastle United earlier that year, but it was a challenge that he relished. He hadn’t lifted any silverware during his two seasons at Tannadice but he had finished as the club’s top scorer on both occasions, and scored some crucial goals as United reached the UEFA Cup final in the 1986/87 campaign. Quite reasonably, he backed himself to excel at Tynecastle Park – and was prepared to give it his all.

“I didn’t feel that pressure,” Ferguson told Hearts Standard. “When I moved from Dundee to Rangers it was a record transfer fee at the time for a Scottish club. My time at Rangers kind of mirrors my time at Hearts because I started really well at Rangers. I was scoring goals and scored the winner in a League Cup final. I fitted into the team. Then maybe six months down the line something happened where I fell out of favour and I had to battle to get back in the team.

“I never shirked at that challenge. If I was there, the fans and the management knew I would always give 100 per cent. I wouldn’t be going in a huff. And there were only two subs back then too! If we had the amount you get now then I would probably be hanging about on the bench but there weren’t the same number of opportunities back then. But I had a great time at Hearts. It was a great dressing room, a brilliant atmosphere, and they had a great manager in wee Alex MacDonald.”

Life in Gorgie got off to a good start for Ferguson. He scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win over St Johnstone in the League Cup on his debut and grabbed a brace away to Dunfermline a fortnight later. The team laboured during the early stages of the league campaign, winning just one of their opening nine fixtures, but MacDonald’s side were motoring along nicely in the UEFA Cup. A 3-0 home win over Velez Mostar in the last 16 left Hearts would leave them with one foot in the quarter-final – but it was also the night that Ferguson learned that his days were numbered in EH11.

Hearts Standard:

“I played in the Scotland youth set-up and the Under-21s with Robbo and we got along really well,” Ferguson said. “Hearts signed me to replace him because he had just went to Newcastle. I was his replacement but then a few months later when the wee man came back to Hearts! It was one of those things. Alec pulled me aside at one of the European nights and said to me, ‘Robbo’s coming back tomorrow. It’s a done deal’.

“There was no animosity, it wasn’t as if he’d said, ‘you’ve not done this and you’ve not done that’. Robbo hadn’t really settled at Newcastle and there was an opportunity to bring him back, so they decided to go for it. Alec said he knew the wee man, knew what he could bring to the team, knew he would fit in perfectly well and that they would get him back for less than what they’d sold him for. Alec said he would move me on as quick as he could because he said I’d done nothing wrong. They had the opportunity to bring the wee man back and that was fine by me.

“A couple of weeks later I had a chance to move to Aberdeen and I knocked it back, so I stayed within the squad. I met with Alex Smith. Him and Jocky Scott were managers at the time and if I’d met with my mate Jocky then I probably would have signed. Instead, I met with Alex Smith and we didn’t really hit it off, so I decided to stay. I was top scorer at the time so I thought I would get a move quite quickly… then two years later I was still there!

“I don’t regret my time at Hearts at all. The fans always were and still are good to me because they knew that through no fault of my own Robbo had come back and I was just on the edges most of the time. I’m sure in Robbo’s second debut I came off the bench and scored the winner against Rangers! Wee Alec pulled me aside and said, ‘what are you trying to do to me?’ Scoring goals on Robbo’s debut?!’. We had a wee laugh and then he told me to keep it up.

“I was only involved periodically – I think there were a couple of European games I was thrown into and I did quite well. I never downed tools or anything like that and would play in the reserves team if I needed to and in the first team when I was called upon.

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“That was the nature of football back then – you had 11 playing and two subs on the bench. You just had to fight for your chance to get on the bench or into the starting line-up, and it was something that I don’t regret – although I would have loved to have been able to play more. Some transfers work out, some don’t, and I’d like to think that people will remember me as a decent addition to the squad during my time at Hearts.”

The remainder of Ferguson’s Hearts career would be erratic, to say the least. That quick exit he had hoped for was only concluded when he joined Motherwell in December 1990 and in the intervening period the striker found himself pulled hither and yon, performing a one-man rendition of the hokey-cokey as he left and rejoined the first-team squad at Tynecastle every few months.

“I think if you look back at my record, my time at Hearts started well,” Ferguson said. “I think the wee man was the top scorer every year I was there apart from the first one. I only scored 11 and then I couldn’t get a game again! Hearts fans were always really good to me and they still are. I think they realised my predicament – I had been signed to replace Robbo, who was an absolute legend, and then he came back and I was surplus to requirements.

“I went on loan to Charlton – I played one game, did really well, and they were interested in signing me. But at that time we didn’t have a massive squad and somebody got injured, so Hearts pulled me back after the game! So there was one game against Derby County for Charlton. I came back up the road and I was sitting on the bench for a wee while, and then I went on loan to Bristol City. They were going to buy me, we won the league down there and I’d been playing for three months. That move fell through because Hearts moved the goalposts and asked for too much money.

“Joe Jordan came in after Alec. I had met him at Bristol City – when we won the league, he was the manager. When Joe appeared I got back in the team but then a new coach came in and he didn’t like me. Within a matter of weeks I was shipped off to Motherwell, which was my local team. We won the Scottish Cup, which was special.

“I get on really, really well with Alex MacDonald and still do to this day. He says I never caused him any grief, played whenever I was called on to play, and obviously there was the Bayern Munich thing. I hadn’t played for a while and then I came in and scored that kind of goal. I did score a few other goals for them but that’s probably what I’m most remembered for.”

It will be a long time before ‘the Bayern Munich thing’ is forgotten. Recalling the strike which sealed an historic 1-0 victory over the German giants at Tynecastle Park in February 1989, Ferguson’s description of one of his greatest achievements is typically self-effacing. Few would have predicted beforehand that Ferguson would be the match-winner – least of all the man himself, who didn’t even think he was going to be playing.

“I like to think that for most of the clubs I played for, I left my mark in some respects,” Ferguson explained. “I was lucky enough to score goals and if you score goals in big games – whether it’s Dundee, Rangers, Hearts, Dundee United or Motherwell – you’re going to be remembered. I was lucky enough to make my mark with famous goals or important goals.

“Big games didn’t really faze me. Before I played for Hearts, I’d played in the UEFA Cup final with Dundee United so I had experience of playing the likes of Barcelona and Borussia Monchengladbach. I had scored in those games and done it with Rangers against Inter Milan. I think wee Alec recognised my experience in the European side of things because I was out the team for the Bayern Munich game. It was only on the morning of the game that I found out I was playing!

“Me and Jimmy Sandison came in. We had played Aberdeen on the Saturday and we were both on the bench. I came on for Robbo and Jimmy came on for Gary Mackay. I think they both dropped out for the Bayern Munich game. I had comps for it but my mum and dad didn’t even come to the game because I didn’t think I’d be playing!

“To be involved that night was special because the old Tynecastle, the real Tynecastle, the atmosphere generated that night – it definitely helped us and intimidated Bayern Munich a wee bit. I loved that atmosphere and I was very lucky to get the opening goal of the game. I’ll never forget it and I don’t think the Hearts fans will either.”

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Ferguson’s time at Tynecastle didn’t pan out as he had expected, but he remains proud of his work ethic during those long stretches where he found himself surplus to requirements. That determination and professionalism served him well throughout his playing career – and beyond – and never became too disheartened about his lack of opportunities in the first team.

“I found it easy because I was very realistic about it all,” he reasoned. “Football is a game of opinions, some people will love you and others will hate you. You just have to go with the flow. I always had respect for Alec and Jock Wallace at Rangers, everyone I played under really.

“You just had to grin and bear it. If they decided I wasn’t playing then there’s nothing I can do about it apart from continuing to try and impress in training or the reserve games. It’s difficult at times to keep yourself going but I think that stood me in good stead for the rest of my life. The majority of the boys in that team still had to work after they finished playing. We had to find jobs and adapt – when you have had those ups and downs of being a footballer, you can handle most things that are thrown at you in the working environment.

“I was brought up in the right manner by my parents – you accept authority, you accept the decision of whoever’s in charge. You give 100 per cent and no one can say you went in a huff because you weren’t playing. Anyone that knows me knows that I was very vocal and I wasn’t shy about telling people I wasn’t happy, but I think I got respect for that. If it became clear that I wasn’t in a manager’s plans and that I wasn’t going to play regularly, then I wanted to leave to get minutes elsewhere. The one thing you can’t buy back is time.”