So that’s that then. After less than six months at the club, Duncan Ferguson is no longer Forest Green manager.
Two months since their last game and six days after the players returned for pre-season training, owner and chairman Dale Vince has finally made the decision to look for a fourth manager in just over a year.
On May 12, it was revealed that Brentford B coach Allan Steele would become the new Director of Football after nine seasons at the Premier League club, and he called for a “fresh start” after being “inspired and intrigued” by Vince’s values and personality.
There were reports that Ferguson had been trying to lure Forfar Athletic manager Ray McKinnon to join the Gloucestershire club’s backroom staff and the former Aberdeen midfielder was absent at the Scottish League Two side’s training last week, but the club confirmed in a statement that he would remain as manager shortly before FGR announced that Ferguson himself would be departing.
Ferguson is undisputedly the most well-known football figure to have been associated with the Gloucestershire club, and a little bit of stardom descending upon Nailsworth may have been the boost Vince was hoping to achieve when the club sat rock bottom of the third tier in February, but the side never improved any of the coherency issues that were lacking before Ferguson’s first full-time managerial role.
Sure, spotting the former Scottish international out and about helped his relatability to the supporters, most memorably the viral clip of him dancing in his car at a petrol station following his solitary win as boss, but the side’s philosophy never came apparent and his record by the end of the season had become worse than his predecessor’s.
In Ferguson’s defence, the club’s strategy since winning the League Two title in 2021/22 has been hampered in part by other clubs, but also by their own backroom staff. The recruitment in both transfer windows of 22/23 has been woeful and the outgoings impossible to keep track of, for playing and coaching staff alike. Title-winning manager Rob Edwards left for Watford 15 months ago before earning promotion to the Premier League with Luton Town and Director of Football Richard Hughes moved to Portsmouth during a whirlwind summer as Ian Burchnall was brought into lead a completely new side.
FGR’s squad was left completely unequipped for the new season when the first match of 22/23 rolled around in July, the entire core of the squad’s title-winning side departing to leave them severely weaker than they had begun the previous campaign in a lower division. Ebou Adams left for Cardiff City, Kane Wilson to Bristol City, Nicky Cadden to Barnsley, Jamille Matt to Walsall and goalkeeper Luke McGee was sent to Derby County on loan in January (where he did not make a single appearance), before his replacement, Ross Doohan, was dropped before the season was out.
Burchnall’s side did win their first league game away at Bristol Rovers, but consistently terrible form coupled with a restless fanbase and an eight-game winless streak over the winter months sealed his fate and gave the former Everton and Rangers striker a breakthrough chance late in January.
Despite a few awkward moments on media duty, that included Ferguson sharing his views on the state of global climate change (“The earth is warming up, isn’t it”) and finding out that chips were vegan (“Oh, are they? Alright”), he and Vince chowed down on a plant-based burger and insisted that they had struck up a great friendship and that the Scot would throw himself into his new club. Ferguson was even convinced to promote a vegan croissant range on the club’s behalf.
Unfortunately, the side conceded twice in eight minutes of injury time to throw three points away in his first game at Shrewsbury, quickly quashing the hope of a new-manager bounce before the side went a further eight matches without a win. Their midfield was unable to create chances whilst the defenders eventually decided to play the ball long rather than trust those in front of them to work the ball to the other end of the pitch. Ferguson scored 73 goals for Everton but was unable to get his side firing as only five players scored more than one goal all season and January recruit Amadou Bakayoko finished the season goalless after 890 minutes of football.
Ferguson’s natural humour was a breath of fresh air in interviews, but he likely made those within the club wince with his frankness on more than one occasion, revealing the club’s poor training facilities gave him “a massive shock” and that the players were too “fragile” to defend set-pieces. The Scot spoke regularly about this issue as well as the need to score more goals, but his players didn’t respond and they failed to net twice in all eighteen of his games in charge, whilst continuing to concede from set pieces with alarming regularity. There were also slightly bizarre comments about referee bias, time-wasting and opposition injuries scattered across his tenure.
Before the first victory had even arrived in the last game of March, Vince had sacked the Head of Performance & Recruitment, Stevie Grieve, despite the Scot only having joined the club the previous November. The 36-year-old, who had had stints at St. Johnstone and Dundee United before taking the FGR job, oversaw an error-strewn January window and had not even relocated from north of the border when he was relieved of his duties.
Of the January window, Vince said: “Some of [the player recruitment] was good and some of it wasn’t. Stevie wasn’t solely to blame, but he was the head of recruitment.”
Ferguson continued to lead every training session due to a lack of first-team coaches, but results and performances nosedived following the solitary win live on Sky Sports against Sheffield Wednesday, granted an impressive one as Jordon Garrick’s goal and some solid back-to-the-wall eventually costing Darren Moore’s then-side automatic promotion before they went up via the playoffs.
The final eight games for FGR brought just one point, the third and most brutal of which, a 5-1 thrashing at home to Barnsley, making them the first club to be relegated in the football league. Needing to win to keep their hopes alive, Rovers were behind inside 10 minutes and three down at the break, all of the goals conceded from set-pieces.
There was never much optimism from above that Ferguson could keep them from the drop but the plan for next season was being worked on by Vince as early as March, with Big Dunc clearly seen as the man to spearhead a promotion push alongside new Chief Scout, Terry McPhillips. Vince is well known for his patience with the side’s managers and the decision to back his man into the 23/24 season was clearly made in January given the length of his contract, but Steele has showed ruthlessness to move on from the error of handing a five-year deal to a man with no experience in the role he has been hired for.
The club will have lost a big chunk of money to buy Ferguson out of that deal, but either way, the decision has finally been made and new shot-caller Steele has surely made the right one. It is difficult to see how anything Ferguson showed in charge of those 18 games warranted him the opportunity to try and lead an inexperienced and incomplete squad to promotion from a league they know all too well is incredibly difficult to get out of.
Ferguson certainly has a future in coaching, he saw something special in 19-year-old Harvey Bunker, who he made captain against Wycombe Wanderers, and the desire is there to succeed, but this role required too much turning of the tide to suit the 51-year-old and a more straightforward role may be required if he is to continue in management.
The new FGR squad and backroom staff will need a manager with a strategy to bring the fragmented components together and it’s now up to Steele and Vince to find them as soon as possible if the club are to get off to a good start to life without Big Dunc in League Two.
Hannah Dingley, who has a UEFA Pro Licence, has been appointed caretaker head coach after four years in charge of the club’s Academy. The 39-year-old has been leading training sessions and may be given a chance to start the full season in charge if the scheduled pre-season fixtures are successful.