IT is a line always delivered with a laugh, but the fact it is offered unsolicited by each of Duncan Ferguson’s friends and former teammates that spoke about him for this piece lends it a credence the Inverness players would probably do well to heed: “You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

Many a 1990s centre-half in British football, as well as one or two bungling home intruders, can testify to that.

The striker that became universally known as ‘Big Dunc’ has at various stages been a figure of controversy on and off the pitch, the most expensive player in the British game, an inmate at Barlinnie, a Scotland outcast, an all-time great at Everton, a hero at Newcastle, a trusted lieutenant to some of the best managers on the planet, an eco-warrior and (somewhat reluctant) vegan, and now the manager of Inverness.

But one other consistent theme that shines through from those who know him well is that his public persona is far removed from the reality. A ‘gentle giant’, is the descriptor that comes up time and again.

“He was a good guy,” said Richard Gough, who played with Ferguson at both Rangers and Everton.

“He was misunderstood. He’s not one you want to get on the wrong side of, mind you. He’s a tough boy. He’s not one I would have picked on or have been winding up on the training pitch.

READ MORE: Duncan Ferguson turns down Dundee United approach over vacant manager position

“I sometimes think he’s a bit of a gentle giant. He was one of those when you played against him you didn’t want to get him angry. I’d be complimenting him and telling him how good he was.”

Mixu Paatelainen, sometime strike partner of Ferguson at Dundee United, sums up the duality of Ferguson succinctly.

“We were like two big windmills up front giving out black eyes and broken noses!” Paatelainen laughed.

“This has to be mentioned though, he was - and is - a lovable guy. He’s a good friend, and he would do anything for you.

“He’s a wonderful person.”

But will what made him a wonderful person make him a wonderful manager for the struggling Highlanders?

The early years

Given his prodigious physical advantages over his peers, it might be thought that Ferguson would have been a standout at youth level with Dundee United, but such was the crop of players coming through at Tannadice at that time, it wasn’t immediately apparent that it would be he who would scale the greatest heights in the game.

““He was a confident big guy,” said teammate Andy McLaren.

“I came right through the youth teams with him, and he was a smashing lad. I wouldn’t have wanted to get on the wrong side of him, right enough!”

So they say.

“We had a right good group,” he continued. “The big man was good, but we were all good.”

The meeting of cocksure teenagers and the infamously tyrannical management of Jim McLean would seem a recipe for disaster, but McLaren recalls that ‘wee Jum’ was adept at handling his young upstarts, and was able – mostly – to keep them on the straight and narrow.

“We were young guys, and we would enjoy ourselves, shall we say,” McLaren said.

“You couldn’t get away with it these days, if they smelled drink off you now when you turned up to training you wouldn’t be back.

“People will say that it is better now than it was then because of that, which is fair enough. But not in my book!”

Ferguson blossomed and began to make an impact. Word soon spread about a gangly big striker that seemed to have a real chance.

“In Scottish football, when there is a real diamond of a player, you get to hear about him,” Gough, then captain of Rangers, said.

“One of my friends from when I was staying up in Dundee as a kid got in touch to say they had a 17-year-old up there who was going to be pretty special.”

Ferguson seemed unfazed about his prospects of breaking into what was then a star-studded United team.

“We were going into that dressing room with guys like big Dave Narey, who was one of my heroes,” said McLaren.

“He scored against Brazil, and now we were in there sharing a dressing room with these guys. But we were all confident in our ability. And Duncan definitely was.”

Paatelainen recalled: “He was so full of confidence as a youngster, and I had never seen anything like that. He bullied the opponents, he was aggressive, he put himself about. But his technique was excellent too, he was great in the air, his finishing was really good.

“With that mental strength and that overflowing confidence that he had in himself, it was no surprise to me that he went on to have a fantastic career as a player.

“Normally when a youngster comes to the first team dressing room they are quiet, they know their place and they listen to the experienced pros. Big Dunc was a little bit different.

“He would be up to his antics and wee Jim would often discipline him. Jim was a very, very strict manager, and he obviously was making sure that Duncan behaved and was applying himself accordingly.”

That he clearly did, as the vultures were soon circling…

Glasgow calling

In the summer of 1993, Rangers slapped in a British record offer in a bid to secure Ferguson’s services. It was a proposition that even McLean – though perhaps through gritted teeth – could not refuse.

“I remember in 1992 we went away to Canada with Scotland just before we went to Sweden [for the European Championships], and he was in the squad,” Gough said.

“It was myself, Ally McCoist, Andy Goram, Stuart McCall and Gordon Durie from Rangers in the squad, and we were sitting in a wee room at the hotel having a couple of beers. I said, ‘let’s get big Dunc up’, so he came and had a few beers with us and then the next summer he signed for Rangers.

“Jim McLean, as I found myself in 1986 when I went to Tottenham, didn’t want to sell to Rangers if he could at all avoid it. But Rangers put in a £4m bid, which was unheard of for a teenager, and they couldn’t turn it down.

“Coisty had just broken his leg, so he was coming in to get a chance. It’s just a shame that not long into his time at Ibrox we had the Raith Rovers game, and that obviously derailed his career at the club.”

The bad times

The infamous incident in the game which Gough refers to was a clash with visiting player Willie McStay, one that would have far-reaching consequences way beyond the red card Ferguson received on the day.

Ultimately it would be an afternoon that would all-but end his prospects with both Rangers and Scotland, and even deny him his freedom.

“That was deemed to be an assault, and put in with the other two convictions he had, it was the three-strike rule,” said Gough.

“It still baffles me to this day. The club couldn’t do anything about it, couldn’t stop it, and the poor kid landed up in jail. It was awful for him. It must have been.

“I remember speaking to David Murray and Walter Smith, and his father was asking if the club could do something, but they couldn’t.

“It wasn’t even a headbutt, it was a coming together. There wasn’t a lot in it. Sometimes I do think ‘only in Scotland’. Nowhere else would that have happened.

“Him getting put in jail for what actually happened was outrageous. Then the Scottish FA compounded that by giving him the 12-game ban. You couldn’t write it. It was ludicrous, and it probably ruined his Rangers career because he just wanted out.

“Imagine going to Barlinnie as a young boy like that? You can’t even begin to imagine it.”

No stranger to a quarrel with the Scottish FA himself, Gough can sympathise with both Ferguson’s stance at the time in refusing to turn out for his country, and also his subsequent regret in later years.

“With the Scotland thing, a bit like myself, I think that should have been handled differently,” he said.

“With mine I could have gotten together with the manager, and the association could have got together with him. You can’t have your best players not playing for your country.

“Duncan should have had 75 caps or something. In Scotland we cut off our nose to spite our face. He should have been our centre forward for 10 years. It was crazy stuff.

“It’s to his credit that he turned things around from there, and I think Walter knew that he just had to get out of Scottish football.

“Rangers got their money back, but it was a big loss for us. He could have been our centre forward for a decade. But it was about what was right for Duncan at that point.

“He was very similar to Mark Hateley, and I think he would have been a natural successor. It’s a shame that we never got to see that.

“But he went on loan with wee Durranty (Ian Durrant) down to Everton and he became a really big player for them.”

Redemption down the road

A move to Merseyside, and a departure from being one of the biggest fish in the clichéd goldfish bowl of Glasgow, revived Ferguson both on and off the field.

Two spells at Everton sandwiched by a two-year stint at Newcastle United won him a place in the hearts of supporters of both clubs, particularly at Goodison Park, where he is revered to this day.

“I know some Everton fans and Newcastle supporters, and they all think he was a terrific player,” said Paatelainen.

“The Everton fans talk about him almost in terms of being the best player they have ever had, that’s how much they respect him. And rightly so.”

Gough added: “He used to come alive in the big games. I remember watching him play against Manchester United up against Stevie Bruce and Gary Pallister, and he would terrorise them, you know? In the big games he would really come to the fore.

“He had a great career down there and became a real hero with the supporters.

“At the back end of my career he came back to Everton when I was there, and it was unfortunate that we actually spent a lot of time working out at the gym together because we both had injury problems.

“But he is a hero down there. He went into coaching at Everton after that and worked under some fantastic coaches like Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez.

“He’s worked with the young boys, and he’s obviously respected.”

The coach

“You wouldn’t have had him down as one that was likely to go into management when he was at Tannadice…mind you, I wouldn’t have had him down as a vegan either,” says former United teammate McLaren on Ferguson’s ill-fated recent spell at self-styled ‘greenest club in the world’, Forest Green Rovers.

Given that McLaren recalls his pal having a fondness for steak, perhaps it was never going to be a good fit.

So it proved, with Ferguson leaving the club in the summer – just months into a five-year contract - following a dismal run of just one win in 18 games that ended in relegation to League Two.

READ MORE: Furious Duncan Ferguson rips into hapless Forest Green Rovers side

That bruising experience though, according to Paatelainen, can be an asset in Inverness.

He said: “I certainly found that whenever things don’t go how you want, you want to learn from it, so that the next time you are not doing well – and it happens quite often, that’s usually why there’s a change of management – your past experience helps.

“You have been in that situation, and ok, you might have failed, but you learn from that experience.

“You think long and hard after a bad experience. What could I have done differently? You analyse your performance. What can I take from there, if and when a similar situation or opportunity comes about?

“I think it’s very important, and I think Duncan will have done exactly that, otherwise he wouldn’t be ready to take on a big challenge like Caley Thistle.

“I believe - and I hope - that his motivation skills and his direct approach will result in him having success.

“But what I’ve heard from people who have been on coaching courses with him is that he is a deep thinker about the game, which is necessary if you want to be successful.

“He’s also hopefully learned his lessons from what he did right and wrong in his last job, and every job is different at the end of the day.

“He is better equipped now going to Caley Thistle than when he went to Forest Green.”

Gough is also sure that Ferguson has all the attributes to turn the ailing fortunes of Inverness around.

“It’s great for him,” he said.

“He’s obviously matured, he’s got this opportunity and for my own part, he was great in the dressing room at Ibrox.

“Things didn’t go quite as well for him at Rangers as we all thought they would, but he went on to have a great career and I wish him well. I always liked him as a person and as a player.

“On his game, he was as good a centre forward as you would see in Britain. I’ve played against a lot of good centre forwards, and you could tell even as a kid that he would go on to be one.

“This is a chance for him to be his own man in Scotland, and I hope he gets the respect he deserves up there. He deserves a chance. Scot Gardiner [Inverness chief executive] has given him one, and I hope he takes it.

“I’m rooting for him.”

“And another thing,” adds Paatelainen, “I don’t think the Caley Thistle players will be speaking back to him too much.”