When it comes to soccer, there’s no holding Drew Ferguson back. He’s a competitor, who demands respect and gets it because he knows what it takes to succeed. A former member of the Men’s National Team, Ferguson has been involved in professional soccer for over 44 years.
He began his training at the age of 15 with Leeds United, before signing, in 1977, his first pro contract with the Vancouver Whitecaps.
By the time he retired, in 1991, Ferguson was not only a player for the Kitchener Spirit, but also their Coach and General Manager.
Hard work has always been key for Ferguson. It’s what he was known for as a mid-fielder, and it’s what he now insists upon as Head Coach of Canada’s Para Soccer Team, a position he has held since 2005.
His players have cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects body movement and muscle co-ordination.
Canada Soccer spoke with Ferguson while he was in Toronto, ON, inspecting the venue for the America Cup (19-27 September 2014).
From his love of Powell River, BC, to moving, at the age of 15, to the United Kingdom to train with FIFA World Cup winner Jackie Charlton, to his views on pro athletes, we cover it all, including his role in launching the careers of both Jason DeVos and Mark Watson.
Canada Soccer: Does everyone call you Fergie?
Drew Ferguson: I would say 99 per cent.
CS:Respect from players is important to you, isn’t it?
DF: Yeah, respect from players to myself and myself to players is important. If you don’t have mutual respect, it will never work.
I don’t treat my guys as people with disabilities. I treat them as soccer players, because they are soccer players. I treat them with respect and they need to treat everyone else with respect.
I’ve had players in tears, but they are better people for it. My guys learn fast. I hate them, I love them, they kill me, but they’re all good kids. They’re awesome kids. Even the ones that drive me nuts. Whenever I give them a tongue lashing, I also make sure to give them a pat on the back when the job is well done. But that’s what I would do with able-bodied players.
CS:Who can play CP 7-aside soccer?
DF: The rules are set by CPISRA (The Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association), the international governing body. And they’ve determined that only people with mild cerebral palsy, acquired head injuries or those who are recovering from a stroke are eligible to play.
So, for example, if you are an amputee athlete or a deaf player, yes, you have a disability; but you don’t fit the criteria for the Para program. The reason that stroke and acquired head injury fall under CP is because their symptoms are similar.
CS: What was your initial impression of the Para Soccer program?
DF: Let’s just say that we had a lot of hard work ahead of us. But the attitude of the players was brilliant, and that’s what convinced me to stay.
I don’t have much time for the antics of modern players—many are spoiled and don’t appreciate what they have. When my guys get tackled or fouled … they don’t’ lie and roll around waiting for the TV cameras to zoom in, they just get up. They have a disability and they get up and get on with it.
So instantly I liked the attitude.
But, yeah, the job has its challenges; however, every time I find a new player and watch his growth on and off the field I feel proud. It’s a positive program and it’s rewarding to see the players come out of their shells and grow, not just in their ability, but as people. It’s pretty cool.
CS:How has the sport grown over the years?
DF: It’s growing not only in terms of the number of countries involved, but also in the quality of play. In Canada, we’ve increased our ability 10 fold but, at times, it can be hard to see the headway because everyone else is also getting better.
When the program started, in 2005, we were ranked off the map. The easy way to say it is that we had a lot of kids with CP who were athletes but weren’t necessarily soccer players. And that’s because in the beginning we were looking for kids that might want to try something different. But now, in the last three or four years, we’ve been able to find players in the able-bodied world and that has made a difference.
So, instead of walking down the street and looking for someone with CP, and then asking if they know how to play soccer, we’re going to able-bodied soccer games and looking for people who have CP and recruiting that way.
30 Jan 2014 – Drew Ferguson coaching team at Para Soccer Camp in Sun Rise, FL, USA
CS:So what are the challenges?
DF: They’re basically the same as the able-bodied world. If you compare us to Scotland, Ireland, or Holland, most of their players are based in one city, or if not in one city they are only a short bus or train ride away from their main facility. This allows them to train every Saturday or Sunday, throughout a 10-month period at minimal cost.
Where, because our guys are scattered across a larger country, I see them as a group maybe four times a year. So it costs us more to train, let alone to cross the ocean to attend tournaments.
Nevertheless, we’ve done well. We’re now ranked 11th in the world and banging on the door of the top 8. It’s rewarding for the coaching staff, and more so for the athletes, because they are the ones working hard.
CS:What’s been the highlight of your experience, thus far?
DF: Many highlights, but winning the bronze medal at the  Para Pan Am’s in Brazil stands out. Beating USA [1:0] in that match was a big step forward. At the time, a lot of our guys were young and shy and that victory helped them come out of their shells. You know, two years before, USA beat us 6:0 in the World Championships and defeating them gave our guys belief, in both themselves as well as the program.
CS: Do you ever get tired of people assuming the level of Para Soccer is low, because the players have a disability?
DF: Sometimes people I know ask, ‘Fergie what are you doing, these days?’ Like I’ve fallen off the earth for the past 10 years. ‘Oh yeah,’ they say, ‘ you’re doing Special Olympics, that must be a real honour?’
And I say, ‘First of all, you clowns it’s not the Special Olympics. And I don’t know if it’s an honour, but it’s an honour for my players to play for Canada. I’m 57 years old, I don’t have too many soccer ambitions outside of the Para program left; my soccer world has been good. But I wouldn’t say that the level is low. Look … there are two ways of looking at it. If you compare it to the highest standard then you would say it’s poor. But if you look at it as athletes with a disability then it’s absolutely brilliant.
We practice against able-bodied teams at the university level; sometimes we come out on top and sometimes we don’t. The level we’re at now is a good standard. I’m telling you, there are some teams that have players that could be in the MLS. Brazil has this striker, who I swear is lightning quick and could give Chelsea’s back line a run for their money.
Para Soccer Camp, 30 May 2014 – Northumberland, ON
CS:Is there anything better about the way the game is played in CP 7-aside compared to able-bodied 11 aside?
DF: Everything on the field, once the whistle blows, is pretty much the same. I mean they don’t play offside – a rule that I’m not 100 per cent convinced is the correct one – so you can go three, four, five, six minutes without a whistle. But, at the end of the day, it’s very much the same and probably at times a little more entertaining.
CS:What got you hooked on soccer?
DF: Well my family has a Scottish background. I can’t tell you when I started playing, but I was totally into soccer and, guess, I was good at it. There was no big league in Canada at that time, so my dream was to be over in England. And, basically, I had that mind set from the time I was 10 years old.
My dad and mom were active in youth soccer as coaches and administrators, so there were always plenty of soccer balls around. I would go to the field across from my house and shoot and shoot, dribble and dribble, juggle and juggle. I used to train seven days a week. I tell this story to my players because you can’t just expect success. It takes blood, sweat, tears and a bit of luck for the average guy like myself. There are very few super stars in our world.
In my case, I was fortunate to live with a FIFA World Cup winner, Jackie Charlton—he was the one who spotted me in British Columbia and took me to England, where, at the age of 15, I began training with Leeds United. Back in the ’70’s this was called an apprenticeship, and it was an unbelievable experience.
canMNT at airport, March 1985 | Drew Ferguson back row, third from left
CS:Wait, Jackie Charlton scouted you?
DF: Yeah, a very well respected coach in the BC soccer world, Harry Christie, brought Jackie Charlton over to run a camp. Basically, Jackie approached my parents and said he wanted to take me to England, and within a few days I was gone.
I was fortunate enough to live with him and his family. For a Canadian kid that’s kind of like being in Wayne Gretzky’s house and gawking at all the trophies while listening to all his stories. At the time, Leeds United was full of England internationals and their coach was a famous man named Don Revie. At 15, I didn’t realize how cool all this was, but it’s pretty cool now looking back at it.
CS:Where do you live?
DF: In one of the nicest places in the world—Powell River, BC. I was born there and moved back when I retired [from playing]. It’s a place where, to this day, you can leave your house open and go for a walk. It’s small [population 13,000], so everybody knows everybody in general.
And, it’s actually, a hotbed for sports. Maybe not so much as of late, but over the years the town has produced quality athletes.
The biggest name is Roy Gerela, a placekicker and three-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers, during the Terry Bradshaw era. The town also has three players who have played in the NHL— one with a Stanley cup, an Olympic athlete in Los Angeles, a Scott’s curling tournament gold medal winner and a former captain of the Canadian Women’s volleyball team.
So for a small town we have a big athletic community. I don’t believe the town gets recognized enough for this. But it has that great mentality, where people are willing to sacrifice their time to see young kids do well.
CS: Were you involved in the 1986 FIFA World Cup team?
DF: I was in the player pool for the build-up, but, in the end, missed out on the FIFA World Cup. I feel like I should have been selected. I was playing indoor soccer [with the Major Indoor Soccer League] at the time, so it was always going to be hard for me and … maybe I needed to bear down more than I did. But, yeah, if I could re-do any aspect of my playing career, I would knuckle down, not take anything for granted, and ensure my place on that squad, representing my country.
CS:Still you left your mark on Canadian soccer, helping to develop players like Jason DeVos and Mark Watson?
DF: Yeah that’s right. I guess I helped create Canada’s world by signing those two players (laughs). But, jokes aside, those guys would have had the careers they had without me. As I recall, I signed Jason, who was 17 at the time, to his first contract. That same year I drafted Mark while also making a trade for Ian Bridge.
It’s funny, because, when I signed them [in 1990], I was a player, coach and General Manger of the Kitchener Spirit. Obviously, that’s not ideal, because you’re probably not doing all three jobs at your best, but that was the sign of the times.
Drew Ferguson (wearing the #10) with Edmonton Drillers – 1980
CS: I’m surprised you didn’t take the Captaincy too?
DF: (laughs) No that would have been too much pressure.
CS:The Para Soccer team has a vibrantFacebook page– what role does social media play in your efforts to develop the program?
DF: It serves as a recruiting tool. The trick is to try and get as many likes as we can so that people are actually seeing it, versus just our own team and coaching staff. We don’t just want to reach [prospective] players, but the people around them as well – those that can say, ‘oh, hey I know someone with CP.’
CS:The Para Team is currently preparing for the America Cup (19-27 September) at the University of Toronto. Canada is in Group A with Argentina and Venezuela, what are your thoughts on the tournament?
DF: We have a good draw. We’re lucky to have avoided Brazil, but we still have some difficult games. Of the six teams in the tournament, three of them are ranked in the top eight. We’re coming up against programs that have more money in the bank and more training camps under their belts. Fans are going to be impressed; these teams can fly. But we’re looking forward to playing them. It’s a chance for us to grow awareness of our program and, hopefully, do some recruiting.
CS:What would you say to those, who have never heard of the program, and have the opportunity to come and watch this tournament?
DF: If you’re able bodied, come out if you want to see quality soccer. And if you have CP and want to see what the program is about come say hi to the gang. We’re always willing to chat after the games and during training sessions.
CS:Is that really you’re best pitch?
DF: (Laughs) Look, I promise people will be pleasantly surprised when they see the level. As I’ve said, there are players that are technically on par with professionals. Physically they may not cope, but technically absolutely yes. And here, in Canada, we have youngsters who, in a matter of years, have the potential to be the best in the world.
CS:What are the expectations?
DF: With the draw we have, our first goal is to upset Argentina and advance to the gold/silver medal game. If that doesn’t happen, then our focus will be on the bronze medal. Anything else is outside our mindset.
CS:And the America Cup is only the first of many up-coming tournaments, correct?
DF: We have a lot on our plate. The America Cup is only the first. Next year we have the Para Pan Am’s, which are also in Toronto. In 2015 we also have the World Championships in England, and this tournament is the qualification event for the Rio Paralympics. So we have three, potentially four major events in the next year or two.
If we can get to the World Championships, our goal is to finish in the top eight. If we, can do this we’ll get more money, which is good because right now it’s hard to prepare technically when the Team trains together only four times a year.
CS: Giving Back – is that why you do this?
DF: It’s a funny world. I always laugh when athletes, who are making $20 million a year, say that they are not playing for the money, but for the love of the game. Because, surely, they don’t want to play for free and then go work eight hours a day.
So, I believe that we all love the game, but at the same time we’re all doing a job that we can make a living at. So, while I love the game, and love this program, I’m also doing it, in all fairness–which some athletes won’t admit–because it’s a living.
But, if I were offered a chunk of money to coach somewhere else, I probably wouldn’t take it. I’m happy with what I’m doing. Hopefully, when I retire, I’ll have contributed to some sort of legacy for kids with disabilities. But, right now, I’m living one of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had.”