By John McGregor
Iron-hard Scottish midfielder Dave Mackay hailed from Edinburgh and his first club was the Scottish Capital’s proud ‘Heart of Midlothian’, who he captained to the Scottish title in 1958 aged 23. Within a year Mackay had made the big journey south and joined that great Spurs side of the sixties that Billy Nicholson put together. At White Hart Lane, Mackay helped Tottenham to win the League and FA Cup double in 1961, winning two further FA Cups in 1962 and 1967.
Although Danny Blanchflower was the stylish captain of Spurs, it has always been recognised that Dave Mackay was the ‘heartbeat’ of the team, the leader both on and off the field. In Jimmy Greaves’ first and best autobiography ‘This One’s On Me’ (1979) he wrote that Mackay was the first into everything – example, blistering tackles, to shake your hand, and first in the bar to buy a round: he epitomised the swashbuckling style of one of the really great sides of the 20th century.
Mackay broke his leg twice in the same place, which would have daunted many footballers. Did that stop the tough-as-teak Scot? No chance, and after Blanchflower left in 1964, Mackay took over as captain to lead Tottenham to win the 1967 FA Cup. If George Best said the Scot was the “hardest man I have ever played against”, then take it as read –it’s true. George knew from brutal personal experience who was really hard. One day outside Wembley Stadium I saw Dave Mackay in a suit, signing autographs. I was struck by the fact he wasn’t particularly tall, but on the field he looked a colossus. His heading ability was well-known and feared. The trademark barrel chest and ‘sleeves-rolled-up’ attitude epitomised Mackay’s approach to the game.
In those days of the sixties, Don Revie had also built a tremendous team of talent, but at Leeds United they also carried a deserved reputation for taking no prisoners; half the team regularly put the boot in, despite their elegant class. Arguably the worst of a bad bunch, another great Scot, the late Billy Bremner clashed badly one day with Mackay, and the photo of Mackay threatening Bremner summed up the scene well: Afterwards Mackay said:
“He was a brilliant player but a dirty little b******. He kicked me in the leg I’d just come back from breaking twice. If he’d kicked the other one, I could have accepted that. But he kicked the broken one and that really annoyed me. I could’ve killed him that day.” Mackay was probably being unduly harsh on himself – “bullying” Billy Bremner seems scarcely credible. “In the end the referee just gave us a talking-to, for which I was relieved, I had got away with it and was so happy, because it maintained my record of never having been sent off. I may have been dirty sometimes, but I never got sent off in my whole life, even as a schoolboy.”
As that super Spurs side was breaking up, it appeared that after a superb era Mackay was returning to Scotland as player/manager of his beloved Hearts. But fate then took a hand: Brian Clough and Peter Taylor had left very modest Hartlepool and were putting together a superb young side at Derby, then languishing in the old Second Division. It was always Taylor who could spot the players needed, and sent Clough south to see Billy Nick, saying Derby needed Mackay’s brain working at the back in the defence, as his legs were said to have gone by then. Nicholson bluntly told Cloughie there was no chance, but when Spurs had finished training, Cloughie waited for Mackay and talked to him – very earnestly.
A few weeks later at a wet, windy midweek match at the Baseball Ground, Derby were under the cosh, and defending desperately, pinned in their own penalty area. The ball came to Mackay, with home screams to hoof it anywhere. He calmly put his foot on it, and looking up, spotted the immaculate Alan Hinton (Gladys to the home fans), shorts not even dirty as he dried his nail varnish on the left wing. Bang, and a 40 yard ball flew to Hinton who collected it and went on a run. Avoiding sixteen full-blooded tackles. Hinton delicately threaded his way to the by-line before planting the ball perfectly on the head of young Kevin Hector who couldn’t and didn’t miss. Taylor sprang from the dug-out and let Cloughie and the crowd have it with both barrels:
‘THAT is why we bought Mackay!’ Derby were promoted and the following year Mackay won Footballer of the Year – some going for a supposedly washed-up footballer! The stay at Derby linked Mackay with the East Midlands forever, and after a spell as player/manager at Swindon, eventually followed Clough as manager at both Derby and Nottingham Forest, indeed he won the First Division with Derby in 1975. Mackay went on to manage Walsall, Birmingham City and Doncaster, and a number of Middle East clubs. In 2002 Dave Mackay was deservedly inducted into the English Hall of Fame to recognise his immense contribution to football.
The man with a big heart and a big reputation died in a Nottingham hospital on Monday this week aged 80: RIP, Dave Mackay.