by Joe Lovejoy.
Remember the iconic image of the Spurs and Scotland iron man grabbing Billy Bremner, whose white shorts were in danger of turning brown..? Fast forward a few years and Mackay, as manager of Derby County, did the same to young Lovejoy, then of the “Derby Evening Telegraph”, who he thought was in the rebel camp trying to bring Brian Clough back to the Baseball Ground.
He couldn’t have been more wrong. I disliked “Old Big ‘Ead” as a drunken, egocentric boor whereas Mackay had been my idol since Tottenham’s Double days, when I grew up as an ardent Spurs supporter.
Nevertheless the man rightly renowned as the toughest footballer of his generation was intent on doing me some serious damage that day nearly 40 years ago [“I don’t read your effing paper, but I’m told you want me out”], and he would doubtless have done so but for the timely intervention of his assistant, Des Anderson.
As a player, much is always made of Mackay’s intimidating teak-toughness – maybe too much for it has come to overshadow his considerable footballing ability. George Graham, a big admirer, tells a lovely story from their playing days. In 1960 Scotland faced Hungary in Budapest and in that sepia-tinted era the Hungarians were a match for anyone in Europe. A fortnight earlier they had beaten England 2-0 and it wasn’t that long since they had humbled Billy Wright, Stan Matthews, Tom Finney et al 6-3 and 7-1.
Understandably a young Scottish team were in awe of the “Mighty Magyars” – all the more so as they stood on the touchline before the match and watched Florian Albert run through a stunning repertoire of tricks. It was the Hungarians who introduced the “keepy-uppy” and Albert had also learned from the peerless Ferenc Puskas how to strike the ball hard with so much spin that it would return, boomerang-like, to his feet.
Seeing his teammates mesmerised, Mackay sent for a half-crown, then repeated everything Albert had done, but this time with the coin and fully dressed, with his shoes still on! The spell was broken and a poor Scotland team went out and drew 3-3 [they lost their next two games to Turkey and Wales and conceded nine against England less than a year later.]
George Graham is just one of many well qualified judges who testify to Mackay’s ability to use the ball with the same expertise as he won it.
The bare bones of his CV have had a good airing since his recent passing at the age of 80, but a recap is in order here. A native of Edinburgh, he won the Scottish League and Cup with Hearts before moving south to repeat the feat in one coruscating season with Spurs. Bill Nicholson paid what now seems a laughable £32,000 fee to instal him at the heart of a Lilywhite team of fond memory. It has become a lazy or ill-informed cliche to describe Danny Blanchflower and John White as the brains of that side and Mackay the brawn. In reality, as evidenced earlier, he of the barrel chest could cream it around with the best of them.
That famous confrontation with Bremner occurred at White Hart Lane on the opening day of the 1966-67 season. Word has spread recently that he disliked the celebrated photo that captured it so well because it portrayed him as a bully. I don’t know about that. What I do know is that when he opened a bar in his native Edinburgh a mural of it occupied one wall, above the optics, and when I told him how much I liked it he gave me a key-ring which bore the image.
At the age of 33, and after nine years of inspirational service Mackay, not Bill Nick, decided it was time he moved on and he was offered the chance to go back to Hearts as player and assistant manager. He was going, but at the last minute was instead persuaded [by a large signing-on fee] to join the Brian Clough Show at run down Derby, who were then in the wrong half of the old Second Division.
A left leg broken twice [it was Bremner’s kick on it on the day Mackay was making his comeback that provoked their photogenic confrontation] and a fondness of his “dram” had seen that barrel chest head south and the old warrior could no longer rampage like he used to, but Clough insisted he didn’t need to. He would be used not in a midfield role but to marshal the defence as sweeper, behind a 20-year-old centre-half by the name of Roy McFarland.
Clough admitted it was Peter Taylor’s idea, and described how the Rams’ renaissance started thus: “It was at Huddersfield I think. Dave Mackay put his foot on the ball under the most intense pressure in his own six-yard area and then calmly and deliberately played us out of trouble with a pass that immediately switched defence to attack. I remember Peter Taylor’s reaction. Somebody else in the dug-out was yelling: “Kick it, get rid.” Taylor whipped round and shouted: “That’s what we bought him for, that’s what we want him to do – put his foot on it. They’ll all be doing it from now on. We’re on our way.” And we were. Confidence swept from one player to another and the successful Derby era was born.”
The “Rams” were promoted as champions in May 1969 and Mackay’s colossal contribution was recognised when, unprecedented for a Second Division player, he was voted Footballer of the Year, jointly with Manchester City’s Tony Book.
Mackay stayed on, helping to establish Derby in the top division before leaving to move into management, first at Swindon, then at Nottingham Forest. His stay at both was brief and unremarkable but in October 1973 Clough resigned in a fit of pique, believing Derby would beg him to go back but he reckoned without an adversary who was his match when it came to bloody-minded antipathy. Sam Longson was a typical chairman of the old school, a local businessman made good who preferred the parsimony that had made him a millionaire to Clough’s extravagance.
The manager’s spendthrift ways were definitely not to his liking, nor was his outspokenness, and he had tried to sack him once before, only to be outvoted by the other directors. Now, in a tacit reference to the sort of financial shenanigans that later saw Clough named and shamed by the Football Association’s “bungs” investigation, Longson said: “We’ll go into the Second Division with our heads held in the air rather than win the First Division wondering whether the club will be expelled from the Football League.”
He refused to have Clough back, claiming “I could manage this lot”, but this time the misjudgement was his. The players and supporters were outraged and, in danger of a public lynching, Longson could think of only one man who might conceivably be acceptable as a new manager: Dave Mackay. He was wrong. The players delivered a letter, which they had all signed, demanding Clough’s reinstatement, then staged a sit-in at the ground and police were called to disperse the crowd that had gathered outside. Roy McFarland, the captain, phoned Mackay and told him: “Don’t come Dave, we don’t want you. We’re going to force them to bring Brian back.”
Strangely, having witnessed it at close hand on the pitch, Mackay’s erstwhile teammate underestimated his indomitable courage and strength of character. Nobody was going to tell him what he could and couldn’t do and he took the job, strutting into a dressing room seething with disaffection with typical clenched fist disregard for any opposition. When the players threatened to go on strike he snorted and said: “I’ll field the reserves then.”
To say he experienced a difficult start is like suggesting George Best wasn’t teetotal. Clough was meeting the players in secret, agitating for a return and it was a rebellious team and crowd that “welcomed” Mackay back after little more than two years away. It was against this mutinous background that Derby failed to win any of their first eight games under new management, and it was hugely to his credit that he engineered enough of a revival for a third place finish.
Clough had left the framework of a good team [they had been champions in 1971-72] and for his second season Mackay fleshed it out with the addition of Bruce Rioch and Francis Lee, who between them scored over 50 goals in 1974-75. In tumultuous times, which saw Clough hired and fired in 44 days by Leeds and Bill Shankly quit Liverpool, Derby won the title by a two points margin, Lee contributing 33 goals in all competitions.
It was Dave’s finest hour. The Clough demons were exorcised, temporarily at least, and the players were happy again – as they are everywhere when they are winning.
As champions Derby were able to recruit from a position of strength and now they signed the supremely gifted Charlie George, from Arsenal – another brilliant addition. When they drew Real Madrid in the European Cup they were given no more than a puncher’s chance, but George responded to the big occasion with a hat-trick in the home leg, a 4-1 win inspiring euphoric scenes on a night I was privileged to witness and can still recall vividly, despite the alcoholic haze in which the night finished.
After the pride, the fall. The chink in Mackay’s managerial armour was that while he was an inspirational leader of men and knew a good player when he saw one, he was no tactician. Neither was his No 2, Des Anderson, and instead of having a plan to stymie Real in the return, at the Bernabeu, Derby were told to go out and repeat what they had done at home. They lost 5-1 and were eliminated.
It was not a one-off aberration by management. I remember Mackay’s cavalier approach [“Just go out and play, we’re better than them”] getting embarrassingly exposed on a more mundane occasion, against newly-promoted West Brom. In those days Albion had one outstanding player, Johnny Giles, who could boss any game, given the chance. Most opponents would man-mark him, but Mackay disdained the idea and the Irish playmaker was the man of the match at the Baseball Ground, making both his team’s goals in a 2-2 draw.
Dave was no disciplinarian either and knew that two of his signings, Francis Lee and Rod Thomas, could usually be found propping up the bar at the Midland hotel, opposite the station, after training or playing. Mind you, the boss could only have complained on a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do basis, having done much the same as a Derby player. As manager, too, there were occasions when I went to the ground in the morning for the “Derby Telegraph” and found him shaving in the gents toilet next to the main entrance. He would sleep in his office after a particularly convivial night out.
There were no complaints about such things in the good times, but recreational behaviour became a stick with which to beat him when results deteriorated, as they soon did.
In defence of their title, Derby finished a disappointing fourth in 1975-76 and a poor start the following season saw Mackay sacked in November 1976 and replaced briefly by his reserve team coach, Colin Murphy.
Sadly, it was a downward spiral after that, undistinguished sojourns at Walsall, Doncaster and Birmingham interspersed with lucrative spells coaching in Kuwait, Egypt and Qatar. But if Dave was bitter at the way his management career petered out you would never have guessed it. He was always good, lively company and I’m glad to say our contratemps in the Baseball Ground corridor was eventually put to bed in May 1986 when, over a glass or seven at Mortons club in London’s West End, all was explained.
Dave and a friend, Jimmy Burton, told me that night that George Graham was about to be named manager of Arsenal. I should have run the story in the “Mail on Sunday”, for whom I was working at the time, but when I phoned David Dein to check it out he said: “Joe, if you print that you are going to look very silly”, and the sports editor wouldn’t publish my “exclusive” without confirmation from the club [how times have changed].
Three days later Arsenal appointed Graham and Mackay concluded he was wasting his breath telling this mug anything!
I’m proud to say we remained friends after that and I will always treasure that key ring.
A former Chief Football Writer for The Sunday Times & The Independent, Joe Lovejoy now covers matches for The Guardian & The Observer and is an author of five books.