IT ISN’T game time that has earned Gary Mackay-Steven a young player of the year nomination; it’s show time. The Dundee United winger is “taken aback” that his fellow professionals feel he has done enough to make the four-strong shortlist.
The 23-year-old’s surprise can be attributed to the fact that his season has amounted to only 25 appearances – the meagre total explained by long absences owing to a knee problem and hand fracture. Another figure, though, better explains the trickster, flickster and arch ball manipulator Mackay-Steven’s popularity with his peers. The YouTube hits for his most audacious acts of artistry number in excess of one million. Yet, the reputation that now precedes him carries with it an inherent danger of which he is fully aware.
“I want to be known as someone who does have an end product, someone who scores goals and helps the team – not just a show pony or whatever,” he says. “Yeah, it’s a part of my game but I want to be someone who can impact games. Goals and assists are what count in the end. That’s what I’m looking for and to contribute as much to the team as possible by impacting on as many games as possible.”
And while constant viewings of the “Gaz getaway” he famously produced at McDiarmid Park last season or the “Mackay-Steven makeover” that allowed him to keepy-uppy his way past several Kilmarnock players at Rugby Park the other month mean the camera has been kind to him, the attacker has shunned the lens to avoid being turned into a circus performer of a player.
“People have come up wanting me to do tricks media-wise, TV appearances and that, and people have wanted me to explain how I do my tricks and what names I’ve got for them. But the names? It’s not me that’s named them. Maybe for a private joke, but that’s been blown out of proportion,” he says.
The entertainment value that the impeccably-mannered young man from Thurso offers hasn’t been blown out of proportion. He is a captivating watch because you never know what form the juggle-and-jink will take that he might employ to make his way past his marker. Mackay-Steven admits he doesn’t always know either. All he does know is that he has always given free rein to this off-the-cuff creativity, always been encouraged to do so from schoolboy level through to his time on the books of Liverpool, Airdrie United and now United and – crucially – always will.
“I like to take people on and try new things,” he says. “It’s great to get recognition for that and I can hopefully continue down that road. I do maybe try silly things in games. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There’s a few times I’ve tried things and it’s gone out the park or taken a bad touch. But that comes with the territory. I’d like to think the punters would forgive me one or two of them after the ones that do come off.
“When I was younger, Ronaldinho and Ronaldo were the sort of players I’d always watched. People who dribbled with the ball. It must have been from that I wanted to have a ball at my feet and dribble round things, try new things. I just kept on doing that. I practiced dribbling a lot, different wee tricks but when I set out on the park it’s just instinct. I don’t plan to do things when it happens. It’s just nice when it comes off.”
It says much about the straight-up nature of the professional fraternity in Scotland that Mackay-Steven’s fondness for what could be unfavourably termed showboating hasn’t resulted in ridiculed opponents setting out to sink him with sledging. “I’ve never come across players saying stuff that they’re going to do [to me],” he says.
Not that retribution hasn’t been dished out in uncompromising fashion. “I’ve had a few bumps and bruises the day after the games. I’m a winger, I like to commit defenders and keep the ball so I bring that upon myself. There’s going to be challenges coming in,” he says. “I’d never change my game, though. My game is looking to beat my man all the time so you can’t go into it with any fear of being hurt.”
In his two years at Tannadice, Mackay-Steven has ben able to go out to the pitch without fear of upsetting his managers if daring to be outrageously flamboyant.
“It is a big thing that I was lucky enough to have Peter Houston, who was all for my style of play, wanted me to get on the ball as much as possible and express myself,” he says.
“Now Jackie McNamara has come in and Simon Donnelly, Darren Jackson they’ve just maybe even given me a little bit more freedom. They want me to express myself all the time which is great to hear. It helps when I step out on the park to know I’ve got the licence to do that.”
It will help United’s case next season. For even though Mackay-Steven has many admirers down south, and enjoyed his season’s highlight when called up to the Scotland squad by Gordon Strachan, he is settled and happy on Tayside. “I’m looking to play as much as possible and keep improving at United,” he says.
And, it is safe to say, keep wowing on the web.