Interview: Gary Mackay on why football isn’t the be all and end all

Hearts legend Gary Mackay enjoyed a fulfilling career but has also found a rewarding occupation away from football. Picture: Scott Louden.

Hearts legend Gary Mackay enjoyed a fulfilling career but has also found a rewarding occupation away from football. Picture: Scott Louden.

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Scotland’s first-ever meeting with Malta – and their 500th international all told – would bring Gary Mackay’s brief international career to an end, although he didn’t know this at the time. “Soon after, Hearts played Celtic and Billy Stark broke my jaw. He made a very good job of it,” smiles the Gorgie record-appearance legend. “And a wee while later Gordon Hunter broke it again in an Edinburgh derby and he did an expert job, too.”

That 1988 friendly in the Ta’Qali 
Stadium, where Gordon Strachan’s team will begin another World Cup campaign tomorrow, made it four “fairly meaningless” games in a row for Mackay, with the two Euro qualifiers inconsequential as far as Scotland were concerned, although his goal to beat Bulgaria and send the Republic of Ireland to their first major tournament made him a hero in Dublin resulting in chat show and chicken commercial fame.

But, apart from the fact his injury ruled him out of the chance to play against England at Wembley, you won’t hear Mackay, 52, complaining as he was thrilled to get the caps he did. “Not bad,” he says, “for a laddie from Balgreen Primary and Tynecastle High.”

We’ve met for a coffee not a 
million miles from these schools, his beloved Jambos’ HQ and the terraced house where he grew up, and I’m running through the team for that 1-1 draw with the 
Maltese: Jim Leighton, Stevie Clarke, 
Maurice Malpas, Derek Ferguson, Alex McLeish, Willie Miller, Himself, Roy Aitken, Ally McCoist, Graeme Sharp, Ian Durrant. “Crikey,” he says, “there must have been quite a few call-offs for me to have got into that company.

“Listen, whatever your profession I think you have to have a realistic view of yourself and when I left Salvesen Boys’ Club at 16 I couldn’t have foreseen me one day playing for Scotland. 
Never mind the experienced guys in situ, the most prodigious talent in central midfield at that time was Paul McStay, a guy who was starring for Scotland Under-15s at 13 and whose ability gets underplayed now. Yes, I could have a dream of pulling on a Scotland strip. It involved Paul getting injured and me replacing him at half-time. Funnily enough against Bulgaria that’s exactly what happened.”

Mackay is a modest soul about whom you can find a Shoot!-style player profile from the year of the Malta match when he revealed his car was a Ford Sierra, his favourite meal was chicken tikka masala and that after he was done with football he fancied running a pub.

The bar was opened – the Centre Spot in Morrison Street – with my Hibernian-supporting taxi-driver for this rendezvous keen to tell me that on the few occasions when Hibs beat Hearts in the 1980s and 1990s, his Easter Road boozer would call up Mackay’s hostelry hoping the man himself would answer so they could sing songs of celebration down the phone to him. But if pub owner is a traditional occupation for an ex-footballer, at least for his generation, then the job he does right now is surprising and fascinating.

Mackay is a residential care worker at the Harmeny School in Balerno on Edinburgh’s western outskirts which looks after children with complex emotional and behavioural needs. “I get a huge buzz out of it,” he explains. “The kids, boys and girls, are aged between six and 13. They’re referred to us by social work departments all over Scotland because of having 
chaotic backgrounds through neglect or abuse.

“I first got involved with the school seven years ago when I was asked to hand over a Variety Club minibus to the trust which runs it. I found the place intriguing and started putting on fun and fitness sessions with the kids which turned into part-time work which turned into me studying for an HNC in social care.

“It’s a hugely rewarding job. I’ve been full-time for four years and I work with some magnificent people who’ve been doing it for four times as long and are nothing short of heroic. I even include my head of care in that and he’s a massive Hibby!

“I wish I’d been involved in this kind of thing when I was playing football. I get as much joy out of Harmeny as I ever did from winning three points with Hearts. That comes from something so simple and so important as having a good day with these kids and leaving them with smiles on their faces.”

Mackay’s desire to have combined such worthwhile work with football stems from the guilt of how the game dominated his life to the exclusion of everything else. I get a sense of this reading up on him beforehand. His old manager, Alex MacDonald, with whom he was seven minutes from winning the Premier Division in 1986, writes in the preface to Mackay’s autobiography how the player was sometimes “too serious” and wishes he could have relaxed more. In an interview for 
Scotland on Sunday in 1990 Mackay confessed: “Football is too much of my life. I wish I had an interest like John Colquhoun, whatever you think of the Labour Party [passionate about left-wing politics, his Tynecastle team-mate even contemplated becoming an MP]. My interest outside of playing for Hearts is watching Hearts reserves.”

There’s a wry smile from him when I read out these quotes, and when we discuss the selfishness of sportsmen and particularly footballers, which sometimes gets explained away by their single-minded determination to succeed. “I wish I knew back when I was playing what I know now,” he says. “I wish I knew how important it was to have a balance between work and the rest of your life. I’ve certainly learned from the job I’m doing now how selfish I was back then, and the answer is ‘very’.”

This selfishness ultimately cost Mackay his marriage to wife Vicky, mother of his sons Ryan and Nicholas. The couple divorced in 2000 and Vicky, who suffered from a heart condition, died a few years later. Football was all-consuming for Mackay and if his team lost or he had a poor game then family life suffered. “It was everyone else’s fault. Was I difficult to live with? I was an absolute pain in the arse. But it was my fault if I’d had a shite game. I couldn’t blame it on what I’d been given for breakfast. That was an ignorance of other people; I know that now.” Mackay pays tribute to his late wife for her bravery and also her civility in dealing with their split; if the roles had been reversed and she had been the instigator he would not have handled it so well. His relationship with his sons has suffered but he adds: “Hopefully it’s getting better.”

Mackay wasn’t always selfish. Courted by top English clubs at the start of his career, he elected to join Hearts because his mother Sandra had just been diagnosed with cancer. Burnley sat him down in their heated stand – paid for by Martin Dobson’s transfer to Everton – to relate their big plans for him. Arsenal offered him a £20,000 signing-on fee. At Manchester United the lad was introduced to legends – and the dummies in the defensive-wall gizmo at the training complex, a rarity in the game back then. “And I gave all of that up for head-tennis in the brown gymnasium at Tynie!” he laughs.

Ah, but not just the brown gymnasium. Reserve player Jim Docherty flogged the young Jambo prospects – John Robertson and Dave Bowman among them – coke and Mars bars from the back of his car although that service was stopped when the management duo of MacDonald and Sandy Jardine set about making Hearts as fit as their old Rangers team.

But Hearts were no consolation prize for Mackay; they were absolutely his team. As he puts it: “I’ve been hugely fortunate to have been a tiny part of the history of a wonderful football club.” The love affair began at the 1968 Scottish Cup final although almost didn’t. The car windscreen smashed en route and his granny and auntie wanted to turn back for Edinburgh, but the wailing from the four-year-old in the back seat forced his father Peter, a Hibby incidentally, to press on for Hampden. Mackay would play 737 times in maroon utilising more or less the same high emotion.

Both his parents are still alive, Sandra beating her illness, and when he officially became a Jambo the club helped him send them to Paris for a weekend break. Mackay invited his pals round to the family home for a party which got slightly out of hand, one reveller leaving his body shape in a hedge and Pernod being spilled on a rug. But the friendships survived and the same gang all got together to celebrate turning 50 in a more mature fashion.

Did he ever regret not taking the plunge at Old Trafford or old Highbury?

“No. I’m a homebird anyway but I think I would have got lost [at a big English club]. The way the cards fell allowed me to have a career that was greatly fulfilling, albeit that I didn’t win a major trophy.” Hearts’ most famous display of non-winning – maybe the most notorious in the entire history of Scottish football – was of course blowing the title 30 years ago at Dens Park. Mackay has always said he’ll never get over that day, and the following Saturday when the team lost the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen wasn’t much better. “Alex Ferguson and his senior players commiserated with us before the game. ‘You were unlucky last week, lads,’ they said. Unless that was them planting wee seeds of doubt in our heads, in which case it was brilliant psychology.”

Tonight Mackay will be at a big Hibs celebration: the testimonial dinner for Lewis Stevenson. “I love The Proclaimers but I’m not sure how much I’m going to enjoy seeing the Scottish Cup festooned with green and white ribbons,” he groans. Mackay, in partnership with Bert Logan, his pull-ups tyrant from the brown gymnasium, retains his old job of footballer’s agent and client Paul Hanlon has persuaded the pair to buy tickets, although Mackay applauds Stevenson for his loyal service to one club like himself who’s persevered through all the 
setbacks, some at the hands of the 
Jambos.

As that Balgreen schoolboy Mackay suffered plenty of disappointments in Edinburgh derbies for in the 1970s Hibs dominated them. “I was at the 7-0 game,” he whispers, “although I left when Hibs got to five. The Hibee side of the family had been invited round to our house after the game for a New Year party, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I was quickly off to bed.”

When he started playing Mackay was determined to re-order the history of Auld Reekie football, maybe too much so. “I was substituted in my first derby soaking in sweat having contributed precisely nothing, then watched as we came back from 2-1 down to win through Robbo and 
Jimmy Bone.

“Sandy sat me down in the office on the Monday and told me I’d tried to play for every Hearts fan in the stadium, which was never going to work.” His second derby went better. “Played 54 of them,” he says in a louder voice. “Twenty-three wins, 23 draws, eight defeats and two unbeaten runs of 21 and 17 games.” And they call Robbo Ceefax, the official statistician of all that Jambo supremacy!

Mackay, it goes without saying, loved the derbies more than anything. “I loved them most at Easter Road and would warm up in front of the Hibs fans with a smile on my face, using all their merry abuse to psyche myself up.” Sometimes he was over-psyched. “When you’ve only been sent off four times in your career and three have come against your biggest rivals then you maybe haven’t handled your emotions particularly well.”

Did he ever want Hearts to hit seven goals and avenge the 1973 game? “That would have been nice. Once we got to four and I scored one of them. Unfortunately I scored an o.g. as well.” Hearts ruled in the derby because of the resilience instilled in them by Jardine and MacDonald, two born winners who liked to leave their dressing-room door open for the capital clashes so “Hearts, Hearts, Glorious Hearts” and My Way were heard loud and clear. He thinks Hibs, in their determination to break the sequences, eventually went at the derbies with the same mad-eyed frenzy he’d displayed in his first one, which was just as counter-productive for them. And he wonders if Alex Miller, the Hibs manager, was somewhat daunted by the two men in the opposing dugout having had glorious careers at a club where he’d been a sturdy utility man.

What was the on-field banter like in the derbies? A sheepish grin, then he says: “Walter Kidd and I were probably the worst for that. With some Hibbies near us I’d maybe say to him: ‘It’s looking like one of these games, Wattie, where all we’ll see is their arses disappearing down the tunnel because they won’t want to shake hands with us.’ But I wouldn’t have blamed the likes of Kano [Paul Kane], Mickey [Weir] and Gordon [Hunter] for not hanging about. They were big Hibs fans who absolutely hated losing to us.”

Then the Jambo domination would be broken and Mackay was the one doing the bolting. “When Gordon scored at Tynie and they won I got sent off. Was I getting the hell out of the place so I didn’t have to shake his hand? Oh probably. But Gordon was a great competitor who also had a coolness about him; I was probably a bit less subtle. Do you know that years later – long after the jaw-break and everything – we got up and sang together? It was in the Dean Hotel and the song was These Boots Are Made for Walkin, which was appropriate for Gordon because he’d have walked over anybody to win a game. There was mutual respect between us that night, even if the singing was terrible.”

MacDonald and Jardine, whom he reveres, set up Hearts to win every game. Mackay’s issue with Craig Levein, Tynecastle’s director of football, is that when his former team-mate has been involved at Hearts either as a manager or in this role, the side have been less attractive to watch and more concerned about not losing. He claimed recently that the current team bore his imprint more than that of manager Robbie Neilson and maintains this view despite them going on to win their next two games. The pair, as you might have guessed, are not bosom buddies.

Mackay still supports Hearts with a passion so will always speak up for them, but they’re not the be all and end all for him anymore. “I have a better acknowledgement of life now,” is the way he puts it as he heads back to his school for the night shift, hoping for another bright, smiley morning.

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