NO-ONE ever said it was going to be easy for Malky Mackay, the first manager of Cardiff City in the English top flight for 51 years.
Not when little has seemed straightforward for the Welsh club in recent decades. The difficulties encountered by the 41-year-old proud Scot, however, were supposed to be in the fixture list. Champions Manchester United visit south Wales today, with Premier League leaders Arsenal following six days later.
Mackay enthuses about the “exposure and excitement” these “on the telly” games generate for the club and its followers. He admits there was a cluster of matches involving the “big six” that no one at Cardiff could avoid sneaking a peak at when the computer pumped out the schedule. And, in the most dramatic circumstances, his team wrote themselves new pages in the club’s folklore with two of them. The 3-2 win over Manchester City in their first home game and then, last month, in seeing off bitter rivals Swansea City 1-0 in a Welsh derby into which the country’s football populace seemed to pour 51 years’ worth of anticipation and animosity. “When we scored, the atmosphere was sensational. I realise how important it is to people here and, as soon as we were promoted a couple of months before the end of the season, the build-up started,” Mackay says, having been well schooled in footballing enmity courtesy of the five years the former defender spent at Celtic in the mid-1990s.
Landmark victories aside, Mackay’s team have gathered enough points to allow their manager of two and a half years to be “really happy” with his side in what is often a savage environment for newcomers.
Yet it is not the sure-footed manoeuvring of Mackay and his team that have made Cardiff a club feverishly debated this season. The publicity has been generated by the promptings of owner Vincent Tan. The Malaysian businessman seems to belong to one of those sharply tone-shifting fairytales. With Cardiff threatened by administration, and beginning to creak under the weight of historical debt, Tan and associates appeared three and a half years ago. Unsure even of the rules of the game, Tan promised riches that would deliver Cardiff to a land of plenty. And he made good on those promises. His investment is now believed to stand at £100 million, and, courtesy of a £30m outlay, the Welsh club were the seventh biggest spenders in the English top flight during the close season. Never mind that, in the process, he changed the Bluebirds’ kit to red, and the club crest to a fire-breathing dragon.
More worryingly for Mackay, there have been accusations this past month that the businessman is seeking to make demands over substitutions and is meddling in other aspects of the manager’s remit, including Tan’s decision to jettison the club’s director of recruitment Iain Moody and replace him with Alisher Apsalyamov. The 23-year-old Kazakh was with the club on work experience in the summer and was friends with Tan’s son. He was refused a work visa and so now the position is vacant. Moody, though, has not remained out of work.
“I was very disappointed with what happened to Iain and said at the time that our loss would be some other club’s gain. That club is Crystal Palace, with Iain having gone there,” Mackay says. The episode was interpreted as the Cardiff manager having been undermined, his position destabilised. But he reasserted his authority in the only way open to him, by guiding his team to that win over Swansea. Mackay is too straight and too sensible to become embroiled in a public spat with his owner, whose investment he “respects”.
“I am very proud to be manager of Cardiff City, I know what the club means to a people, and what it means culturally. When I first came here two and a half years ago, we only had ten players. Cardiff were the nearly men. We were top of the league throughout last year’s Championship and people kept asking if we were going to blow it. We didn’t and the scenes in the city when we celebrated the title win, and what that meant after 51 years, will always live with me.
“What I am doing now is focusing completely on the squad of players I have assembled. Let’s just say I have a steely determination to ensure I will be able to sit and talk to you in a year’s time as manager of a Cardiff City firmly bedding in to the Premier League.”
Even without Tan, the position Mackay finds himself isn’t one of those fabled for job security. Managers of newly-promoted teams to the English top tier have had a hideously short shelf life in recent times. Mackay though, is no naive novice.
“I am well aware of this aspect of the job,” he says. “I go into this with my eyes wide open. But I have belief in what I do and feel that, if you go about your business properly and correctly, your chances of succeeding are better than not. This game isn’t easy. Almost 70 per cent of first-time managers fail in the first year and never manage again, but I’ve come through that.”
Mackay seemed born for his current role. “It has always been my passion, my love. I was steeped in the game from the age of six, when I would be hanging around Hampden with my dad [Malky senior]. He’s now been involved in Queen’s Park for 50 years, which I can’t believe. I can’t believe either people saying I’m getting to share a resemblance. I hope I’m not that eccentric yet.”
Junior’s football career also began at Queen’s Park, his amateur status meaning he had a day job in the Bank of Scotland. He took a route into Celtic which was different from most of his contemporaries. “I never took being full-time, at Celtic Park, for granted,” he says. “And, because of what a chance it game me, I never wanted to give it up easily.”
Mackay was 30, and then with Norwich City, when he started to take his coaching badges, “but you never know where that takes you. It is all sliding doors moments in football”. Having helped Norwich, West Ham and Watford to the Premier League, Aidy Boothroyd allowed Mackay to move on to the backroom team at Vicarage Road. Management beckoned and, as he seeks to learn and grow, Mackay prides himself that he now works with both the English FA and the Scottish FA on coaching courses.
These cannot teach you how to cope with some of the scenarios that have reared up for Mackay of late but he assesses his team and believes he is justifying his position. For Mackay considers “a manager will ultimately be judged in terms of the transfer budget at his disposal. Recruitment is everything”.
Perhaps that is why Moody’s loss proved so personally wounding. Unexplained by Tan, there have been some suggestions the owner felt budgets had been exceeded in paying a club record £9.5m for Chilean midfielder Gary Medel, and £8m for Spurs defender Steven Caulker. Were the pair to be sold again tomorrow, though, Cardiff could make three times their original investment.
“I have been at this club when we couldn’t afford £150,000 for a player and had to beg, steal and borrow them. I don’t take spending any money lightly and will always do so prudently and after doing my homework. We judged Medel as a player who could come in and make a difference and he has done that. Last week at Wembley [playing for Chile against England], he had the most touches and most completed passes of any player on the pitch. We are talking about a guy going to the World Cup, who has 55 caps and was lauded by all the top Spanish players when with Sevilla. As with Caulker, we were in the right place at the right time to bring in such talent and I think we can be pleased to have brought that calibre of player to Cardiff.”
Caulker, of course, was talked about as a possible Scotland convert the other week, with it emerging he had a Scottish granny. “I think someone took a flier there because I had never heard a thing about that until it was in the papers,” Mackay says. “He has his heart set on playing for England for years to come. He has already scored for them in a friendly, don’t forget. Much as I would love it to be otherwise.”