Sometimes in football the right path can be fraught with potholes.
So when Cardiff City manager Malky Mackay, a man whose football career has taken him from Queen’s Park to the English Premier League says he has had an enjoyable but fitful time laying down “building blocks” in Cardiff, you know he has done his fair share of peching.
“I suppose it has been a hectic summer with the way the city of Cardiff has been with changes to the stadium, training ground and squad. You have got to look at the football and this is a passionate city, but we have to be in the Premier League this time next year,” he says with a hint of steel.
With a loss, two draws and a famous win against Manchester City in Cardiff’s first four games of their first ever season in the Barclays Premier League, it is easy to understand why Mackay would want to slow down and steady himself in the Welsh capital. In his three seasons with the club he has already seen a Carling Cup final, a loss in the Championship play-offs, eventual promotion and Malaysian owner Vincent Tan changing the club’s colours. Despite this and Tan demanding a fast-tracking of promotion plans, everything has gone to plan so far.
Of course, Mackay’s introduction to football management has been no less breakneck or broadening. After a playing career that saw him leave Scotland and Celtic behind for England, he has enjoyed spells at Norwich, West Ham and Watford where he took over as manager in his first ever role upstairs.
“I got a great grounding in Watford in what were difficult circumstances,” Mackay says. “In more than five years we saw three CEOs, four boards of directors and two administrations. We were always teetering on the brink and with myself, the CEO and the director of football we were pretty much running the place day to day. It was certainly very transparent and I learned a lot from that. They showed faith in me and I had sympathy on their part; I could never ask why I couldn’t go out and buy a player for £110,000.” Looking behind the curtain of an ailing professional football club may frighten most, but Mackay believes it helped him grow quickly. So when he was asked to interview against ten other candidates at Cardiff City he was not flustered.
A methodical approach has undoubtedly helped. The age of the autocrat manager appears to be nearing an end with Arsene Wenger the last in the Premier League, but Mackay’s crisis management and trademark patience are his biggest weapons in a season where survival is the only plan.
A defender in his playing days, Mackay did not turn professional until he was 21 and received his first international caps with Scotland at the age of 32. It would seem patience is hard learned, though the one occasion he refused to stick it out has impacted hugely on his life.
“The best decision of my career was leaving Celtic,” he says. “There is a difficulty facing young Scots now, in terms of progressing. Getting a break is hard. It is the same for Scottish managers, where there are ten top management jobs. There are limited opportunities against experienced managers and even foreign managers. When I left I wasn’t playing and it was a struggle to get first-team football against top, top players at Celtic. But you want to test yourself in the best or second best league in the world. That is the challenge for Scots and it is not easy.
“It is about getting there no matter what. I always give the example of young James McCarthy: he came from the not-so-fashionable Hamilton to go to Wigan and now he is at Everton for £15 million.”
Nurturing talent is a hot topic in England at the moment after FA chairman Greg Dyke made an issue of the lack of quality English-qualified players in a recent speech.
Managers are often accused of neglecting the younger generation, but Mackay sees part of his role in Cardiff – where £10 million has gone into developing better training facilities – as rearing the next batch of Welsh footballers. While at Watford he also played a hand in supporting an academy school that offers a more personally invested experienced to potential stars, a system that has since been adopted by Celtic and the SFA.
He sees England’s current malaise and suggests that they are beginning to see the “underbelly” of their football structure. It was first seen in Scotland with cheap foreign players coming into the league, but the corner may have been turned with the need to play even cheaper, younger Scottish players. Mackay suggests the issue may be unavoidable in England with quality foreign players now dripping into the Championship.
In the top division, though, Mackay is under no illusions about the size of his task. Before coming up he spoke to eight or nine experienced managers including Sam Allardyce, who explained the need for winning games away from home. Cardiff have tough times ahead, with Tottenham Hotspur visiting tomorrow and a trip to Chelsea in mid October. However, it is the big Welsh derby with Swansea on Sunday, 3 November that excites most, the first ever in the Premier League.
“Scots and Welsh are very passionate,” says Mackay. “I’ve been fortunate enough to play in an Old Firm match, but believe me, it’s certainly not good natured down here!”