LIKE the redemption scene from a classic western, some time soon Gary Mackay-Steven might want to return to his hometown Thurso, stride into The Newmarket Bar, start pulling pints for the regulars and puff out his chest. To do so as a Celtic player would carry heavy symbolism – and spell out that he made it through, and came out the other side. Many of the punters in the hostelry, some supporters of his new club, never thought he ever would.
Mackay-Steven has previous when it comes to serving up drinks in the Newmarket. The 24-year-old did that to fill in his time after he was released by Liverpool following two injury-plagued seasons at the club’s academy in his late teens. A complete rest cure following a pelvic fracture was recommended by doctors, but all the supping regulars could see when Mackay-Steven served them was a precocious talent who left Ross County for the big time and seemed to return in no time.
“Working in the bar was funny because as the hours tick on people get drunker and drunker. They then start to say what they think,” he said. “There were definitely murmurs of: ‘what are you doing back here?’ People would say, ‘you could be doing this or that, what are you playing at?’
“But all that went in one ear and out the other. I always knew my vision and what I wanted to do. I was just waiting to feel good in myself again. Once I did I knew I’d work towards my dream again. I’m still close to a lot of people in Thurso, I have a lot of friends back there. My family are still there and I like to go home when I can. It doesn’t happen very often because it’s a camel trek from here...but I’m definitely still close to a lot of people there. I’ve been back to the pub since I used to work there but not recently. It was getting refurbished for a while but I keep in touch with the owner on Facebook and she has been wishing me well.”
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Mackay-Steven would never do the big “I am”, whatever upward mobility he enjoyed in his career, because he is simply too mannerly, too well-grounded and too pragmatic. He never felt hard done by in having to start again with Second Division side Airdrie United in early 2011, before his transformative move to Dundee United later that year. A time on Tannadice that allowed him to demonstrate the fizz, finesse and flamboyance that earned him a move to Celtic on deadline day, with £250,000 paid for the winger who had signed a pre-contract agreement three weeks ago.
“It was out of my hands [the pelvic problem], it could have happened to anyone,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to move to Liverpool at a young age – not many people do that at such a young age. Some people my age could have been at school.
“But it gave me an experience and a taste of something which I think helped make me hungrier to get back to where I feel I can be. I just, quietly, have that burning desire to climb the ladder.
“My family and my mum in particular were there for me and didn’t ever let me think too much about things. And here I am now, so it worked out okay.
“In a lot of senses maybe [I am better prepared for the Liverpool experience]. I was a young boy when I went to Liverpool but I don’t regret anything, I’d do it again if I was back there. It was an amazing experience for me.
“Football can change and you can get injuries and stuff that can change your course but, I worked my way back up, took a different path and now I’m at another massive club. Going from that [Liverpool] to dropping down levels and taking a period out of the game opens your eyes. But I never lost sight and thought I couldn’t reach the levels I feel I’m capable of. Obviously I appreciate it more now, I’m at a club like Celtic and I want to make the most of it.”
There was never any danger of Mackay-Steven failing to maximise his talent as long as his body played its part. Not when you hear him recollect what helped him rebuild his footballing ambitions. “I had an agent from a young age, David Threlfall, and I’m still with him now. He understood my decision when I said I needed to take a step back from football. But I remember speaking to David after a time out of the game and telling him I felt good again. I’d been training myself down my local park, just me and a ball, and I felt ready. It’s funny, I still do that to this day if I have a day off, go to the park myself with a ball and practice.
“I feel a bit stupid – Stewy [fellow Celtic signing Stuart Armstrong] is doing a law degree on his time off and I’m doing keepy-uppies. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop that. I like dribbling and I think I’ll always have a ball at my feet, no matter what.”