Aidan Smith: Dave Mackay was hard, but not dirty

Dave Mackay, pictured after captaining Hearts to the Scottish title in record-breaking style in season 1957-58. Picture: Contributed
Dave Mackay, pictured after captaining Hearts to the Scottish title in record-breaking style in season 1957-58. Picture: Contributed
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HIS charging around a football field long finished, Dave Mackay liked to rest those famously chunky legs and watch his favourite TV programmes. The set was housed within an incredibly ornate cabinet – an inducement for him to coach in the Middle East – which looked more like something you’d find in Kanye West’s pad and would have intimidated many, but not this great old man who wasn’t scared of anything. “So what do you like?” I asked when interviewing him a few years ago. “Loose Women!” he said with an impish grin. But one show he’d caught a few nights previously vexed him a great deal.

“It was called something like Britain’s Dirtiest Footballers,” he told me, “and I was at number four, just behind Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris and Norman ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter.” Mackay felt he’d been grossly misrepresented. “I may have been hard,” he added, “but I wasn’t dirty.”

Something like Britain’s Dirty Footballers, or maybe Now That’s What I Call Tackling or Let’s All Wince and Laugh at Football in the Old Days. Look at all that mud! The dangerous swaying of the crowds! The bog-rolls unfurling over the crossbars! The kung-fu thuggery! These programmes, I would guess, are compiled by young researchers in thrall to Sky Sports who think the football they watch now is far more sophisticated.

They’re too young to know that in the 1960s and 1970s lots of players clattered into each other, not just those with panto nicknames – it was the norm. They may also be unaware that not all games back then were filmed, so rating football’s ultra-violence is not an exact science. Oh, and I’d also pick them up on the sophistication aspect because all those unreconstructed years ago we never heard about players spitting.

Maybe the researchers dug up a bad Mackay tackle; he didn’t say he never made any, rather: “If someone deliberately whacked me I’d whack them back.” Some players were bullies, a trait he abhorred. “I always stood up to bullies, right from the school playground,” he said. Or maybe the programme’s compilers simply relied on a still photograph, the Monte Fresco shot of Mackay grabbing a handful of Billy Bremner and growling at him.

There’s cartoon venom in this picture, as if the Bash Street Kids’ beak is dealing with the most disruptive pupil in a way teachers can’t anymore. Mackay had been riled by Bremner deliberately hacking him on the leg he’d just recovered from breaking and he came to hate the photo’s overuse. “I’m delighted to be in Scotland’s Hall of Fame,” he told me, “but it’s sad that’s the image you see of me.”

If a footballer gets a bad rep it can be impossible to shake off. No matter how hard he tries, no matter how historic or plain insubstantial the evidence against him. On the night Spurs were mourning Mackay’s passing in London, another tough, no-nonsense and, he would claim, misunderstood Scot was involved in an incident 100 miles up the M1 which sent him to the top of the charts for the most yellow cards in Premier League.

I read about Alan Hutton’s misdemeanour before I saw it, how he’d been lucky to escape a red for his “studs-up assault” on Saido Berahino’s groin in the Midlands derby between Aston Villa and West Brom. While Hutton has his defenders, according to one English broadsheet, who believe him to be an honest and committed footballer, “some see him as a liability, possibly one of the dirtiest players in the Premier League”.

Then I watched my recording of the highlights on Match of the Day. Hutton’s studs are up but he’s trying to connect with the ball. He misses and there’s a second movement, almost as if he’s saying – which I’m sure he isn’t – “Well, now that I’m in this vicinity I might as well follow through ever so slightly.” But I’d rate the challenge naughty rather than nasty and, tellingly, there was no rewind by the pundits afterwards, as if they deemed it a piece of standard derby feistiness, nothing more, whereas the spitting in the Newcastle-Manchester United game was much discussed. The worst thing a player can do, said Phil Neville. Something’s got to be done, intoned Dietmar Hamann gravely.

Hutton gets a bad rep. Publication of the most-yellows table doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s another table of the players who’ve committed the most fouls this season and our man is well down the list with 18, almost half the 36 notched up by Spurs’ Danny Rose at the top of the heap. Neither table can be termed a foolproof indicator of dirty play, but surely the number of fouls is more of one, given that bookings can be for dissent and suchlike (though not for having a shaved heid and loads of tattoos, which probably don’t do Hutton any favours in terms of PR but aren’t actual offences).

Are Hutton’s challenges seriously more ferocious than those of Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic or Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross? I doubt it. Also, he seems to get a hard time compared to others, so while he can be difficult to love it’s easy to have sympathy for him. Google Hutton and you can find a story based round a clip from when he arrived at Real Mallorca on loan. He’s standing next to a furry mascot. A ball rolls into shot and he makes a vague attempt to stop it. This is enough for the report to point out that the player had not featured much for Villa – “and on this evidence it’s clear why”.

Readers weren’t altogether sure this had been questing journalism. “Rude and abusive – Hutton must be glad to see the back of the UK,” said one in the comments box. Another asked: “Who writes this trash?”

Well, Hutton was loaned out a few times and it looked like his Villa career was over, but in the words of his manager at Bolton he showed “big enough bollocks” to earn another opportunity.

While he sits out a ban for aiming a boot at someone else’s bollocks, Hutton may have to muster similar strength of character if he’s to impress Villa’s new boss and convince him he isn’t a liability – and the very best of luck to him with that.

Of course he isn’t Dave Mackay – no one else comes close.


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