Interview: Dave Mackinnon on the time Rangers met Saddam Hussein

Oh no, not another one! I can hear you groan, I can sense you turning the page. You're fed up of me telling you about footballers who after they've stopped playing become novelists, write political thrillers, and grapple with nothing less than '¨Armageddon itself. Well, I think this guy's a bit different'¦
Dave McKinnon with a copy of his novel, written under the pen name Nat Donaldson. Picture: John DevlinDave McKinnon with a copy of his novel, written under the pen name Nat Donaldson. Picture: John Devlin
Dave McKinnon with a copy of his novel, written under the pen name Nat Donaldson. Picture: John Devlin

“What do you reckon?” says Dave Mackinnon, ex-Rangers and Partick Thistle. “Should I change his name? I’ve changed the name of America’s president but the bloke I’ve got running North Korea is called Kim Jong Un. I mean, I don’t want an Exocet 
coming down my chimney.”

We’re in Glasgow on a sunny afternoon and it doesn’t look like the world’s about to end, not really. What prompted such apocalyptic thoughts in McKinnon? Was it playing alongside Gregor Stevens and Colin McAdam in the Gers defence of the early 1980s? All will be revealed but, then again, maybe not. A good novelist will always want to leave us suspensefully dangling over the metaphorical clifftop.

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Mackinnon, 62, first told me about his fiction-writing aspirations two years ago when we were both guests on Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball. We’d just thrilled 
Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan with a collaborative effort in a skit seeking the best name for a bathroom-themed footballer – Toley Andrex Overflow – and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Mackinnon clearly enjoyed mucking about with words and had an idea for a book about a group of friends who meet up again after many years and and slip into their former positions in the pecking order – at first, anyway – even though the old de facto leader has underachieved woefully and the lad who used to be the butt of all the jokes has become a brilliant success.

An intriguing scenario, Mackinnon called his tale The Crowd and he completed it, though he wasn’t driven by a desire to be published, at least not then. “Writing that book was therapy for me,” he says. “I’d been headhunted to Scotland’s largest independent pub company, having been ten years with various brewers, but this outfit were trading underwater and it was my job to sort them out. That was incredibly demanding, put a lot of of strain on me and caused the break-up of my marriage. I was in there at ten o’clock one night trying to balance the books when a friend phoned: ‘You need an escape,’ he said. ‘I know,’ I thought to myself, “I’ll write a book.’”

Not your traditional idea of football man recuperative downtime, perhaps, so Glasgow-born Mackinnon, a doughty defender for seven clubs and a dad-of-three who’s happily remarried to Judith and can currently be heard punditising on the Rocksport radio station, has a go at explaining where it comes from. “I think it’s within me. At school English was my favourite subject. I remember a summer camp at Gorebridge where everyone had to keep a diary. Mine won the prize and I got to read an extract in front of 400 kids, which was a big thrill.

“My school mates called me ‘Reverend’,” he continues with a chuckle, “because in Religious Education I once got 99 per cent in an exam.” This wasn’t Mackinnon’s only nickname and we’ll come to why he also answered to 
“Skippy” shortly (note: that last word’s a clue). “When I went to Arsenal as a 16-year-old my parents insisted I 
continued with my learning so I enrolled at Southgate College for an A-level in English. I loved Shakespeare. When the class got to visit the Globe Theatre I was engrossed. But I didn’t tell the other Arsenal boys. I was the only Scot in the youth team and I don’t think being called Macbeth would have done me any good.”

It’s one of football’s sacred tenets that a player who knows even just a smidgen more about geopolitics than the average Love Island contestant must be addressed as “Mastermind” or “Einstein” or “Brain of Britain”. Mackinnon laughs some more as he recalls the airport rituals at Rangers before European trips. “I’ve always been a keen reader and in those days I probably would have gone to the bookstall for a Desmond Bagley. My team-mates would be like: ‘What are you 
daein’ wi’ that?’ They took their reading material off the top shelf.”

Mackinnon has read everything in his favourite author’s oeuvre – there’s a word I’ve been trying to get into the Saturday Interview for quite some time – and attempted to replicate 
Baggers’ fast-paced thrills in his first novel proper, The Pyongyang Treaty, which he self-publishes this summer.

Written under the pseudonym Nat Donaldson (his grandfather’s name), the book has America and North Korea at loggerheads, which was happening for real late last year as Mackinnon was completing it. He bases his story round six people from across the continents – all born on 23 May, 1982 and including a linguist, a plastic surgeon and a computer wizard with ADHD – whose paths must cross if peace is to be won.

He loves writing, the power he holds over his characters, and recalls how The Crowd was inspired by the prospect of his own old pals reunion: “I’d decided that book was going to be about the joys of male bonding, an upbeat story but, when I went along to the event, these guys rounded on me: ‘What are you doing splitting up from your wife? You’ve had it easy in life, becoming a footballer. We all looked up to you and you’ve let us down.’ I went straight home and sent the book in a different direction altogether. I made the guys drug dealers and and mules and there was a bit of murder – and I made myself the hero.”

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Since hanging up his boots, Mackinnon’s life has returned him to the game in business roles at Dundee, Kilmarnock and Hamilton Accies, but has also taken him round the world, providing insights which he’s used in the new book. “When I was in sports management I worked a lot in China, helped take snooker and rallying there. I was invited to a banquet and met some North Koreans, not the kind of people you see every day. They told me about the culture of fear in their country, how your neighbour might be an informant waiting for you to say something anti-government. At the banquet there were endless toasts with £1,500 bottles of cognac – the Chinese like to show off their wealth. I was to make a speech which had to be approved. I wrote it about friendship, mentioning how much Rangers had enjoyed hosting a challenge match against the China national team a few years previously. The speech took three days to come back to me, with the score changed from 8-0 to Rangers to a more respectable 3-1. I was officially censored.”

But if you’re still surprised that an ex-footballer has delved into writing about the turmoil in the world, consider this: Mackinnon has encountered Saddam Hussein, this during the Iran-Iraq War, and the Shah of the former country when it was Persia. Both times on football duty, both hair-raising experiences.

He explains: “In 1985 Stuart Rafferty hit a shot from 40 yards into the top corner for Dundee to knock Rangers out of the Scottish Cup and suddenly we had a free weekend. There was a call at night: ‘Be at the club at 9am tomorrow – we’re going on tour.’ It was the Middle East, first stop Iraq. I think my team-mates thought they would meet Ali Baba. They didn’t know there was a war going on. Rangers got, I think, £25,000 for making the trip, not a lot when you’re putting players’ lives on the line.

“Later we were going to Jordan and Kuwait but first there was a double header against the Iraqi national team. Our hotel was right in the middle of Baghdad. On the bus transfer Ally McCoist spotted soldiers on rooftops and said: ‘Look they’ve got Johnny 
Sevens.’ But these weren’t toys; they were anti-aircraft guns. At night Basra was being bombed 100 miles away but we could hear the explosions.

“The Iraqis were decent: fast and tricky. There was a huge crowd for the first game and when Hugh Burns kicked their winger up in the air they went mental. [Manager] Jock Wallace hauled Hugh off and roared at him: ‘That was bloody stupid. Don’t you know Saddam’s in the stand. You’ve probably started World War Three.’

“We all met Saddam later. Everyone was in the hotel pool when we were summoned indoors. We had to line up to shake his hand. He gave each of us a gold pen and said: ‘Go back to Scotland tell your people that Iraqis are peace-loving and Iran are the aggressors.’ It was sweltering hot in the room and everyone wanted to get back in the pool. I don’t think any of us properly realised who he was. Footballers are like that. They travel the world and meet lots of dignitaries and often their amazing life passes them by.”

Ten years before, Mackinnon had been in Tehran with the Arsenal colts including Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton in an unofficial underage World Cup which sounds like it was the luxury train-set of the Shah’s son. The organiser of the tournament, he found a place for them when every other team represented a country because he was a big Gunners fan.

“We saw some grim sights on the streets: kids on bogeys with no legs, begging. Our interpreter actually told us children had limbs amputated by their parents to boost their chances of collecting a few coppers. The poverty was such that people were letting go their pets. The dogs were turning feral and attacking people. So the authorities put a bounty on them being killed. We saw dogs strung up on telegraph wires to verify deaths. And there was one thing these two trips had in common: in both Iraq and Persia as was, the crowd control was the same. The police would wade in with these 
bamboo weapons and split some heads open to restore order. The Arsenal boys got to the final and there were 110,000 at the game.”

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The attendance at Ibrox for Rangers vs Partick Thistle on 23 May 1979 was rather smaller: a mere 2,000 according to the match reports. Note the date: it’s the birthday of Mackinnon’s world-
saving sextet, also his own. He was playing for Thistle, trying to mark Davie Cooper. The figure was dubbed the lowest-ever Govan gathering although was hotly disputed by Willie Waddell, then Rangers’ managing director. Mackinnon would join the Light Blues in 1982. Rangers wouldn’t hoist the league flag in the four seasons he was there. A less than triumphal period
in the club’s history, then, but an 
eventful one for our man with plenty of incidental comedy and when he’s finished with geopolitics surely he’ll write his football story.

He remembers the day STV reported his football obituary. “In a game for Thistle I was kicked in the back. My health deteriorated and I lost two stone. I was diagnosed with tuberculosis and needed a kidney removed. 
Scotsport said my career was over but I was like: ‘No, it’s not.’” This was confirmed with the dream move for this Rangers fan and especially his father Willie.

“Everton wanted me but Dad said he wouldn’t speak to me again if I didn’t go to Ibrox. John Greig was the manager. I told him that Everton were offering me £700 a week. ‘Everyone’s on £250 here, son,’ he said. Then he went: ‘Let’s go and see the trophy room; we’ve just won the League Cup. Let’s take a walk up the tunnel. Where did you stand as a boy again? Let’s go there.’ After the tour I was like: ‘Ach, give me the pen.’ Dad was thrilled. He was senior engineer at Babcock’s in Renfrew and the next day everyone clapped him into work.”

In Mackinnon’s debut season Rangers went on a long unbeaten run which included the home leg of a Uefa Cup tie against Cologne whose goalkeeper was Harald Schumacher, possibly the most hated man in football for his World Cup poleaxing of Patrick Battiston. “Before the game I was warming up on the cinder track and he was kicking the ball against the enclosure wall. Just as I passed he scudded one off my face. We fell on the ground scrapping and Peter McCloy had to separate us. Round two came during the game. We went at it Kung Fu-style. The ref said: 
“Now gentleman, no more fighting. Play nice.’

“In the build-up to the return the German papers were bad-mouthing us. One said: ‘Rangers are animals and Mackinnon the full-back would kick a rabbit if it crossed his path.’ The night before the game, guess what I found in my hotel bed? A dead rabbit. I think it was put there by a Cologne fan. Anyway we were thrashed 5-0 and that was the end of the “new Rangers’’ great run.

Normally Davie Cooper, Jim Bett, Bobby Russell and Robert Prytz would all be heads up, looking for me to pass them the ball. The next league game no one wanted it. Our confidence was shattered.”

Greig was sacked the following season, replaced by Wallace. “Jock used to say to me: ‘None of your tippy-tappy, Dave, just two touches: one to stop the ball and the other to bang it up to big DJ [Derek Johnstone].’ I had to tell him: ‘Sorry, boss, I always need a couple to control it’.” Few if any of Mackinnon’s critics among the ultra-demanding Ibrox support knew, though, that he played with one leg shorter than the other, the quarter-inch reduction coming after an ankle operation during his Dundee days. “I developed this little jump after 
taking a shot. The Weekly News once asked me: ‘Any nicknames?’ ‘Skippy,’ I said and told them why. The headline read: ‘Mackinnon going strong with one leg shorter than the other and one kidney’.”

And he kept going, too. Through a nasty bout of hepatitis and assorted injuries and being booked in an Old Firm game by referee Brian McGinlay for “play-acting” as blood spurted from his already-bandaged head. He loved the clashes with Celtic, not least when he and cousin Murdo MacLeod could kick each other up and down the park and laugh about the game over a pint. Then came the Graeme Souness revolution and, after Saddam, yet another fearsome moustache for Mackinnon.

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“Football can be a brutal business but we all accept that,” he says. “Two weeks after a cartilage operation Graeme wanted me to help get Rangers European football for his first season in charge and I did. Then he told me he was letting me go. My last game would be the Glasgow Cup final against Celtic.Did I want to play? Of course I did. I set up three goals for Ally McCoist and his hat-trick won it. I wanted my shirt from the game. ‘Where do you think you’re going with that?’ said the kitman. He was pulling on one sleeve and I was tugging the other but I got it.”

Mackinnon was devastated to be leaving but it wasn’t the end of the world. Does it end in his book? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Find out more about The Pyongyang Treaty at