“My wife thought it, I didn’t,” he replied last week at Hampden, when asked why he didn’t just go: “To hang with it all, I’m finished with football”, as the brickbats rained down on him, and continue to do so.
Mackay added: “I have belief in my ability. I’ve had the offer of jobs north and south of the Border in the past three years. But it has to be the right thing.”
Performance director at the Scottish Football Association is the right thing, for him at least. And you can see why. It offers Mackay the chance to get his head down, work, for the most part, without media scrutiny and make good his pledge to prove to the doubters he’s a changed man. “Judge me by my actions” has been his plea.
Before his world came crashing down around him in the summer of 2014, those assessing his progress would have to accept he’d done pretty well, first at Watford, where he earned his spurs as manager, and then at Cardiff City.
But then revelations about discriminatory text messages he and former Cardiff City cohort Iain Moody exchanged threatened to ruin Mackay’s career. Many thought – and continue to think – they ought to have done.
Which was the very potted background to Mackay’s appearance at Hampden Park on Thursday as the SFA’s new performance director. The difficult first press conference in front of the broadcast media and daily newspaper journalists is behind him. The controversy? Not yet. Not by a long shot.
But Mackay deserves the chance to explain himself and outline just what he’s done in his time away from the game, which was briefly interrupted by an inglorious 25-match spell at Wigan Athletic. It’s only fair that, now installed, he can be offered the chance to explain his plans.
To his credit, as well as attending diversity education programmes, he also travelled far and wide to learn more about sport, and, you sense, about himself. He accepts he’d previously existed in a fairly closed environment.
“Football is my passion, my life,” he says. He gestures around him, indicating what, to us, is Hampden Park but was once, for him, his playground. “I’ve been around here since I was five.”
His father, Malcolm, has been involved with Queen’s Park for over half a century, while Mackay himself started his career as a player at the club. But his new role doesn’t mean he is returning “home” since he won’t actually be based at Hampden. Stewart Regan, the SFA chief executive, explained that Mackay will be working out of Oriam, the new performance centre at Riccarton, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. “Part of the plan is to try and make sure we work out how to get the best out of Oriam,” Regan said. “We have world-class facilities, state-of-the-art strength and conditioning, medical facilities, access to research through the university, pitches indoor and outdoor, grass and 3G.”
Mackay’s got what he considers are the tools to work with, now he just needs to reach an accommodation with clubs, regional performance schools and other areas of youth football, before working out the best way forward. He aims to “tweak” the SFA’s Project Brave, a new performance strategy to improve the standard of player at the elite level of the game. He aims to ensure young players can test themselves in an environment where they are not simply coasting along.
“That’s what we have to look at – getting our youngest best players playing at elite level, whether that’s against foreign opposition or against men in reserve teams, where, say, a Peter Grant is playing against a Barry Ferguson and the young kid is getting unbelievable experience because this guy is going bananas at him for 90 minutes,” he said.
“Or is it best being out on loan, and getting 40 games for Clyde, and then being placed somewhere else? We have to flood our clubs and players with these ideas.
“A lot of my pals went to YTS schemes at other clubs and it was a hard way to get through. But I got the chance at 18 to play against East Fife and had Willie Brown trying to break my nose. It meant by 21 I was breaking his nose.”
It’s a hard knock life, and doesn’t Mackay know it. He hasn’t been idle in recent times, broadening his horizons to include American football.
“When you are a manager out of work you try other things, you try other sports,” he said. “I went over to America and saw the coach of the Seattle Seahawks and it’s the best sporting environment I’ve ever been in because of his culture. Not because of what it looked like but because of the culture and environment he had bred.
“A lot of the American coaches – they are dealing with multi-millionaires and how do you get the best out of them? fining them two weeks’ wages doesn’t do that – they are intelligent people who know how to get people to work for them. It’s through respect, taking time to invest in them. I took time to learn [about] that.”
Mackay also travelled to Canada, to discover what makes the Vancouver Canucks ice hockey team tick. Now he’s installed at the SFA, he will look to gain the thoughts and advice of Brian McClair, his predecessor.
“It would have been presumptuous of me to do it before I had the job but I definitely will,” he said.
“I know Mark [Wotte], but I don’t know Brian – but I did play in his testimonial. I got a Discman as a gift for it and it got nicked at Glasgow Airport on the way home!”
Mackay was enjoying the chance to reminisce about such memories, to try to remind us that it’s Malky Mackay, the footballer who made the most of himself, who the SFA are getting, and not the loose-texting jerk which he’s trying hard to convince everyone not even he can recognise.