Interview: Roy Kay, ex-Hearts and Celtic defender

Former Hearts and Celtic defender Roy Kay. Picture: Tony Johnson
Former Hearts and Celtic defender Roy Kay. Picture: Tony Johnson
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EXILE can be a great unifying force. Roy Kay, who left Scotland for good in 1978, used to watch Hearts alone in his living room any time they were on satellite TV, feeling detached from the club that represented his daily bread for the first three decades of his life.

One evening, he saw an advertisement in the York Press that must have struck the publishers as extremely random. Its purpose was to ascertain whether there were any Hearts supporters – Heart of Midlothian, for clarity – in the vicinity of England’s ancient northern capital.

Roy Kay and goalkeeper Jim Cruickshank exchange words as Hearts slip to a home derby defeat by Hibs in 1976. Picture: Jack Crombie

Roy Kay and goalkeeper Jim Cruickshank exchange words as Hearts slip to a home derby defeat by Hibs in 1976. Picture: Jack Crombie

Roy Kay did not respond to the appeal, but being a Hearts alumnus of considerable note who had lived in the York area for the three decades that made up the second part of his life, the founding members soon came upon his phone number and invited him to the White Horse in Bootham, near York City’s ground, to watch a Hearts match with like-minded Jambos. Soon he was honorary president of the York Hearts Supporters Club.

“I went down and had a great time and it’s just spiralled from there. Now there are over 50 members of the club and I don’t have to watch games on my own any more – even my wife, Linda, and my daughter, Nic, have come along,” says Kay, 63, who won’t be at the White Horse for today’s lunchtime date with Celtic because of a holiday.

“The thing is, I was always a Hearts fan. I played for the club but I’ve supported them all my life. I very rarely go to games but any time Hearts are on TV now I watch it with the boys – they are a really good bunch and the banter is great.”

Kay, a staple of Tynecastle in the 1970s who is most fondly remembered for the 20-yard strike that set up an epic win over Locomotiv Leipzig in the 1976/77 Cup Winners’ Cup, exited Tynecastle after the team that competed in Europe that season failed to keep the home 
fires burning and were relegated. 
Again, as the years passed he presumed his detachment to be permanent, until an unexpected correspondence made him feel he was no longer excluded. “Hearts didn’t used to bother with the former players, but for the last six or seven years I have been invited to the Willie Bauld Memorial Dinner, and it’s a great night.

“I see most of the players I used to play with – Dave Clunie, Drew Busby, Jim Brown, Alan Anderson – and a few Hibees have turned up in different years too, the likes of Lawrie Reilly and Tommy Preston.

“I never stopped watching Hearts and supporting them from afar, but I feel a connection to the club again now, which is nice.”

A Gracemount native, Kay signed terms with his boyhood heroes in 1967, aged 17. Between 1970 and 1974, he slowly established himself as a right back who could provide cover in the centre of defence or on the opposite flank, and then he spent three seasons as a first choice, ultimately making a total of 240 appearances.

Unlike modern full-backs his only duty of paramount importance was to defend, and he contributed just four goals in the maroon shirt. But just as Stewart McKimmie is remembered as the full-back who broke the habit of a lifetime by scoring the 1987 goal at Hampden that humbled world champions Argentina, Kay can say that although he didn’t score many, the ones that hit home really did hit home.

Hearts had reached the Scottish Cup final in May 1976, only to be flattened 3-1 by Rangers. But their reward was a first European adventure in 11 seasons, one that looked like it had burned out after just 90 minutes of action in the old DDR. Hearts lost the first leg of their first-round tussle with Locomotiv 2-0, so Tynecastle packed out more in hope than expectation for the second leg in September ’76.

Of all the players who could have been expected to light the blue touchpaper that night, Kay was way down the list. But it wasn’t only his goal that stirred the team into a famous comeback – manager John Hagart also played his part. Neither could have known that come the following summer, Hearts would be down in the First Division and they would be looking for a fresh professional challenge.

“I never scored – well, I rarely scored – but it was just an unbelievable night,” Kay recalls. “We were 2-0 down and then I scored and then Willie Gibson scored, but Leipzig scored just before half-time and with the away goal, that meant we needed four.

“We were a bit down in the dressing room at half-time but John Hagart, who was the manager, picked us up and gave us a lift by saying he still believed we could do it. Even when we had four we weren’t safe, but then it was five and that capped off a great night.

“It was a strange game, I have to say. Jim Brown was our other full-back and we both scored at Tynecastle, and both of Leipzig’s full-backs scored in the first leg. It was a strange game, but I think they got the shock of their lives at Tynecastle with the way Busby and some of the others shook them up.”

Hearts took great hope into their second-round encounter with the might of Hamburg, and goals by Donald Ford and Busby in a 4-2 defeat in the first leg meant that another inspired performance in Edinburgh might have been enough to take them through, and perhaps all the way.

As it was, Hamburg turned the second leg into a stroll, winning 4-1 with a flourish that led to them winning the trophy, and Kay and many of his contemporaries would never play in Europe again.

Kay will end his working days as a fitter for a kitchens company next year, and expects grandfather duties to occupy much of his time in retirement. He has the easy countenance of a fatalist who wouldn’t tweak his life story even if he could. He surely would have preferred to end his playing days at Hearts, but it wasn’t to be and, besides, he didn’t mind the sequence of events that followed one bit.

When Hearts went down and he was released from Gorgie in a mass clear-out of quality and experience, the first voice on the phone just happened to be that of the most celebrated, decorated and respected manager in the land.

“That was strange, too,” he continues, “because the first thing that happened was a phone call from Jock Stein. I was away golfing with Graham Shaw and my wife said that somebody from Glasgow had called. I phoned the number back and it was Jock Stein. I was quite taken aback.

“Jock just asked me if I wanted to come through and sign for Celtic, I said yes and that was it. But he told me he was just signing me as cover [for Danny McGrain], so I knew what it would be like. It only lasted one season, but I did get a few games and it was a fantastic experience. It was a different life to Hearts, because they were used to winning everything. I’d imagine Ibrox was just the same. Every time they would draw a game or lose a game the heads would be down all week; it was like there had been a death. At Tynecastle we used to just get on with it.

“I was never a great player,” he volunteers, “but you just go along with it and see where it takes you, and I’m proud to have played the game. I used to say that there were better footballers than me in my class at school, but they never got the chance to play professionally. It was just about being in the right place at the right time.”

Celtic finished fifth that year, and didn’t get far in the European Cup. Rather than worry if he was starting to become a jinx, Kay, whose contract was not extended, patiently waited for the right move. And when it emerged that the right move was to Bootham Crescent to play in the English Fourth Division, Mr and Mrs Kay said: “Why not?”

Kay takes up the story. “Frank Connor was a coach at Celtic at the time and he was pally with a guy called Charlie Watt. So Frank came over to me one day and said ‘You’ll be getting a phonecall from Charlie Watt’, and he asked me down to York City for talks.

“As it turned out, they wanted to make me captain and it was full-time football. I’d had a few other offers in Scotland but they were all part-time contracts, and I was coming to the end of my career and I wanted full-time. I signed a two-year contract and then I signed another contract and we have stayed here ever since.

“We had our first daughter, Louise, in Scotland but our youngest, Nic, was born here and we have loved it here. It’s like a mini-Edinburgh, York. It’s a great place – everyone who comes to visit us says so. We can’t stop people coming sometimes!”

Kay worked for 18 years in assembly for Munro’s, a shock-absorber manufacturer, playing for the factory team whenever the call came. When Munro’s moved abroad he was taken on by Moore’s, who make kitchens, and this is where he will end his working life next year. He no longer plays five-a-sides, but he continued to do so deep into his fifties, only stopping when one outing meant that he “couldn’t walk for a week”.

Cheering on Hearts in the SPL and the cups and Celtic in the Champions League – “It’s fantastic what they have done in Europe, and I just love listening to the atmosphere” – he was content to join the ranks of club favourites who have lost touch with the world that once engulfed them. But Kay’s retirement will be far more pleasant for his revitalised involvement with Hearts, as long as the club does not go down the drain.

“I’ve been watching and listening to what has gone on, and it’s been very hard to take in. We just hope for the best, but there’s not much we can do,” says Kay – though the members of his club have tried to raise money specifically for the purpose of keeping Hearts alive as Gary Locke’s team tackle the season with a 15-point handicap imposed due to the club going into administration.

“As for the players, they are doing great considering most are so young,” he adds. “As well as the manager they have Billy Brown there adding his experience, which will help Gary. We just hope that everything is going to be OK.

“Nothing is sure but they have pegged a few points back. As for the Celtic game, you would think they would struggle to beat Celtic but the way things have been going, they might get a draw because, at home, they just seem to be flying at the moment.

“The games after this one are the key, though. We must hope they pick up points there and if the other teams like St Mirren don’t, they will start to get a bit frightened.

“Just as long as they don’t let themselves get detached too far.”

Said by someone who knows all about that.