Saturday interview: Donald Mackay

Former Dundee Manager and Dundee United goalkeeper Donald MacKay. Picture: Robert Perry
Former Dundee Manager and Dundee United goalkeeper Donald MacKay. Picture: Robert Perry
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WHEN reflecting on his career, Donald Mackay curses himself for often just missing out.

He made way for Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers, having managed to turn the Ewood Park side into a credible force in the old Second Division without the aid of Jack Walker’s millions. His timing was not ideal at Fulham either.

Who knows what Mackay could have achieved with Mohamed Al-Fayed’s financial backing? Instead, his tenure had the misfortune to coincide with Jimmy Hill’s reign as chairman. After being undermined by him during a half-time interval, he has more reason than most Scots to accuse the former Match of the Day presenter.

Before all this drama, back when all he had to think about was keeping a ball out of a goal, he recalls stumbling across some useful-looking skiing gloves, with strips of rubber down the sides, in the old David Low sports shop in Dundee. Mackay discovered that they were the perfect accessory for goalkeepers, for whom the definition of sophistication at the time was a pair of woollen gloves.

“Ach, Mackay misses the boat again,” complains the 72-year-old gentleman sitting opposite, legs crossed, fingers crooked; the reliable indicator of a ’keeper whose initial choice as a goalie was bare hands or bare hands. “Ron Springett went and endorsed them because he found the same gloves and started using them. He had the right to, he was an 
international ’keeper.”

Such episodes risk portraying Mackay as slightly hapless; nothing, however, could be further from the truth. For example, when it comes to the Dundee derby, he was a talisman. His first experience of a fixture that returns to Dens Park tomorrow was when Dundee crossed the street as Scottish champions in August 1962. It was his debut for United, after a £2,500 transfer from Forfar Athletic. Lining up against him were the likes of Alan Gilzean and Gordon Smith, and though their then more illustrious rivals scored twice past Mackay, courtesy of a Gilzean double, United struck three times to win.

“We didn’t think we were champions of Scotland, just champions of Dundee,” he smiles. “It was the first time that United were able to come close to rivalling Dundee. I could not understand the euphoria among the players. However, a lot of the older ones had played when United were in the Second Division and now they had come up and managed to beat Dundee. It was extra special with them being champions.”

In total, and including Forfarshire Cup clashes, Mackay calculates he played in 26 derbies between 1962 and 1972, finishing on the losing side on only four occasions. It’s an extraordinary record given that it is assumed that Dundee still ruled the roost in the city in the Sixties. However, the tide was turning. It was quite a change from when United were considered the poor relations to their other rivals in Angus, never mind the swanky neighbours next door. “When I played for Forfar, we used to get into trouble if we did not beat Dundee United, and not just beat them, but really beat them,” he says.

Mackay lost the Midas touch when he crossed the road to become manager in 1980. While at Dens he lost the two big derbies; a Scottish League Cup final 32 years ago this week and then the game that saw United confirmed as champions for the only time in their history, in 1983. For Mackay, it was coming home to an extent; his first digs on moving to United were on the Provost Road, onto which Dens Park backs. “A princely ten shillings a week,” he recalls.

His horizons proved broader than a single street, however. Dundee United’s official history book has him marked down for 232 appearances, but by Mackay’s reckoning, it’s probably nearer 300 once all the friendlies and exhibitions games are taken into account. And never let it be understated; at United there were a lot of these.

Manager Jerry Kerr’s view was an admirably straightforward one. Following promotion from the old Second Division in 1960, his players were now full-time footballers. He therefore wanted them to play football full-time rather than remain idle between May and July. It was bad news for the players’ families; good news for United’s travel operators. Kerr would prepare exotic itineraries designed to earn United some extra income while also serving as useful scouting missions. “We saw different types of football, different ideas,” says Mackay. On one occasion, they toured Nigeria: “There were African lads who played in their bare feet, with ankles strapped up. Jerry wanted to bring them back to Scotland.” After a trip to the States, United even returned with a new identity; tangerine shirts, as sported by Dallas Tornado.

In 1970, United headed to Mexico, just prior to the World Cup finals. Kerr made Alf Ramsey an impish offer to give his England side a game to aid their preparation, but Ramsey was alert to the problems that could stem from letting several Scots loose on his precious players on the eve of the tournament. United took on the Mexican national side instead.

The players were advised not to get too comfortable on the return flight home, and during a stop-off in New York it was revealed why. “Jerry handed us our boarding passes and it has Olympic Air on it,” recalls Mackay. “Somewhere between Mexico City and New York, 
Jerry had been offered a game against Panathinaikos in Greece, and so we flew straight to Athens, and then, finally, back to Scotland.”

For someone who had had no real thoughts about playing professional football, it was all tremendously exciting. Remarkably, Mackay had only been playing goalkeeper for little over a year before being signed by Forfar. He had grown up wanting to be Alex Stott, the former Partick Thistle and Dundee centre-forward. A motor mechanic by trade, Mackay had become resigned to spending his days “under cattle lorries” at a garage in Perth, where his family moved from Partick when he was six months old. Even now, biographical sites still 
erroneously list Perth as his birthplace.

Sometimes, so frazzled was Mackay from travel that even he didn’t know where he was from; a trip to Iceland with United proved the warm-up for a trip to Denmark, via a half-hour stopover back in Glasgow. His wife Pat, six months pregnant at the time with their first child, understandably insisted on spending a few minutes with her husband, before he was whisked away again. “I got fair stick for that from the lads back on the plane,” he says.

His management career began back in Denmark with Norresundby, a glorified village side whom he guided into the national league set-up. He was then lured back to Dundee, with all the mistrust that entailed. “The Dundee fans thought here was an Arab coming across the road to ruin them, while the United fans felt let down,” he recalls. “I don’t know why. United kicked me out, Jim [McLean] came in and didn’t want me there, it was as simple as that.

“It’s only recently that they have invited me back,” he continues. “I am going to a Legends dinner in February, and I am proud to be able to do that. Pat used to go spare about it: ‘All these people who have barely played for United and are getting ‘legends’ status’. I am the second-longest serving ’keeper, after Hamish [McAlpine].”

Mackay led Dundee to promotion from the First Division in his first season and they also reached the final of the Bell’s League Cup, where they were heavily defeated by United. Worse, the final was played at their own Dens Park. “I still maintain that Bob Valentine made a mistake with the goal Eric Sinclair scored,” he says. “He said there had been a push. It was 0-0 at the time.” Surprisingly, his chief regret about this occasion concerns the venue.

“We should have taken it to Hampden, because Jim had a thing about Dundee United going to Glasgow. He was not happy going to games in Glasgow. I could understand the logic, first time two Dundee teams were in a final together – why go all the way to Glasgow?

“We won the toss and opted to play at home but it never became a cup final, it just felt like a normal home game.”

He has regrets about the way things ended on both sides of the street, too. At Dundee, it was only natural that part of him sensed an opportunity for revenge due to the way he was ushered out of Tannadice along with other long-servers, including Doug Smith, who sadly died this week. Mackay imagined doing what McLean, motivated by his own sense of bitterness after being overlooked for the manager’ job at Dens, was in the process of achieving at United. Panicked by the thought their rivals were establishing themselves as the major force in the city, patience was in short supply at Dundee. So, too, were funds.

Mackay left after he received a vote of no confidence in chairman Ian Gellatly’s dining room, the day after full-back 
Stewart McKimmie’s sale to Aberdeen.

Contrary to belief, he did know about it eventually; indeed, he had driven McKimmie to Pittodrie himself, having been instructed to pick up the cheque and bring it back to Dundee in time for the bank opening again on Monday morning. It was a fool’s errand in the end. McKimmie began to have second thoughts, peeved by the moderate signing-on fee offered. “Alex [Ferguson] came to me; ‘the deal’s off’. I said: ‘the deal can’t be off, Dundee need the money’.”

Mackay asked Ferguson to give him ten minutes with McKimmie. He explained the system of bonuses for victories in European competition and other such add-ons that would take his salary well above what Dundee could offer.

“I want you to stay with Dundee, but think about it,” Mackay told him. He thought about it and signed. Mackay brought the cheque back and told Gellatly that he wasn’t happy about the way the transfer had been conducted, without his knowledge in the first instance. “We are not happy with you as manager,” he was told. “They [the directors] maintained that my skills were working with younger players. The senior players, he felt, were doing what they liked,” says Mackay.

He felt he disproved this theory when bringing the likes of Steve Archibald and Ossie Ardiles to Blackburn Rovers, where he landed via a short spell coaching at the start of the Graeme Souness revolution at Rangers. Mackay returned to Dens to sign Colin Hendry, then a lanky, strawberry-blond striker who had yet to convince the Dundee support. However, it was plain to see he was a willing contributor. “He’d run through brick walls for you,” says Mackay. At the time, Blackburn’s principal striker was Simon Garner, a local folk hero. While he was peerless in his ability to put the ball in the back of the net, “he was a lazy wee bugger at times,” recalls Mackay. He thought Hendry would be a perfect foil.

The Scot scored the winning goal in the Full Members’ cup final at Wembley on his debut, and yet still didn’t convince Mackay as a centre-forward. He switched him to centre-half, and the rest is history. After signing for £30,000 from Dundee, Hendry left Blackburn to join Manchester City in a £700,000 deal in 1989.

“It was pleasing in one respect. It put Blackburn into the black from the red for the first time in a long, long time,” he says. Mackay can spot a player; during a spell as scout for Arsenal, he recommended that Arsene Wenger sign Freddie Ljungberg.

The Hendry windfall did not help preserve Mackay’s job. Steel magnate Walker’s huge investment required a figurehead. Respected though he was, old Donald wasn’t a match for the glitterdust-quota provided by a superstar compatriot. Out went Mackay and in came Kenny Dalglish, ably supported by Ray Harford. “The only pleasing aspect of that is that it took Kenny Dalglish and Ray Harford, two Premier League managers, to take over the job I was doing,” he says. “The team I put together, and maybe one or two others, won promotion, and then went on to win the Premier league.”

Is there any lingering bitterness? “It was evolution,” says the mild-mannered Mackay. “I doubt very much I could attract the players to Blackburn that Kenny did, and I maybe could not coach the same as Ray Hartford. Dalglish was a good man manager and Ray Harford was a very, very good coach.”

Fulham, however, was a different story. “In hindsight, that was a mistake,” he says. The way he tells the story now, sitting in the front room of his house in Carluke, where he returned in September this year, it seems almost comical.

Mackay, however, felt mortified when, during the first half of a game against Leyton Orient, he spotted a pointy-chinned, bearded figure bounding down the stairs of the stand and towards the dug-out, where Jimmy Hill then sat down beside him. “He started waving his arms around,” recalls Mackay. “I said: ‘chairman, please, you need to return to the stand’. The fans were all clapping him, of course.”

Hill couldn’t help himself. At half-time, and with Fulham trailing 1-0, he barged into the dressing-room.

“I have been here for so long, I deserve my say,” he informed Mackay. “He told the players, you are not doing this right, you are not doing that right. Then he went out of the door, and pointed at me and said: ‘you sort it out’.”

He did to an extent, with Fulham managing to score twice before conceding an equaliser at the end. Still, it was a point. According to Mackay, just nine more were needed from ten games to avoid relegation. He was not given the chance to earn them; he was let go the following day, and Fulham ended up a point shy of safety.

“I always used to go up to the boardroom to thank the opposition directors, manager and none of the Fulham directors were there, which was unusual,” he recalls. “On the Sunday morning the vice-chairman came to see me. He said: ‘you are no longer manager, we are taking it from you’.

“The thing that annoyed me is that Jimmy Hill never even told me, he went off to the League Cup final, I saw him on television. We haven’t spoken since.”

After an hour and three-quarters spent in the company of a quietly fascinating football man, you are able to confirm that this is very much Hill’s loss.