Interview: Dave Mackay, footballer

A BOOK as big as a paving stone and twice as thick dominates Dave Mackay's dining-room table, indeed the room itself. "You'll notice these covers the wife's put on it," he says, "and you'll notice that it's green first and maroon on top. Hearts in domination, as it nearly always was in my day."

The book is an ostentatious tome called The Tottenham Hotspur Opus commemorating the 125th anniversary of Mackay's other team. He flicks through moody portraits of the notables, smart-suited old legends like himself – "No, that's my grandpa" – and today's stars in ripped jeans and ludicrous tattoos.

"Jermain Defoe – scruffy b*****d … Ledley King – scruffy b*****d – Ledley Bling, more like. Bobby Smith – he was in the England team when they beat Scotland 9– … well, you know the rest. Cliff Jones – Cliffy was playing golf with poor John White the day he was killed by lightning. Aaron Lennon – bloody fast, but another scruffy b*****d. The current lot really ought to get themselves along to Dave Mackay Ties."

Mackay – captain of Hearts, Spurs and Scotland, dream skipper of Sir Alex Ferguson's all-time tartan XI, and in those immediate pre-showbiz years for football of the early 1960s, the "face" of a tie emporium – lives in Burton Joyce, a pretty, redbricked village near Nottingham with a pub called (what else?) the Cross Keys, leafy lanes, bicycling posties.

Thirty-six years here, Mackay used to be in a street you could have nicknamed Footballers' Row: "Jimmy Sirrel, Neil Martin, Peter Cormack, Don Masson and Big Tam Gemmill when he played for Forest." But now the family's all grown up and it's just Mackay and Isobel – they've downsized.

Ah, Isobel. She was quite tough on the phone when I asked to speak to the great man, only to be told she handled his business nowadays, and that he had no time to meet me. Some flattery about how much Hearts were looking forward to Mackay's presence at their next Hall of Fame inductees' dinner seemed to do the trick and she gave me directions: "But you'll have to tell the train driver to let you off."

In person, though, she's a scream. They both are. When he's stumped for an answer, she shouts through from the kitchen with the relevant stats. When she talks too much, he suggests she completes the story of his life and times herself. What'll Iron Man Mackay do instead? "Watch Loose Women!" Oh, and she made me two cheese toasties and was extra-generous with the Digestives, a veritable interview feast when the noted foodie AA Gill didn't even offer a cup of tea. I thought she'd be a dragon; she isn't. Just shows how first impressions can be wrong. To a producer of schlocky TV programmes or his thicko researcher, Mackay as an old-school wing half was a psycho. He says: "I got a shock when I turned on this programme called something like 'Britain's Dirtiest Footballers' and I was number four, just behind Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter. I may have been hard, but I wasn't dirty.

"If some guy deliberately whacked me, I'd whack them back." Most notoriously he was crocked by Manchester United's Noel Cantwell; the first of two leg breaks. Cantwell died four years later and he says: "I didnae kill him." In 40 years, Mackay was never sent off. "Some guys were bullies; I wasn't. But I always stood up to the bullies, right from the playground." In any case, those who were lucky enough to see him play know the truth: he could tackle – yes, like a Haymarket shunter – but he could really pass, too.

The lethal reputation has much to do with a famous old photograph – Monty Fresco never took a better one – of a snarling Mackay grabbing Billy Bremner round the throat after the Leeds United captain had deliberately dunted him on the dodgy left leg. "I'm delighted to be in the Scotland Hall of Fame, but disappointed that's the image you see of me." Did he and Bremner joke about that full and frank exchange afterwards? "Not really. Billy wasn't one of my favourites, he was a dirty wee so-and-so." Isobel: "David!"

Mackay will be 75 on 14 November. I ask him about his cancer scare of a few years back – he needed surgery and radiotherapy on his lip – and presume it was a result of over-exposure to the sun from when he managed around the Middle East. He says: "That? No, I got it from kissing the wife. I'm fine now."

We're in the sitting-room on the second round of tea where there's a painting of Mackay at Derby County with Brian Clough, who signed him for 5,000, and called the best piece of business he ever did, and every Saturday after a match would tell him "Wednesday, Dave" meaning the old warrior could have some time off training. Then my attention is drawn to the super-ornate TV cabinet.

"Part of a wee sweetener to go to Kuwait," he says. "There's a hi-fi one in the garage because we've no room for it here. Harrods, four thousand quid the pair." There's a story he earned 3million from the entire Middle Eastern jaunt. "I wish," he says. "Anything I did, she got. She was aye inspecting my slips."

There are five chapters to Mackay's football life. The Middle East was the remunerative one; Scotland the disappointing one. He only won 22 caps and, like a few Anglos, was made a scapegoat of the 1961 Wembley tanking. "I saw 'England 9, Scotland 3' on a billboard and thought: 'Were they playing rugby today as well?'" says Isobel. Mackay (who at least scored): "Right. What time's your train back?"

Derby (stepping in to Clough's loafers, he managed them to the old First Division title), double-winning Spurs and of course Hearts (League, Cup and two League Cups in four seasons) were the glorious chapters. His eyes brighten at mention of his beloved Jambos. "As a wee laddie I rolled under the big iron gate at Tynecastle to get in for free to watch the Terrible Trio. You mightn't have thought that possible, given the big barrel chest I had later, but I was desperate to be a footballer. Someone told me it helped your game to be bandy-legged so, of course, I started walking that way."

He wishes Hearts were challenging again, wishes there were more Scots in the team. "But I'm a fan through and through and I love going back and seeing my old pals, though since John Cumming died there's not many of them left." At training, he and Cumming would charge at each other and bounce chests – "just for a wee limber-up".

The eyes brighten some more when I tell him it's the first Edinburgh derby of the season next Saturday. "A fantastic match, always special. In my day the tension was unbelievable, much worse than when we played Celtic or Rangers. We never used to bother about them, being from Glasgow. But if you lost the derby, Princes Street was murder. The wife's a Hibby, as I'm sure you can tell."

How did he celebrate a win? "The manager, Tommy Walker, was aye watching but maybe a couple of half-pints in the club lounge then, after he'd gone home, on to the vodkas and tonic." Isobel: "You'd never drunk vodka before you went to London – it was sherry. And I'd never been in a pub before Spurs – back then women in Scotland just didn't." Mackay: "They did in the pubs I went to."

Although he'd already suffered a few injuries, he was shocked when Hearts decided to sell him, and he paints a dramatic picture of how his parents' phone, only recently installed, rarely rang in the capital's Carrick Knowe and never during Sunday Night at the London Palladium – until that call summoning him to White Hart Lane.

"I hated the thought of leaving the Hearts, but it all worked out fine." Typical Mackay understatement. Like Cloughie later, Spurs manager Bill Nicholson rated him his best signing (cost: 32,000). Eusebio called him "the finest wing-half I ever played against". The Glory Game, Hunter Davies' great book on Spurs, endlessly eulogised his true grit, how he screamed for extra effort from first whistle to last – and his determination to overcome the leg breaks, horsing up and down the terrace steps, smiling though the pain, apparently. "My Desperate Dan grin," he says.

Around Gorgie he drove a Hillman Minx – "RFS 168," says Isobel, the official historian – but in Tottenham it was a Jag. They rented a house from Spurs that used to belong to the ventriloquist Terry Hall and one day Mackay found his Lenny the Lion puppet in the back of a cupboard. "He wanted me to phone the estate agent because he thought Terry would be worried," says Isobel. "I had to tell him not to be stupid; that there would be lots of Lennys."

There probably was a whole pride of Lenny the Lions, but there's truly only ever been one Dave Mackay. And the Iron Man has obviously been lucky to have met, in the old Edinburgh nightspot, the Palais, his Iron Lady – a woman strong enough to ring up Bill Nick and request a change of house with a bigger kitchen, to haggle for cash discount for those grand home-entertainment cabinets, and, most importantly, to convince her Hearts-daft husband that leaving Tynecastle wouldn't be the end of something, but a whole new adventure.

At home later that night, I get a phone call. "All that joking tired David out and he's in bed," says the redoubtable Mrs Mackay, apologising for not having cooked lunch. "I just wanted to check you got back safely."

FACTFILE

• Born: 14 Nov, 1934, Edinburgh.

• Joins boyhood heroes Hearts and represents Scotland at schoolboy and Under-23 level before graduating to full international honours, winning first of 22 caps away to Spain in 4-1 defeat in May 1957.

• Wins Scottish Cup winner's medal with Hearts in 1956, league title in 1957-58, and League Cup medals in 1955 and 1959.

• Signs for Bill Nicholson's Tottenham for 32,000 in March 1959. Nicholson had been in Wales trying to sign Mel Charles, and when the Welshman opted for Arsenal, he instead made the call to Hearts from Swansea's office.

• Wins double in 1960-61 season with Tottenham.

• Wins second FA Cup in 1962, and completes a hat-trick of winner's medals in the famous competition in 1967. Also wins a European Cup Winners' Cup medal during a halcyon era at White Hart Lane. Racks up more than 300 games and 50 goals for Spurs.

• Brian Clough lures him to Derby County in 1968 and swiftly helps the club to the Second Division title.

• Appointed player-manager of Swindon in 1971, but leaves after a year to take charge of Nottingham Forest. Returns to Derby in 1973 to succeed Clough as manager.

• Wins league title in 1975, but sacked in November 1976.

• Has spell managing Walsall, then coaches in Kuwait, before returning to England to manage Doncaster and Birmingham. A final coaching spell in Egypt followed.