Real Mackay recalls his big break

DAVE MACKAY rolls his left trouser leg up around his knee, revealing the scar that remains after 45 years. It was, he explains, a "tib and fib" job, broken in two places.

Some say it echoed across the Old Trafford pitch, a piercing crack on a cold winter's night. Tackled by Noel Cantwell, he spun in the air, fell to the turf, and was seized by the most excruciating pain.He remembers looking down at his jackknifed limb – it had to be the left one didn't it – and seeing his toe next to his knee. He would have removed his tie-ups had he not feared that the debris would fall out.

Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, today's Carling Cup finalists, were the teams. The date was December 10, 1963, the match a European Cup-Winners' Cup second-round second leg, of which just eight minutes had been played. Two goals up after the first leg, Spurs lost Mackay, the tie (4-3 on aggregate) and, according to their striker, Jimmy Greaves, the heart of their celebrated double-winning side of 1961. "I was never the same again," says the Scot, and neither were his team.

Not that Mackay lay down to the injury. Root about the internet, and you will find footage, not of the tackle, mercifully, but of the victim's extraordinary reaction to it. As he is carried off on a stretcher, he props himself up on his left elbow, all but smiling to the crowd. Had there been a cigarette in his right hand, and smoke circles wafting from his lips, he could hardly have looked more nonchalant.

Denial. It was Mackay's default position, second nature. He was in bits, quite literally, but he was damned if he was going to admit it. Ask him why not, and he struggles to answer. "I don't know," he says. "Because I'm a man ... Desperate Dan ... I don't know. I just wouldn't like to show anything. I never did. Even if I was in agony."

It was Mackay's modus operandi. Show no weakness, and none will be found. Tell yourself you can win, and you probably will. Had he been due to play at Wembley this afternoon, the outcome would be a formality. In the 40-odd finals he contested at various levels, he experienced not one defeat. Of all his qualities, the best was his unshakeable will, a driving force that carried Spurs, Derby County and Hearts, the club he supported as a boy, to rare league titles.

In the hospital, doctors said his career might be over, halted at the age of 29, but he wasn't having that. When the plaster was removed, his left leg was misshapen, four inches thinner than his right, but he set about rebuilding it with a 15lb weight. Without sophisticated medical technology the odds were against Mackay but nine months later he was back, testing himself in the reserves.

That, though, wasn't the end of it, not by a long way. The same leg, still weak from the surgery, was fractured again, this time at Shrewsbury, and Mackay was back to square one. "I can't remember the player's name, but I don't like him," says the Edinburgh-born left-half who missed the rest of that season. "It wasn't as bad a break, not as vicious a tackle, but because it had been broken before ..."

Comeback No.2 was on August 20, 1966, when the leg again was tested, this time as part of the incident for which he is most famous. Early in the opening match of the season, against Leeds United, he was so infuriated by Billy Bremner's kick – which, he says, was calculated to damage his dodgy leg – that he picked him up by the scruff of the neck. Much to his frustration, the photograph of their confrontation has become almost iconic, leading many to bracket him lazily alongside the game's notorious cloggers, such as Ron Harris and Norman Hunter.

At 74, he is still receiving copies of that picture at his home just outside Nottingham. Although he dutifully signs each and every one, it is not how the softly-spoken pensioner wants to be remembered. "I was always a hard player, but not, as some say, dirty. I was so dirty I never got sent off in my life. When I tackled somebody, I would go right through them, but it was always fair. That photo comes through the post regular. I wish I had a pound for every one I've been sent."

There was so much more to Mackay. Quite apart from the strength of body and mind that is too often misinterpreted, he had a deftness of touch. His passing was clean and precise, his goals plentiful. Typically, he would win possession in midfield, feed a nearby team-mate, and surge forward in anticipation of the return. When he ran out of the tunnel at White Hart Lane, he used to boot the ball as high as it would go, and catch it on his instep. His combination of power, skill and stamina led Greaves to describe him as the best professional he had ever played alongside.

Mackay joined Spurs in March 1959, 50 years ago this month. He is still dismayed that Hearts were prepared to let him go. Born just along the road from Tynecastle, all he had ever wanted was to play with Alfie Conn, Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh, the 'terrible trio' of inside forwards he had worshipped from the terracing. He had helped his club to the 1958 league title, the 1956 Scottish Cup and two League Cups, the second of which was in his last season, when they beat Partick Thistle 5-1 at Hampden.

Five months later, he was gone, but he doesn't know why. His best guess is that their manager, Tommy Walker, who had seen Mackay break his foot three times, thought it safer to take the 32,000 transfer fee. "I was shocked. Spurs were near the bottom of the table and I didn't want to go. Even if they had been top, I wouldn't have been interested. I didn't want to go anywhere. I only wanted to play for Hearts. At first, I didn't give them an answer, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that, if they wanted me to go, staying wouldn't do any good. I didn't want to leave, but when you look at how it turned out, I'm glad I did."

Nicholson later described Mackay as his greatest signing. He was the heartbeat of a side who were the first to win the league and FA Cup in the same season since Preston North End in 1889. Romantics have them down as the best club team of the 20th century. They complemented their double with another FA Cup in 1962, and the 1963 Cup-Winners' Cup, the final of which Mackay missed through injury. In a textbook half-back partnership with Danny Blanchflower, it was his cover that allowed the Northern Irishman to flourish. "It didn't matter who we played, we knew we were going to win," says Mackay, who led that team, off the pitch as well as on it. "It was a great time. On Saturday nights, straight after the game, we would head over to the Belle and Hare, which was 100 yards from the ground. You wouldn't see that nowadays, players in there drinking with the fans. A lot of them were paid the same as us, 20 a week. After that, some of us – usually me, Bobby Smith and Terry Dyson – would go on to Walthamstow dogs, and lose our money together." After he broke his leg, Mackay slowed up, and the team's magic faded, but as Nicholson rebuilt an ageing side, the Scot could still tackle and pass and captain them to the 1967 FA Cup. When he decided that he was no longer fit enough for the top flight, he stepped down a division, moved back to sweeper and led Brian Clough's Derby County to promotion. The alternative option had been a return to Hearts, maybe even as player-manager, but he's glad it didn't happen. "I was too old for them," he says. "I had left with a good record and I didn't want to spoil it. I didn't want everybody saying, 'he used to be really good, but he's struggling now'."

As a manager, Mackay led Derby to the 1975 league title, and spent much of a successful coaching career in the Middle East, but since his retirement just over a decade back, he has led a quiet life with his wife, Isobel, in the sleepy village of Burton Joyce. The only mementoes are a scrapbook in the attic, and two silver plinths on the mantelpiece. Seven years ago, he made 69,000 for his family by selling the medals. "Just in case they got nicked," he explains.

That he earned only 22 caps in such a decorated career beggars belief. Sir Alex Ferguson, who used to have that Bremner picture hanging on his office wall, said that Mackay would be the captain of his all-time Scotland XI. The Manchester United manager, who played against him for Rangers reserves, frequently invites him to Old Trafford for a taste of the atmosphere, and a blether afterwards.

Occasionally, when he is back in Edinburgh, he goes to Tynecastle, but most of his football is watched on television. "I'm not one of these old players who says everything was better in their day. I don't think the game is any worse. It might even be better. But I'm glad I'm not playing. You only need to go near somebody and they're rolling about as though they've been killed."

Mackay wouldn't last two minutes these days. Nor would he win many free kicks. Ask him about his health, about the surgery and radiotherapy he needed on his lip a few years back, and the reply recalls that night on the stretcher. "Ach, a wee touch of cancer or something. No problem." Men aren't made like that anymore.