Football in Britain during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s was not for the faint hearted. Characters like Billy Bremner, Norman “Bites yer legs” Hunter and Ron “Chopper” Harris ruled the game with their harsh brand of fearful football. Talent players they were but they were also notorious for crunching tackles and dirty challenges which helped them to be successful. However one player who had tremendous success during these times was harshly portrayed as a bully simply because of a single photo. The picture of Dave MacKay grabbing Billy Bremner shirt and holding him up during a clash between MacKay’s Tottenham and Bremner’s Leeds in 1966 painted MacKay as one of these football hard men but it was far from the truth. Yes MacKay was known for his tough approach to the game but it was his self drive and strong will to be successful that made him into the player he was. Scotsman MacKay became a legend during his playing days and he will be remembered as such as people mourn his passing today after the former Tottenham, Derby, Hearts and Scotland midfielder died aged 80.
MacKay was always destined to be a footballer, after growing up on the back streets of Edinburgh with a football glued to his feet. There was only ever one club that MacKay wanted to join and despite the interest from others, he finally became a Hearts player in 1953 much to his delight. Little did they know that in doing so, Hearts had managed to sign someone who would redefine the way that they played. Under the management of Tommy Walker and with MacKay installed as captain, Hearts won their first of two Scottish league titles, first in 1958 and then two years later in 1960. The first triumph earned Hearts a spot in the record books after they won the league with 62 points on the board and 132 goals scored. It would be the making of MacKay who bossed the Hearts midfield with the grit and determination that he would later be known for. MacKay would only stay with Hearts for a further season, eventually leaving his boyhood club to join Tottenham in 1959 in a move that would help MacKay secure legendary status.
Over the next nine years, MacKay would etch himself into Spurs folklore as a fan favourite, the tough tackling Scottish midfield general who was afraid of no-one. With MacKay in place as the heartbeat of the club Spurs won the league in 1961, three FA cups in ‘61, ‘62 and ‘67 and the European Cup Winners Cup in ‘63 beating Altetico Madrid in the final, a game MacKay unfortunately missed due to injury. It was during this time that the fateful image of MacKay standing up to Bremner was taken, a picture that has haunted him ever since. Upon leaving Tottenham, MacKay linked up with Brian Clough at Derby in a move that would see the player converted from his traditional role as a central midfield general to a no nonsense sweeper using his influence and ability to read the game to turn defence into attack. It worked perfectly with Derby winning promotion back to the first division and MacKay being named the FWA footballer of the Year. Having won 22 caps for Scotland over a eight year period (mostly curtailed by injury) including an appearance at the 1958 World Cup age was now starting to catch up with the player. Now 37, MacKay decided to leave Derby for one final season at Swindon in another move that would change his career for the better.
The move would kick start MacKay’s time as a manager first at Swindon then at Nottingham Forest and eventually back at Derby following the resignation of Clough. It was at Derby that he would win his only honours as a manager, lifting the First Division title in the 1974-75 season and the FA Charity Shield in 1975. Later roles at Walsall, Doncaster and Birmingham would follow with a nine spell in Kuwait in between. His final roles back in the Middle East with Zamalek and Qatar failed to bring any further success so MacKay at aged 63 decided to call it a day. Despite limited success as a manager, MacKay’s time as a player had already cemented his place as a football legend and that legacy is being remembered today. The great George Best called him “the bravest player he had ever played against” whilst his former club Tottenham called him “one of their greatest ever players and a man who never failed to inspire those around him”. A leader, a gentleman and a legend, MacKay will be remembered not for that photo but instead for the player he was and rightly so.