Pseuds regulars offer their take on the best five British footballers of the last 50 years
It can be hard to explain to a younger generation what Dave Mackay was. He was a hard man in the middle of the park who led his teams with instinct, guile and guts. He was physical, powerful, fast and inventive. And his vision and technical ability has yet to be surpassed.
He won titles in England and Scotland; was the heart beat of Spurs’ double winning side; and he was bought and made captain by both Sir* Bill Nicholson’s and Sir* Brian Clough.
But none of that quite gets across what Dave Mackay was.
So imagine for a moment all that is best about English football. No not the modern cosmopolitan game where tree trunks of men like Drogba flail around in pain when people sneeze. Not the inspirational game where visionaries like Gerrard athletically leap to their backs with their arms in the air as they enter the box at pace. And no, not the passionate game where superstars join ten team mates in berating the ref at close range for not giving Rooney a free-kick.
Instead think of the mythical English game or yore that we know in our less innocent moments never really existed. Revel in the gritty, bloody, sweaty, muddy, hard fought honourable never-say-die game of yesteryear. Feel that determination to overcome each set back and claim glorious victory against the odds. Worship those heroes of the pitch who were so much more than men and carried themselves with a justified aura of grandeur.
Have you done that? Good. That’s Dave Mackay.
The player of the last fifty years who most established in English minds the worship of a battling hard nosed but honourable midfield general who’d fight against the odds to save his side was the very Scottish Dave Mackay. He won the Scottish League and Cup with Hearts. Then like so many Scots of his age, he left home for the bigger stage in England.
Everyone knows the picture of him terrifying Leeds United’s Billy Bremner with a fearsome hold of his shirt. But another picture deserves to be remembered just as well. That picture shows Dave Mackay playing for Derby County in an unspecified game not long after signing for Clough. His shirt and face are caked in mud and his chin is locked square with defiance as he looks forward and marches onwards.
Of course Dave Mackay was not the game’s only determined midfield general. But he was also one of the most gifted footballers ever to play the game. Terry Venables recalled a training session decades later in which ‘Mr Nicholson’ had told his players to each take a ball, flick it up onto the yellow line on the wall, volley it onto the red line above, then the blue one below, and then repeat the order backwards before trapping it. Everyone looked blankly at the boss except Mackay who looked at the wall, flicked the ball up onto the yellow line, volleyed against each next line in order, trapped the ball dead, and asked “Like that boss?”
He was the heartbeat of Spurs’ double winning side but it was his fight back from two broken legs that cemented the legend. In 1963 he broke his left leg in a Cup Winners Cup game against Manchester United, or as he maintains to this day, Noel Cantwell broke it.
Some months later he started his gradual comeback and broke it again in a reserve match. This time the same left leg broke in two places instead of one and his career was over. In those days Players struggled back after one such injury, and to come back after a simultaneous second and third break was almost unthinkable. But this was Dave Mackay, and after a year out he stepped out to face Leeds United at White Hart Lane to rapturous applause.
Hence the photo with Bremner. That game the pair tussled for a ball that Mackay won, and so Bermner took a petulant swing at Mackay’s left leg. Mackay had never yet resorted to such petty outbursts, but his opponent had ignored the nearer and more convenient right leg to attack the one he knew was broken. Because of that Mackay put the vicious little bully in his place.
Bremner never kicked Mackay again, or so the story goes. But more important than that was that Mackay played on for years afterwards. He became synonymous with honour and strength and the determined fight back along with everything else people admired in the man’s game of English football.
Not bad going for a Scot!
* Neither Sir Bill nor Sir Brian were ever summoned to the palace for Knighting despite their remarkable achievements and characters. However, since Spurs and Forest fans are a higher authority than the monarchy, their long declared fan knighthoods are respected by this writer.