Don Mackay promises he could talk all day about football. He is not wrong. An hour has elapsed and he has barely paused for breath once. His thought processes are reminiscent of a rabbit bounding about a meadow, off in one direction then twisting back again before disappearing into a warren of memories.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable 60 minutes as he recounts parts of a senior playing career that began in 1958 at Forfar Athletic – for whom he signed from junior side Jeanfield Swifts – Dundee United, Dallas Tornado and Southend United and, of his time as manager of Dundee, Coventry City, Rangers reserves, Blackburn Rovers and Fulham.

Now 81, Mackay remains as sharp as a tack. “Eighty-one is actually 18 back to front,” he jokes. There is further mirth when he suggests he is unlikely to catch Covid-19. “I was a goalkeeper who couldn’t catch anything. A friend of mine used to work on the Tannoy at Dundee United and he used to play Careless Hands [the classic Mel Torme song] when I came off at the end of the game. That was part of my induction into professional football.”

His self-deprecation masks a truism. Mackay was a well-liked team-mate and consummate professional who played more than 200 games for United in a 10-year spell. He holds the record for second most appearances for a goalkeeper at the Tannadice club behind the legendary Hamish McAlpine; no mean feat given his competition.

“Sandy Davey and I were the two keepers at United then under Jerry Kerr. If Sandy had a bad game he got dropped and I got in, and if I had a bad game, Sandy got in. It was a very fluctuating period at the time. Lots of times I was in the reserves. I think Scottish teams should go back to reserve teams, you played with older players and the older players kept you right. I learned more from them than I did the coaching staff.”

Mackay’s self-effacing manner also disguises the fact his achievements as a manager were qualified successes. He won promotion to the top flight in his first season at Dundee in 1981 and, in his next job, rescued Coventry from almost certain relegation in 1985.

His time at Dens Park was set against the roaring triumph of Jim McLean’s tenure down the road at United. McLean had “bombed out” Mackay at Tannadice eight years earlier and was a looming presence.

Glasgow Times:

“When I went to work for Dundee, Mrs Sneddon, who was my secretary at the time, wrote to the Sunday Post asking how many games Donald Mackay played in Dundee derbies. I had only lost four games out of 26. Because of my United background people said: ‘he’s there to ruin Dundee’.”

“The one thing I will give McLean is that we were having a hard time at Dundee at one point. We actually drew with them at Tannadice and he came up to me and said ‘well done’. It was a very quiet word, there was no big show of shaking hands or any big hugs. He just said ‘well done’ and then he walked past me. That was Jim down to a tee.”

Walter Smith’s is a name that we return to on several occasions. They had been team-mates at Dundee United and adversaries when Smith was assistant to McLean. Mackay owed a debt of gratitude to Smith when his spell at Coventry ended ignominiously in the sack in 1986.

“When Walter went to work for Graeme Souness at Glasgow Rangers he invited me to run the reserve team,” Mackay explains. “It was a great job.

“There were young players like [Ian Durrant] and [Derek] Ferguson coming through who went on to play at a very good level. The reserves played at the same time as the first team. Twelve players went with the first team and the others played for the reserves. I am convinced to this day that that was the reason why football was so strong. In Rangers’ case, some of them were internationals playing in the reserve team.

“At that time Graeme was very high spirited. He said to me before his first game against Hibs: ‘Come on Mackay, you’ve been a manager’ what would you do today if you were Hibs manager?’

‘I’d get you sent off.’


‘I’d get you sent off.

‘And how would you get me sent off?’

‘I’d provoke you.’

“We gave Hibs reserves a hammering at Ibrox and we were coming up the tunnel asking ‘how did the first team get on?’ and someone said: ‘They got beat and the gaffer got sent off.’

“I used to make the tea on a Monday and take it in for them. I was actually petrified to go into his office on the Monday morning. When I went in with the tea, Graeme said: ‘Don’t you say a bloody word to me, Mackay.’ I got out of that room very, very quickly.”

The conversation surrounding Smith has particular relevance given the manner in which Steven Gerrard has just left Ibrox for Aston Villa.

“Walter was a proper bluenose, he was Glasgow Rangers through and through, even when he was playing for Dundee United,” Mackay asserts. “I think he was also lucky in that he worked for a manager like Jim McLean at United and Alec Ferguson with Scotland. He saw the good points but he also saw the bad points. He learned to blend that to become a very successful manager himself. If you didn’t want to play for Glasgow Rangers, get on your bike. If you went and tried to be clever and think you were better than Glasgow Rangers, you better get your bags packed.”

Mackay says a hard-nose was the crucial part of a manager’s anatomy that he was missing. At Blackburn, he won the 1987 Full Members Cup with a 1-0 victory over Charlton Athletic at Wembley and he had three near misses as the Lancashire club flirted with promotion to the then English First Division in the 1980s and 1990s.

Glasgow Times: EWOOD SPARK: Don Mackay at Rovers

These were the days before Jack Walker’s millions and so Mackay was forced to rely on whatever funds the club could scrape together for speculative punts and loan deals. Colin Hendry was signed from Dundee for £28,000 and became a mainstay of his promotion charges, he brought Ossie Ardiles in at the end of his Tottenham career and Steve Archibald was drafted in on a loan deal from Barcelona during the 87-88 season.

He clearly had an eye for a player, too, something that became obvious later in his career when managerial jobs eluded him and he started working as a scout, convincing Arsene Wenger to sign Freddie Ljungberg for Arsenal when the Frenchman’s scouts were undecided. The Swede went on to become an Invincible.

That happy knack for evaluating a player was evident when Blackburn finally won promotion to the top flight in 1992 under Ray Harford and Kenny Dalglish, a campaign in which Mackay had started off in charge.

“My wife said that to me the other day. She looked at a picture of the Blackburn team that won promotion and eight of them were my players,” Mackay recalled.

“Ray Harford was the coach but I think one of the reasons the players were successful was because they believed in Kenny. I tried to sign Mike Newell and he wouldnae come but he came when Kenny was there. I tried to get Gary Lineker and he eventually went to Japan.

“I tried to sign Teddy Sheringham from Millwall and spent six hours in a hotel with him trying to convince him and he wouldn’t come. I was only Don Mackay and he went and signed for a certain gentleman called Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest – these were the kind of things that had an effect on players and that’s when the money would talk.”

The game that Mackay says broke his heart was during one of those promotion near-misses when, having finished fifth in the table in 1989, they reached the play-off final. They were favourites to overcome Crystal Palace in the second leg having won the first 3-1. He dismisses the notion that it was a sliding-doors moment but it certainly feels as if Mackay missed out on a big opportunity had Rovers earned promotion and been given Walker’s millions to spend. A penalty awarded by referee George Courtney altered his destiny, though. Palace scored it, then equalised and won the tie 4-3 in extra-time.

“Things can change very quickly on the strength of a refereeing decision,” he added. “The player who won the penalty was a gentleman called Ian Wright. When I went to work for Arsenal, I had a good laugh with him. But it was one of the saddest days of my football career. It shattered me completely.”

Despite the painful memories of that defeat, Mackay appears to be enjoying retirement in Carluke where he lives with his wife, even if he doesn’t get to see as many games as he would like to.

“At my age, Covid killed the chance to go to games. Football has been my life, though. I never thought it would ever be what it was.”