Dave Mackay

Football's Pioneers: Dave Mackay

For several seasons, Leicester City Football Club has worked with De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture on various heritage projects. Today, Professor Matt Taylor recalls the career of Dave Mackay, described in his day as ‘the most honoured player in history’.
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It is one of the most famous football photographs of the 1960s. Snarling with rage, Tottenham’s Dave Mackay (1934-2015) grabs the shirt of Billy Bremner after the Leeds player had kicked the leg Mackay had broken twice.

Journalists often romanticise the image, viewing it as a perfect snapshot of a lost era of honest hard men and unrestricted physicality. Mackay himself hated the picture because he felt it portrayed him as a bully. It is certainly an image that has led writers to overlook the technical skills of a footballer once described by no less than George Best as ‘a truly gifted ball player’.

Born in Edinburgh, Mackay joined Hearts, the club he supported, in 1952. He was soon a regular in the starting line-up and became a key component in a team that won the then Scottish First Division, the Scottish FA Cup and two Scottish League Cups during the 1950s.

In 1959, he moved to Tottenham Hotspur, at the time a struggling First Division side. Forming an effective midfield partnership with Danny Blanchflower, Mackay helped Spurs become the first English club to achieve the celebrated league and cup double for over sixty years.  

Leicester City were their defeated FA Cup Final opponents. That success, in 1960/61, was also marked by an 11-game winning streak at the start of the season. Another FA Cup victory followed in 1962 and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963, though Mackay missed the 5-1 win over holders Atlético Madrid due to injury.

Over the next few years, Mackay’s career was dogged by injuries, including two broken legs within nine months. But he forced his way back to fitness, eventually becoming captain of Spurs. In 1967, he led the club to its third FA Cup triumph in seven years with a 2-1 win against Chelsea in the so-called ‘Cockney Cup Final’.

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Dave Mackay
Dave Mackay

Dave Mackay is a legendary figure at Tottenham Hotspur and at Derby County.

It capped an astonishing period of success in which Mackay had become, according to one journalist, ‘the most honoured player in history’.

His international career, by comparison, was blighted by the Scottish selectors’ prejudice against English-based players, the so-called ‘Anglo-Scots’. Sir Alex Ferguson described Mackay as ‘the best Scottish player in an era of excellent Scottish players’ and thought he should have captained the national team for 15 years. Yet he was only selected 22 times for his country.   

Mackay left Spurs in 1968, having played 318 games and scored 51 goals for the north London club. He had intended to go back to Hearts as player manager but the dynamic young Derby County manager Brian Clough persuaded him to move to the Second Division instead.

Mackay enjoyed a renaissance at the Baseball Ground, marshalling the Rams’ defence as a sweeper, helping secure promotion to the First Division and jointly winning the Footballer of the Year award in 1969.

Mackay finally retired as a player in 1972. He went on to have a successful managerial career, winning the First Division championship with Derby in 1974/75 and multiple titles with Al-Arabi in Kuwait and Zamalek in Egypt.

Professor Taylor has written the entry about Dave Mackay in the current edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  

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