The last time Inverness scoring sensation Billy McKay shared a pitch with Hearts new boy Danny Wilson, the little striker ended up enjoying the greatest moment of his career to date.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the unheralded McKay shot to prominence when he netted an equaliser for League Two side Northampton Town as they famously went on to win a Carling Cup tie at Anfield on penalties against a Liverpool side for which a teenage Wilson was making his debut.
The young Scot rarely featured again for the English giants, while McKay’s career path has generally been on an upward trajectory ever since that night in autumn 2010. The pair are set to renew League Cup hostilities in the semi-finals of the Scottish version this weekend, with McKay, an English-born Northern Irishman, riding the crest of a wave and threatening to take a crowbar to Hearts’ dreams of a place in the final.
The little Inverness striker, 24, has been Scotland’s player of the year so far, netting 20 goals in all competitions – including a streak of 14 in his last ten games – and topping the SPL scoring charts. For a man who hit only two goals in his first season at the Caledonian Stadium, McKay’s recent brilliance has come as something of a bolt from the blue.
One man who hasn’t been surprised by his form, though, is Ian Sampson, the manager of Northampton the night they sunk Liverpool. “I was assistant manager to Stuart Gray at the time Billy first came to the club,” recalled Sampson. “He was looking for a club after being released by Leicester and we took him on trial and decided pretty much straight away that we wanted him. He had massive potential at the time – we knew he was the type of player who was going to get us goals.
“When I took over from Stuart as manager he became a regular in my team and he was a fantastic little forward for me. He was always alive in the box, found space well and seemed to get on the end of everything in the box. He was able to create chances out of nothing. He probably could have scored a lot more goals for me because he did miss a few chances. The main thing was that he kept getting himself into great positions. Now it all seems to have come to fruition at Inverness.”
The way was paved for McKay’s move to the Highlands when Gary Johnson replaced Sampson as Cobblers manager near the end of the 2010/11 season and decided to reshuffle the squad. “I was very surprised to see Billy leave Northampton – I don’t think it was the best decision the manager at the time ever made,” said Sampson.
Northampton’s loss has been Caley Thistle’s gain, as McKay, pictured below, has spearheaded their goal-crazy surge to second in the SPL and to this weekend’s semi-final. Hearts are one of only two SPL sides McKay has yet to net against this season – Motherwell are the other – but Sampson knows that the magnitude of Saturday’s game is unlikely to faze him after his Anfield heroics. “The Liverpool game will certainly have given him a lot of confidence because he was playing against multi-million pound defenders in [Sotirios] Kyrgiakos and [Daniel] Agger and he gave them a torrid time,” continued Sampson.
“For a small guy like Billy to make it so difficult for a couple of man-mountain defenders like that would have done wonders for him. Scoring at Anfield was the highlight of his career at the time, but obviously he’s gone on to bigger and better things up in Scotland. He always had a good bit of inner belief in his own ability, but the key thing for his career was finding a team and a manager after myself who was going to trust him and improve him.
“The Scottish game clearly suits his style and I know, having played under Terry Butcher myself when I was at Sunderland, that he’s got a top manager who’ll be driving him on. I always felt he had it in him to be a top player.”
Before joining Northampton, McKay suffered the heartache of being released by Leicester City as a kid. Ironically, it is this calibre of club now being linked with a swoop for him. Sampson, however, reckons his old charge should stay in the Highlands.
“He’s playing at a good level in Scotland but it wouldn’t surprise me if scouts in England are looking at him already,” he said. “I think he should stay in Inverness for a while longer and establish himself properly and then he’ll get the chance to progress.
“I hope he does really well on Saturday. It’s a big game for him to play in and I’d imagine Inverness would be favourites. They’ve been the most consistent team apart from Celtic and I’m delighted for Billy and for my old mate Terry. Everyone that was involved in Billy’s development should be proud of what he’s done.”