Souness: Even I felt small around Dave Mackay

Dave Mackay examines the honours he won while at Hearts. Graeme Souness, below, says no player matched Mackay
Dave Mackay examines the honours he won while at Hearts. Graeme Souness, below, says no player matched Mackay
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Graeme Souness blurts out a sigh of dejection and a curse. The news of Dave Mackay’s passing is like being hit by one of the Hearts legend’s full-blooded tackles without warning.

When an iconic figure like Souness composes himself to explain how he felt small in Mackay’s company, the true stature of the man becomes clear.

Mackay died aged 80 on Monday evening at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. Souness is out of the country this week, but is genuinely upset receiving news that one of the few men he was ever in awe of has gone. Mackay was influential in Souness’ start in professional football by recommending him to Tottenham Hotspur as a teenager, and their bond remained strong for decades.

From their first training session together at Spurs, Mackay fostered a rapport with the scrawny kid who hailed from the same high school in Edinburgh, Carrickvale. As ever, Mackay’s judgment proved sound. Souness would go on to win three European Cups with Liverpool, countless domestic honours in England, Italy and Scotland, plus 54 international caps.

However, in Souness’ eyes, he could never attain the kind of status held by Mackay. Speaking exclusively to the Evening News, he recalls the first time they trained together at White Hart Lane in the summer of 1968. Souness was 15, a confident young upstart seeking to establish himself at one of England’s biggest clubs. Mackay was 34, an experienced veteran who had won every domestic honour in Scotland with Hearts and become a living legend at Tottenham.

“As we were lining up he said to me: ‘Right, you’re coming with me. Us Carrickvale boys have to stick together against these Sassenachs.’ I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, to know Dave Mackay had your back and was looking out for you. He took me under his wing for those few weeks and it meant a lot.

“He was responsible for my move to Tottenham because he saw me play for Scotland schoolboys at White Hart Lane. He was a Spurs player recovering from a second broken leg at the time. He’d looked at the teamsheet and seen that I went to the same school as him in Edinburgh and then recommended me to Tottenham.

“I was just a 15-year-old kid from Edinburgh going down to London and to have somebody like him put your name forward was just incredible. They invited me down to train in the summer and Dave Mackay was there for about a month. He moved to Derby after that. It was just a great experience training with him. You could see the influence he had.”

That prominence was evident both on and off the field. It seemed football to a man admired the half-back – a modern-day midfield player – who was the driving force behind trophy successes at Hearts, Tottenham and Derby County. “He didn’t need to go and seek out people to talk to. People went to him and wanted to speak to him, no matter where he went. He was the magnet in the room wherever he was. Even I felt small around him. There are only a handful of footballers I would say that about, but Dave Mackay is certainly one of them.”

Emerging from the same high school in the same city as Mackay ensured there was extra pressure on Souness from a young age. Quite simply, Mackay’s reputation across Britain was untouchable in the mid-1960s. He was a commanding figure in a Tottenham team which won the league championship, three FA Cups and a European Cup Winners’ Cup. That period remains the club’s halcyon era to this day.

Souness headed south with big intentions but ultimately made little impact in north London. He made just one competitive Spurs appearance before joining Middlesbrough and eventually flourishing at Liverpool. Mackay’s early influence remained with him throughout. “For the first few years of my career, I got Dave Mackay rammed down my throat constantly,” he admits. “It was ‘Dave Mackay did this’, ‘Dave Mackay did that’.

“When Bill Nicholson was trying to set an example to us younger ones at Spurs, he didn’t mention Danny Blanchflower and he didn’t mention Bobby Smith. He talked only of Dave Mackay and how he would do things. I used to mention that to Dave in later years and we’d have a chuckle about it.

“People in Scotland don’t realise how revered he is in England. He is a huge figure there because of what he achieved. He was a totally committed player but a true professional and someone you always looked up to. He was a hard player but a very fair player. He came back from two broken legs and he was never intimidated by anyone. He would never back down or shy away from anyone, but by God could he play as well.

“As I said, I only trained with him for about a month. He was a very classy player and a very classy guy. By all accounts he just had ridiculously good technique for a footballer. As a young player trying to make your way in the game, he was the ideal kind of character to be around. When he played, people took their lead from him.

“I was inducted into the English football hall of fame a few years ago [in 2007] and it was Dave Mackay who actually inducted me. That was a nice touch after all those years and I was very grateful for that.”

British football lost a true colossus on Monday night when Dave Mackay passed away. No-one knows that better than Graeme Souness.