BY KEVIN O’NEILL
Two months ago I decided to research the playing career of former Celtic captain Jackie McNamara to write a tribute to his often understated on-field brilliance.
At the time, I was working on a separate piece about fellow Celtic hero Danny McGrain when up popped McNamara’s name.
And as I had fond memories of McNamara’s quietly efficient and consistent playing prowess – and partially because McNamara seemed to play second fiddle to more ebullient team-mates during a decade of quality in the Celtic colours – I felt strongly that his career was worth considering in more detail.
But that was eight weeks ago.
And my goodness, hasn’t a lot happened since in the sporting life of ‘Wee Jackie’.
Sacked as the manager of struggling English non-league outfit York City – the second time in a year for McNamara to be axed from a job – he quickly found himself in the peculiar position of remaining at the club, as caretaker manager, while York searched for a replacement.
Even before then, the obtuse nature of McNamara’s leaving had taken a turn or two.
Following a demoralising 6-1 defeat against fellow National League strugglers Guiseley, McNamara – with the club’s backing – made the odd announcement that he would leave his role as manager, but only if York failed to get ‘a positive result’ in their next outing against Braintree Town.
By then, many York supporters had already run out of patience with McNamara after the 33-time capped Scottish defender couldn’t prevent the club dropping out of the Football League at the end of the 2015/16 season.
And such an unconventional announcement to supposedly clarify McNamara’s position, after the Guiseley humiliation, only served to further frustrate and confuse.
For what, the supporters had every right to wonder, would constitute a ‘positive result’ against Braintree?
A win? A draw? Or could a 6-1 defeat, for example, be interpreted as ‘positive’ improvement from the Guiseley game?
In any case, York would draw 1-1 against Braintree and despite proclaiming himself pleased with the attitude of his players on the day, McNamara stepped aside (well, sort of).
Because in the same club statement issued to confirm his departure, as manager, McNamara was also announced as the new caretaker boss, to hold the fort while York evaluated their options.
“In order to assist the managerial transition period and to accommodate a thorough identification, interview and appointment process, the chairman has asked Jackie McNamara to train and prepare the team until a suitable candidate has been determined,” the statement read.
Finally, after McNamara’s first and final game as caretaker manager (a draw in the FA Cup against Curzon Ashton), Gary Mills – freshly sacked by Wrexham – was named the new York manager.
But if you thought that finally drew a line under what had sadly become a farcical situation for York and McNamara, you were completely mistaken.
For just when you couldn’t imagine any more surprises, York announced that McNamara was to remain at the club in the role of Chief Executive Officer.
I mean, in terms of dispensing with a manager, York’s approach, it must be said, didn’t just break the mould – it completely and utterly smashed convention to pieces, resulting in neither the club nor McNamara emerging from the debacle in great fettle.
But perhaps at this juncture, in what has been a turbulent period for a person always presented as modest and affable, it is worth remembering all the good things that McNamara brought to the game, and the joy he gave to others with his composed and stylish approach to playing at right-back.
For McNamara, the York affair was, however, the latest body-blow to a managerial career that seemed destined for success when, in 2011, he began life in the dug-out at Partick Thistle – where he had wound down his 20-year playing career.
Such was the promise shown in those early days – when he guided Partick to the Scottish Challenge Cup final – that top-flight Dundee United came calling to prise him from the Firhill Stadium.
Thistle had been well-positioned to challenge for promotion at the time (late January 2013), but McNamara couldn’t turn down the opportunity to test himself at Tannadice.
Initially too, the signs were good for McNamara as the Tangerines beat Rangers in his first match in charge in the Scottish Cup. United would progress to the Scottish Cup final, as well, but a disappointing performance in the decider led to a 2-0 defeat by St Johnstone.
For some, reaching the Cup final was interpreted as both the nadir of, and the beginning of the end, for McNamara’s Dundee United reign.
As despite reaching the League Cup final the following year (2014/15) – where United lost against Celtic – the team’s results would take a disastrous turn following the poorly timed January (2015) sales of key, young players Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic.
Nadir Ciftci, United’s main forward under McNamara, would also leave for Parkhead six months later and from the point of the former pair’s departure to the end of McNamara’s reign – in late September 2015 – Dundee United would manage just four wins from 24 league games.
So, despite leading United to three top-six finishes and two Cup finals, the then longest serving manager in the Scottish top-flight was dismissed.
And about six weeks later, he took over at English League 2 strugglers York City.
It was a move that I felt, personally, was the wrong one for McNamara, as I failed to understand why a manager with a pretty decent reputation in Scotland’s top-tier could be attracted to a fight against relegation in the depths of the Football League.
Nonetheless, it was the path that McNamara chose – one that ultimately has left his managerial reputation in rather questionable condition – unlike the legacy of his playing days that saw the Glaswegian spend the bulk of his career patrolling the right side of the Celtic defence.
But now that we know where it all ended (for now) for McNamara, where exactly did it all start?
Well, despite the fact that his father, Jackie Snr., had played for Celtic between 1973 and 1976, the younger McNamara’s senior career would not begin with the Hoops.
Instead, he started with Dunfermline Athletic, making his first-team debut in 1991, and although he didn’t feature in that year’s League Cup final, as the Pars lost out to Hibernian, McNamara found his way into the side over the next few seasons.
And for Billy Davies, the former Derby and Nottingham Forest manager, who played alongside a young McNamara for Dunfermline, nobody was surprised when the stylish right-back started to make a name for himself.
“When Jackie broke in the Dunfermline side, I remember instantly looking at a young man who was a first-class person with an excellent personality,” Davies told The Football Pink.
“As a player, Jackie had great determination, an excellent attitude and confidence in his own ability.
Confidence and belief was a major strength for his future success, as well as his undoubted natural talent which was there for all to see in training and in games,” he added.
And when McNamara moved on to bigger things, signing for Celtic in 1995 for £600,000, Davies knew that his former team-mate would excel in the pressure-cooker that is Glasgow’s heated football culture.
“We are talking about a young player that deserved all the future success he would enjoy and achieve, but you have to remember too, that Jackie put in lots of hard work and had an absolute desire to succeed, and this enabled him to make it to the very top with Celtic. And let’s not forget also, the great guidance Jackie received from a very proud family of football people that taught him how to listen and learn quickly,” Davies said.
From there, there was no looking back for McNamara, who joined Celtic shortly before his 22nd birthday.
In his debut season, he was awarded the PFA Young Player of the Year and in 1998, won the outright PFA Players’ Player of the Year, as Celtic captured a first league title for ten years, thus denying fierce rivals Rangers a coveted ten-in-a-row, which would have surpassed Celtic’s achievement of winning nine consecutive titles between 1966 and 1974.
And for the next couple of seasons, more or less until the arrival of manager Martin O’Neill in the year 2000, McNamara remained an unmovable force in the Celtic rearguard, adding the League Cup to his medal haul prior to O’Neill’s arrival.
Despite then playing a more peripheral role in the first few seasons of O’Neill’s tenure, McNamara still managed to make his mark, scoring the opening goal (after coming off the bench early on) in the 2001 Scottish Cup final win, as Celtic clinched a remarkable domestic Treble – their first since 1969 – in O’Neill’s maiden campaign.
By then, O’Neill saw McNamara as much as a diligent central midfielder as a right-back, and his adaptability enabled him to re-emerge as an almost ever-present in the Celtic side until O’Neill departed in 2005.
He added four more major honours to his trophy collection – as well as the 2004 Scottish Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award – before O’Neill left, while McNamara was rewarded for ten years unbroken service to the club with a testimonial. He would also feature in Celtic’s narrow loss against Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto in the 2003 UEFA Cup final.
How McNamara was able to contribute so heavily and consistently to a wonderful period of success for Celtic was easy to understand, according to his former Celtic colleague, Liam Miller, who said that McNamara was a crucial presence in the dressing-room, as well as on the park.
“I think, as a player, Jackie’s best qualities were that he was quick, great in one-on-one situations, and that he had a great understanding of the game – he could read the play very well,” Miller said.
“He was versatile, playing in a number of positions, and was very composed in possession. He could also break forward to score or create goals. And as a team-mate, he was respected by the whole dressing-room. Jackie was a professional who led by example, both on and off the pitch, and was also a bit of a joker around the training ground,” added Miller, who went on to join Manchester United in 2004.
But all good things must come to an end, as they say. And following O’Neill’s departure, McNamara’s contract was due to expire.
For as much as the club insisted that a new contract was on its way, it never materialised in time and McNamara somewhat surprisingly agreed to join Wolverhampton Wanderers, where he made a positive impression under Glenn Hoddle until a cruciate knee ligament injury stopped him in his tracks.
So, over the next few seasons McNamara’s career would wind down with Aberdeen, Falkirk and Partick Thistle before his managerial career began.
It was quite a tepid conclusion to his playing days, which also included 33 Scotland caps and an appearance at the 1998 World Cup.
But for evidence of the real Jackie McNamara, one can look no further than his Trojan contribution to the green and white cause over many years when he showed not only commitment, loyalty and longevity, but also character, adaptability and no little on-field panache.
For one never inclined to boast much swagger, there was an admirable, almost quiet sophistication to his game; one that rarely grabbed the headlines but which regularly got the job done and won the hearts – and much praise – from fellow professionals and fans alike. To see such a beacon of playing consistency well and truly stripped of his many deserved stripes in the last year, through his double managerial disappointments, will be regretful to most fair-minded football fans.
But such are the risks undertaken by skilled footballers when they decide to continue their love for the game, in the dug-out, on the conclusion of their playing days.
Once they become the boss, and not just one of a sizeable squad of players, they are pretty much wholly responsible for the results of their team. And when things start to go against them, there is never a safe hiding place. They take the flak and, ultimately, endure the sack.
Because of his knowledge and experience in the game, it’s difficult to imagine that McNamara would not be first to proclaim his spell as York manager as an unmitigated disaster.
And naturally, any York fan reading might not want to read my stuff again – especially if they witnessed their team get battered by Guiseley.
But in football, I believe there are times when we should scrutinise and analyse people’s most recent work. Of course, any manager – whether a past great or no-mark, journeyman player – needs to be held accountable for performances and results.
Yet, when all the furore and criticism that these days hits hard at managers makes way for calmer heads, it’s also quite appropriate to revisit a person’s overall career. To maybe give them fair hearing and not just lambast them for any perceived recent shortcomings.
Lord knows, if we judged some of the game’s most skilled talents solely on their managerial exploits, we could have little option but to describe the likes of John Barnes, Gheorghe Hagi, Lothar Mattheus and Hristo Stoichkov as completely and utterly hopeless.
And with that in mind, it seems only right not to let recent events taint fond memories of one of the most cultured Scottish defenders of recent times – Wee Jackie McNamara.