Following a managerial legend is never easy. Just ask David Moyes, Wilf McGuiness, Graeme Souness, Colin Harvey, Bobby Ferguson, Graham Taylor and a whole host of others who have taken the reins over from an outgoing football deity.
While it’s true that a select few, such as Bob Paisley, have managed to keep the show on the road, most could have been forgiven for falling by the wayside and not being quite able to reproduce the success of their immediate illustrious predecessor.
If one wishes to find an illustration of a man having large shoes to metaphorically fill, perhaps no better example could be found than the situation Dave Mackay encountered when he returned to the Baseball Ground to manage Derby County in the autumn of 1973.
Mackay was being hired to replace the outgoing Brian Clough, who had resigned in a fit of pique and lost a game of brinkmanship with Derby County Chairman, Sam Longson.
After months of internal battles, both Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor, had offered their resignations never believing they would be accepted. To their extreme consternation, they were accepted and they were out of a job.
Immediately regretting their decision to quit, Clough had tried to engineer a return to his post by way of a high-profile media campaign that seemed to have not only the Derby supporters’ support but also that of the players too.
Despite the growing swell of support behind Clough and Taylor’s reinstatement, though, the Derby board, led by Longson, refused to budge and instead approached Mackay to take over the role.
Mackay the player had been an inspired signing by Clough and Taylor just five years earlier when the duo had persuaded him to turn down a position of player-coach at Hearts and instead join their Second Division promotion campaign.
Following a sterling career played first at Hearts and then as captain of Tottenham Hotspur, the first side to complete the ‘Double’ of league title and FA Cup in the twentieth century, Mackay had made up his mind to move back north of the border and play out his career there before Cloughie intervened.
Three successful seasons followed in which not only was promotion gained, but an immediate fourth-place in the First Division followed before a slight dip in 1971 took place. It was then that Mackay left the club to take up his first managerial spot when he was appointed player-manager of lower-league Swindon Town.
After one season combining the roles of playing and managing, Mackay retired from on-field activities and moved to the City Ground where he became manager of Nottingham Forest.
When Longson and Derby came calling in October 1973, Mackay didn’t hesitate. Lesser men would have been put off by not only the prospect of following the genius of Cloughie, but of inheriting the discord and disharmony that existed at the club at the time.
Indeed, many of Mackay’s former playing colleagues were still at the club and it is reputed that on the eve of accepting the job he received a phone call from one of the senior players advising him not to accept the position as the players wanted Clough reinstated and were on the brink of going on strike to achieve their aims.
Far from being deterred, Mackay simply took the news on the chin and declared he would be taking the job.
The early weeks were not an easy time for anyone as Clough still had a lot of support in the public and some of the players were reportedly not happy and would blank Mackay as often as possible. This state of affairs continued for a while until Mackay, with the full support of the board, pulled the players into a specially convened meeting and laid matters on the line.
Addressing the players before him, he told them clearly and succinctly that he was not going anywhere and anybody else who wished to do so was more than welcome. Anyone who didn’t wish to play for Derby County, he explained, could leave the club without delay and he would play the reserves and youth team in their place if necessary.
Having got the message, nobody was foolish enough to try and manipulate Mackay a second time and the players’ revolt was stopped in its tracks.
Inheriting a side that had been champions eighteen months earlier and was fresh off the back of losing a European Cup semi-final, Mackay now set to work. Ever industrious with a steel of iron in an illuminated playing career, Mackay now showed the same qualities in management.
Pulling the club back together in the same direction, the side rallied and although never quite in the race for the title, managed to finish a more than respectable third in the table behind Leeds United and Liverpool, who would also win the FA Cup that year.
The 1974-75 season kicked off with Derby back amongst the title favourites, alongside Leeds, Liverpool, Ipswich and Everton, but few could have predicted the twists and turns that lay ahead.
Derby were by now bolstered by several signings Mackay had brought to the club, which included the likes of Bruce Rioch and Francis Lee. These players, together with Kevin Hector and Colin Todd would prove instrumental over the coming season.
The season kicked off with former Rams’ manager, Brian Clough, famously in charge of champions Leeds United of course, and expected to challenge. When that particular experiment ground to a spectacular and well-publicised halt in the early weeks of autumn, the spotlight switched elsewhere.
Everton made most of the running that 1974-75 season, and with only nine games remaining looked well on course for their second title success of the decade. However, they then inexplicably fell away with four defeats, including losses to relegated Luton Town and Carlisle United, and could finish no higher than fourth.
It then looked as if their Merseyside neighbours, Liverpool, would steal the title before a disastrous 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough in the penultimate match of the season put paid to Bob Paisley’s dream of landing the title in his first season in charge.
This left the door ajar for Mackay and his men to slip in. The season hadn’t started particularly well for the Rams and only one win was achieved in the first seven games and a Christmas 1974 placing of no better than tenth in the table.
A dramatic upswing in form after the turn of the year saw fortunes improve, and a run of only three defeats in twenty matches enabled the side to take the title by two points from Liverpool and Ipswich Town. The fact that the success was secured with a relatively low points total of 53 was immaterial to Mackay and his men.
1975-76 began with another trophy courtesy of a 2-0 Charity Shield success at Wembley over FA Cup Winners, West Ham United. In the Derby side that day making his debut was Charlie George, signed from Arsenal.
George, together with the established players, Todd, Hector, Lee and Rioch, safely negotiated the first round of the European Cup with a 3-1 aggregate victory over SK Slovan Bratislava before being matched with the mighty Real Madrid in the second round.
On one of the most famous nights in Derby County’s history, a packed Baseball Ground saw the home side triumph by a 4-1 scoreline with Charlie George grabbing an unforgettable hat-trick. Seemingly as good as through to the quarter-finals, Derby somehow proceeded to lose the second-leg 5-1 at the Bernabeu in front of 120,000 spectators.
Progress in the two major domestic competitions was solid, and as spring 1976 rolled around, Derby were in contention for both the league and FA Cup. Unlike the previous season, though, a poor run of form in the league came at the wrong time and Derby’s challenge faltered, leaving the club in fourth spot.
An FA Cup semi-final clash with Tommy Docherty’s young Manchester United side was contested at Hillsborough, and with Second Division Southampton meeting Crystal Palace of the Third in the other semi-final at Stamford Bridge on the same day, it was thought that the winner in Sheffield would have an excellent chance of lifting the trophy. On the day, though, Derby were slightly below par and Docherty’s men ran out winners by two goals to nil.
In retrospect, this defeat somewhat harshly spelt the beginning of the end for Mackay at Derby. There were whispers in the boardroom that the manager was being unduly lax with some of the players and as a result, discipline wasn’t quite what it should have been around the club.
A poor start to the 1976-77 season ensued with Mackay coming under fire from all quarters. In November, Mackay went to the board seeking a ‘vote of confidence’ but was met with stony silence. Forced into giving an opinion, the board decided that rather than back him, they were going to show him the door, and so for the second time in three years, a manager departed the Baseball Ground just eighteen months after delivering the title.
It was shoddy treatment of a man who had achieved so much for the club both on and off the pitch, and it started a demise that the club has never really recovered from despite some good times under Arthur Cox and Jim Smith in subsequent years.
After leaving Derby, Mackay continued in football management for most of the next two decades. He had spells in England at clubs such as Walsall, Doncaster Rovers and Birmingham City but he had more luck managing abroad.
He spent nine years managing in Kuwait and then had a later spell in Egypt where he won the Egyptian Premier League twice. This was followed by three years in charge of the Qatar national side before his ultimate retirement from the game in 1997.
In 2004, Mackay released his autobiography titled, “The Real Mackay”.
In 2015, Mackay died at the age of 80.
He is fondly remembered by football fans of a certain vintage, and particularly by those who follow Tottenham and Derby.