That famous photo of Dave Mackay and Billy Bremner – an angry Dave right in Billy’s face – tells you everything you need to know about the esteem Mackay was held in.
I knew Billy and in those situations I always expected him to start swinging punches. If you went for him then he’d be more than happy to have it out there and then. Bluffing wasn’t his style.
I thought of him as a great footballer, a great captain and a great competitor because that’s what he was.
With that in mind, it makes me laugh when I see that old picture; Billy standing apologetically with his arms outstretched, as if to say ‘who, me?’ I can well imagine that Billy carried on kicking him about the picture after that because he gave in to no-one but Dave Mackay with his blood boiling made even the hardest of us stop and think.
Dave’s death at the age of 80 this week is a sad loss. I never got to know him particularly well personally but our paths crossed a few times in his later years and, needless to say, plenty of times in his prime.
There’s more to that image of him and Billy than just a moment of anger caught on camera. That era was a time of fantastic rivalries that were our equivalents of big boxing bouts: Norman Hunter versus Tommy Smith, Billy Bremner versus Alan Ball and so on. It was head-to-head stuff and results depended on those little battles.
Dave Mackay was a player who could win his side any game.
He was a proper captain, a leader of men, and a hard, hard footballer.
There’s no doubt at all that Brian Clough taking him to Derby County in the late 1960s was an absolute masterstroke for that club, and Derby was where I saw most of Dave.
I’ll say this much – when he and Billy were going hell for leather in the middle of the park, it was nice being out on the wing. They were chips off the same block and they wouldn’t give an inch.
I honestly don’t know if Dave was that sort of character in real life. He always sounded like quite a quiet, reserved and affable man off the pitch. But on it he was the sort of player who I think every team needs, someone who led by example with both his attitude and his football. I’ve said this before but shouting the odds and making great speeches in the dressing room doesn’t make you a captain. The top captains do most of their talking with their feet.
When Sir Tom Finney died last year it felt like football had lost a real icon. I think it’s the same with Dave Mackay. He was one of several players who epitomised what the game was about in the 1960s and 70s. It was unforgiving – brutal at times – but the hardest players were also some of the best. And they were good enough to command respect 50 years later.
Look back now and you’ll see what some people would call thuggery. I remember reading about how a modern referee had watched our FA Cup final replay against Chelsea – that legendary battle – and basically come to the conclusion that only the goalkeepers would have stayed on the field. Everyone else would have been sent off.
I appreciate that football has changed and the rules have changed with it but in 1970 I don’t remember anyone talking about brutality. Every person who watched the replay talked afterwards about drama, commitment and the wonderful spectacle we produced.
Why? Because we all thought the same way and we all saw tough tackling as part of the game. You didn’t moan about it. In truth you didn’t even think about it.
If Dave Mackay went through Billy Bremner, he’d have Billy Bremner going through him three minutes later. They’d both end up black and blue and then they’d both go for a pint.
There were flashpoints and fights but football today is hardly devoid of scuffles and brawls.
These days they’re just started by softer incidents.
With Dave Mackay, I never thought of him as a dirty player.
I never thought of him as over the top or needlessly aggressive.
I thought of him as a great footballer, a great captain and a great competitor because that’s what he was. It’s how I’ll remember him.