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Dion Fanning: Nobody you have watched can ever match your father's heroes

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It is easy to settle into the armchair of nostalgia and pine for the lost days

It is easy to settle into the armchair of nostalgia and pine for the lost days

It is easy to settle into the armchair of nostalgia and pine for the lost days

There comes a time when you surrender your father's heroes more reluctantly than you surrender your own. I used to try and search for evidence that Dave Mackay was not as great as my father said he was or, more precisely, that I had seen players who could match him.

I talked about Roy Keane with Terry Venables once. Venables was a fan of Keane and he had played with Dave Mackay. He was also interested in the Ireland job, so when I mentioned that my dad thought Mackay was a better player, that, in fact, there was nobody like him, he wouldn't be drawn.

Perhaps he thought it was politic not to point out any weaknesses in Keane but his initial answer allowed me to think I had witnessed a player as good as the great Mackay. I reported this back to my father, who didn't budge and readjusted his view of Venables instead.

A week later, I talked to Venables on the phone. Something had been bothering him. He might have been interested in the Ireland job but this wasn't worth compromising on. Just before the conversation ended, he got to it. "I've been thinking about what your dad said. He's right. There was nobody like Dave Mackay."

Mackay's death last week was rightly recognised as the passing of a great and extraordinary footballer. When the world in which he played is so unrecognisable from the world of modern football, it is easy to settle into the comfortable armchair of nostalgia and pine for the lost days.

Everything was simpler then when these great men were paid no more than an ordinary white collar worker before they were discarded in their early thirties. It was a simpler time for everyone except those living in that time who experienced the everyday complication of trying to survive it.

If we don't give in to nostalgia, we take another route. What would Mackay be worth today? What would they pay him? Even as football is said to be distorted by the money available, we often have no other way of straddling different eras than to define a former player by the thing which is said to be ruining football.

Mackay was great in his era and nothing else really matters. He was also among those who made Tottenham Hotspur great, something which becomes more remarkable with every passing year, with every failure of the club to escape the "Lads, it's Tottenham" stereotype.

"Lads, it's Tottenham," was the extent of Alex Ferguson's team talk before Manchester United played them once, according to Keane. When Mackay played, 'Lads, it's Tottenham' had another meaning.

As a young man living in London, my father worked in the Queen's Elm pub on the Fulham Road and went to watch Tottenham Hotspur whenever he could. He used to tell a story of travelling up to White Hart Lane one afternoon to buy a ticket for their European Cup Winners' Cup tie against Rangers in 1962 and joining a queue that stretched for miles down the Tottenham High Road towards Seven Sisters.

Tottenham Hotspur were the most bewitching team in England in those days and Mackay had been the central figure in their Double-winning side of 1961.

Mackay was 24 when he signed from Hearts in 1959 and many, including John Giles, wondered why he hadn't arrived in England earlier.

In his book The Great & the Good, Giles recalled asking Mackay at Billy Bremner's funeral why he hadn't joined an English club before 1959 and Mackay told him that Matt Busby hesitated after Mackay twice broke a bone in his foot.

Giles made his league debut for Manchester United against the Spurs team that contained Mackay, Cliff Jones and Danny Blanchflower. Tottenham should have won the league in 1960 but fell away at Easter. If that was Spurs as we might understand them today, the next year was Tottenham Hotspur as they would always be to a generation, including my father. They won the Double in 1961 but the side my father watched had one addition, one player who he would mention in the same breath as Mackay: Jimmy Greaves.

Greaves was very different but he also possessed the indefinable, the killer instinct, even if Greaves was coming from a very different place than Mackay. Last week some wondered why Greaves wasn't at the League Cup final, watching two of his old teams play, and it was suggested that he hadn't forgiven Tottenham for the manner in which he was sold to West Ham more than 40 years ago.

Greaves describes himself as a non-drinking alcoholic. Like many men who have made the transformation from the drinking to the non-drinking kind, he can appear weary with bullshit, having put up with so much of his own for many years.

During his worst times, Greaves slept with a bottle of vodka by his bed and I can dimly recall a story of him standing in a torrential downpour trying to catch enough raindrops to make the essence of vodka, which was all that remained in the bottle, drinkable.

A man who has been through this has suffered enough without watching a trapeze artist balance the League Cup on her nose as part of the pre-match preliminaries, especially when he could be at home watching a full day's sport on television.

Like Mackay, Greaves could be glimpsed in others that followed him. I remember Giles commentating on a Liverpool game at Leeds one time when Robbie Fowler went through and scored. Giles' analysis was easily understood, at least for men like my father. "Jimmy Greaves" was all he said.

Sometimes you're lucky enough to meet your own heroes; sometimes you're unlucky enough to meet them. You change, you doubt yourself and sometimes you become sceptical about them.

And then there are your father's heroes. "There was nobody like Dave Mackay," he would have said last week. I don't need to have seen Mackay play to agree with my father now. Especially when it becomes something more, it becomes a way of having one more conversation with him when conversations with him are no longer something you can have.

dfanning@independent.ie

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