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Reluctant hero who put Joxer on the road to Stuttgart

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Irish fans pay tribute to Gary MacKay in Sofia in 2009. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Irish fans pay tribute to Gary MacKay in Sofia in 2009. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Garry Mackay and his Scottish team-mates

Garry Mackay and his Scottish team-mates

Gary MacKay

Gary MacKay

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Irish fans pay tribute to Gary MacKay in Sofia in 2009. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Gary MacKAY sank back into his armchair at his Edinburgh home and smiled at the irony of how a goal he scored for Scotland 27 years ago means so much more to Irish people than it does to his fellow countrymen.

For the majority of Scots the moment is long forgotten - as is MacKay. But in Ireland, the memory of that grey Sofia afternoon in 1987, when the then 23-year-old debutant calmly stroked the ball into the corner of the Bulgarian net to seal an unlikely victory for Scotland, and nail an even more significant result for Ireland, has yet to fade.

How can it? Had MacKay missed, then neither Joxer nor Jack's Army would have made it to Stuttgart.

But he didn't miss. And Bulgaria, then a force in European football, and coming to the end of a five-year unbeaten stretch in Sofia, were out.

"It was easily one of the biggest moments of my career," he says.

Born in Edinburgh, and raised within walking distance of Tynecastle, that career revolved around Hearts, a club he supported, then played for, then worked for.

"Football defined me. It was my living and my passion. So that day meant a huge amount because it was 13 years since any Hearts player had been capped by Scotland, and 30 years since someone from the club (Jimmy Murray) had scored for the national team. That still gives me a buzz."

So does football. He is 50 years old now, still involved in the periphery of the game as an agent, but the childish enthusiasm for Friday's European Championship qualifier is evident as he discusses the revival of the two nations under Gordon Strachan and Martin O'Neill.

"The pot is boiling," he says. "You only hope it doesn't boil over. It could do, though. This is big, partially because both teams have had a couple of quiet years, partially because they are going well and have a chance of qualifying but also because this is a derby fixture.

"Derbies do funny things to players. I played for 20 years and was sent off just four times but three of those occasions were in Edinburgh derbies.

"So it was interesting to hear Gordon say how he wants his players to retain control. Yet you immediately think of the two assistant managers, Stuart McCall and Roy Keane. They knew how to win Glasgow and Manchester derbies and sometimes it was by being fiery.

"So Friday fascinates me. You just know both sets of players will be mad for it and that, aside from mentioning a few issues about tactics or shape, neither manager will have to say a whole lot about the importance of the game. The players know themselves."

STICK

None more so than James McCarthy or Aiden McGeady, Ireland's two Glaswegians.

"People are talking an awful lot about the stick they are going to get. But who are we, as a country, to abuse people for making a mature choice? Their decision has to be respected."

So too does a decision MacKay made five years ago. Having always made a living from football, either as a player, briefly as a manager, and latterly as an agent, he felt a vague sense of unease about where his life was going.

The goal in Sofia may have changed Irish football but it never changed him.

"Let's be honest here," he says. "Brian McClair had a great chance a few minutes later. Had he scored then he would be the one talking to you now because he achieved much more in his career than I did.

"I don't want to appear conceited, either. I didn't get Ireland to the finals of Euro 88. My goal only mattered because Ireland had accumulated so many points over the previous eight games. They got to Germany because they had earned the right to go there."

In the context of this modesty, it is unsurprising to learn he doesn't live off his past reputation.

Good enough to play professionally for 20 years, MacKay would win three more caps for Scotland and establish himself as Hearts' record appearance holder. But then it was over and he had to get on with the rest of his life.

The agency work made him money but while he never wanted to be one of those people who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.

So in 2009, when Campbell Ogilvie, the then managing director of Hearts, asked him to travel to a residential home to spend time with a group of children who could benefit from a kind word and a sense that someone important cared, he jumped at the chance.

Five years on, he is completing his studies in social care and is experiencing the kind of satisfaction and fulfilment he hasn't known since he was a young man and Andy Roxburgh was asking him to take off his tracksuit and take the place of Paul McStay in Scotland's midfield.

"Can you do a job for me?" Roxburgh said. He could and as a result a lot of people in Ireland felt better about themselves. Now the job he does with vulnerable members of Edinburgh's community enriches both them and him.

"The values I had as a player, well, I hope I'm able to pass those on to young people," he says. "As when I played, I reflect a lot on my performance. I often ask myself, 'Could I have done my job better today?'

"The joy I get from my job - it is the only thing that is like being a footballer. I've been on this road for five years and am better because of it.

"As a player, you thought a lot about your own ego. Now I'm thinking about others and to feel you are helping people, well that is as good as scoring a goal."

Yet even though he has a new goal in life, the one he got in Sofia all those years ago still counts for something. "It is surreal," he admits, "that Irish people are interested in me.

"You hope, though, that someone new will come along in this campaign who will send Scotland and Ireland to the finals. I had my time. It is up to someone new to step up to the plate, someone who we will talk about 27 years from now."

Right now, though, obvious heroes aren't apparent as each team is defined by their manager rather than any particular player.

OLD-FASHIONED

"I can't profess to know either Gordon or Martin particularly well," says MacKay. "But from a distance, it's plainly clear that they are two real old-fashioned football men, men whose core values are right and proper.

"As a player, Gordon was such a competitor and that still shows. He knows the standards that have to be set.

"He treats people with respect and gives players the confidence to know that they are allowed to express themselves but in a disciplined manner. If they do that, he will back them and that is what players want, to know their manager believes in them.

"Scotland, under Gordon, play with a disciplined passion and with no fear of mistake. Will that be enough to win on Friday? I don't know.

"Sadly, I don't think both Scotland and Ireland will be able to qualify because the Germans are so strong and this group is proving to be ultra-competitive. It's great that a revival is under way with Ireland as well as with us. Both teams have improved. Worryingly, the same can be said about Poland. Predicting what will happen is dangerous."

Ask the Bulgarians.

Gary MacKay Factfile

BORN: Edinburgh in 1960

CLUBS: Joined Hearts, the club he supported as a boy, in 1980 and played a record 640 times for them.

FAMOUS FOR: Scoring the goal that gave Scotland a 1-0 win over Bulgaria in Sofia – and Ireland a place in the finals of Euro 88.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? Mackay won just four caps for Scotland but continued to be a key player in a Hearts team that was competitive in the Scottish Premier throughout the late 80s and early 90s.

AND NOW? Works as a players’ agent and also in social care. He regularly receives letters from Irish people thanking him for the goal he scored in Sofia 27 years ago

Irish Independent