On the 27th anniversary of Scotland beating Bulgaria to send Ireland to Euro ‘88, honorary Irishman Gary Mackay recalls the goal that made all the difference — and the case of whiskey that got away!
We weren’t playing to try to help Ireland, we were trying to get a victory for Scotland
“You probably know why I’m ringing you,” I say to Gary Mackay, having identified myself as an Irish journalist.
“Aye, I think I probably do,” comes the reply, accompanied by a hearty Scottish chuckle.
As if anyone who knows anything about Irish football needs reminding, it was Gary Mackay who, on this very night 27 years ago — November 11, 1987, to be exact — scored the famous goal in Sofia which not only gave Scotland an improbable victory over Bulgaria, but meant that it was Jack Charlton’s team who qualified for Euro ’88 in Germany the following summer.
Ever since, the then Hearts midfielder has enjoyed honorary Irish status, his place in our football folklore — as the man whose 86th minute strike heralded an historic breakthrough on the international stage — ensuring that, from time to time over the years, he has grown accustomed to fielding fresh inquiries from Irish journalists who want to take him on another trip down memory lane.
And what better time to renew old acquaintance than in the week leading up to Ireland’s first competitive battle in Glasgow since, thanks to a Mark Lawrenson goal, they won 1-0 there earlier in that 1988 Euro qualifying campaign which would climax unforgettably with Scotland doing us such a huge, transformative favour.
Fortunately, the affable Mackay, now 50, is only too happy to reflect once again on the meaning of it all, though he’s at pains to stress that if helping Ireland was a consequence of Scotland’s victory in Sofia, it was never their priority going into a game in which only pride was at stake for the visitors.
“We knew the permutations, we knew how the group could pan out but, if I’m being honest, we weren’t playing to try to help Ireland, we were trying to get a victory for Scotland,” he says. “As it worked out, it did help Ireland and, good on them, they had amassed the points we couldn’t amass. But there was never any brown envelopes put under our doors the night before the game, nothing like that whatsoever. It was a case of Scottish pride and just trying to get a victory for ourselves.”
And it turned out to be a night of particular pride for Mackay, who was actually making his senior debut for the country when he came off the bench at half-time to replace the injured Celtic midfielder Paul McStay.
“Paul was somebody that I was always in the shadow of, and understandably so,” he reflects. “To be in the shadow of Paul McStay was no mean thing. He’d been outstanding for Scotland from schoolboy level upwards. But would Scotland have maybe tried to strap Paul up and work a wee bit harder to get him out for the second half if there had been an opportunity for us to qualify? That’s anybody’s guess.”
Instead, the spotlight fell on the Hearts man, his superbly taken goal with just four minutes remaining stunning the Bulgarians and, with Scotland holding out for the win, setting up Ireland for that historic first ever qualification.
“It was probably a Scottish kind of night, a horrible, damp, wet night,” Mackay recalls. “To be honest, I probably tried to hit the ball with my right foot but it moved that bit quickly across my path, I hit it with my standing foot which was my left foot. But that way I was able to open the angle up and bend it ‘round the ‘keeper. To be honest, I think it was more luck than good judgement but it ended up where I wanted it to end up.
“And it was a great win for us because Bulgaria were a decent team at that time. On the night, when they needed only a point, I don’t think they knew whether to stick or twist.
“They didn’t know whether to go for it or not and, as it worked out, the nervousness that crept into their game allowed us to get the victory.”
When did he begin to appreciate what it all meant in Ireland?
“Probably the next day. The club secretary at Hearts said to me after training that they’d been inundated with people wanting to speak to me and so on and so forth. But we did have a league game at Aberdeen on the Saturday and he wondered if we could get that over with first. And I said, ‘Aye’. I was a Hearts player and that was my bread and butter.
“But within 24 hours it became a bit manic, if I’m being honest. And the early part of the following week became, not difficult, but enjoyable. Because, I’ve said it before, I’ve gained a lot of friends through that goal. And not just Irish people. I mean, I met a guy the following summer, on holiday in Portugal, a Newcastle United supporter who I only went down to see again last weekend. And his recognition of me was from scoring that goal for Scotland. Paul was a football man and recognised me in a pub in Portugal. And that friendship has lasted the test of time.
“Apart from meeting Irish people on holiday and so on, one of the loveliest things that happened was that, seven or eight years ago, I played in a charity game down in England — Old Scotland v Old England — and Jim Beglin was doing the television commentary at the match. Now, I was a Liverpool fan as a boy and still always liked them, and Jim Beglin didn’t have to do it but he came down from the commentary gantry in Southampton and came onto the pitch prior to the game, suited and booted, and shook my hand and thanked me for the small part I’d played in Irish football history.”
Correction, sir — a big part! “Ah well, that’s for other people to say.”
I’d always presumed that Ireland’s adopted hero must have been inundated with offers and gifts and freebies from businesses here at the time but, as the man himself notes with a mock rueful laugh, the rewards could have been much greater.
“Over the first few months there were a few things, and if I’d had an agent at that time I probably could have cashed in,” he says. “But I didn’t — agents weren’t the done thing at that time. But I did do one or two adverts for Scottish Provident. And my mum and dad had a pub, and Guinness sent some stuff across.
“I think there was also a case of Jameson sent to the SFA but, in the spirit of sportsmanship, the SFA declined the Jameson and sent it back. Which was a little bit disappointing, from my point of view.
“If they’d sent it to me directly, I don’t think it would have gone back, that’s for sure.”
Since retiring from football Mackay has worked as a player agent himself but while he is still involved in what he calls “a wee bit of industry stuff”, his time now is mainly devoted to finishing his training in the field of child care. “I’m going through my studies and loving it,” he reports. “There’s a real joy to be gained from helping children.”
And will he be in Celtic Park this coming Friday? “Actually, in my new work environment there’s a girl holding a 50th birthday party this Friday night and it’s been organised for a long time so I’m going to that,” he explains. “But there’s a function suite and the lounge area doe have a television so I don’t think there’ll be any singing or dancing done until the game’s finished. And who knows where I’ll be for the return leg?”
The FAI and the SFA might have had their disagreements recently but if there’s one Scot who surely deserves some preferential ticket treatment for the game in Dublin next June, then they know who to call.
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