“There have been plenty of the regular names touted for the manager’s post and a handful of unexpected options, yet none of the others carry the same political and social baggage of Mackay.”
As many have noted, Robbie Neilson’s departure as Dundee United manager in mid-June 2020 didn’t cause much trouble amongst our fan base. After four years in the Scottish second tier, many supporters believe Neilson hasn’t achieved anything beyond what was expected from Ray McKinnon and then Csaba László in 2017, then again in 2018, and again in 2019…. What has caused discontent, however, amongst a significant proportion of supporters – and rightly so – is the increasing likelihood that Scottish Football Association’s Performance Director Malky Mackay will be appointed manager early next week. Sky Sports have even reported this afternoon that the club have been given permission to discuss the vacancy with him.
So why the hostility towards the bookies’ 5/4 favourite? After a two-year stint at Watford (2009-2011), Mackay enjoyed relative on-field success with Cardiff City (2011-2013) – leading them to their first English League Cup Final and the Championship Play-off Final during his first season, before achieving the league title and automatic promotion to the English Premier League the following year. Yet, it was just before he looked set to be appointed head coach position at Crystal Palace that the problematic nature of Mackay’s conduct whilst at Cardiff City came to light.
Amidst a range of controversies involving Mackay and his Head of Player Recruitment Iain Moody (which included a suggested £15million overspend; leaked team sheets; and strained relationships with Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan) were claims of sexist, racist, anti-semantic, and homophobic remarks. Among the texts exchanged between Mackay and Moody (and other staff) which were leaked into the public domain during the investigations were comments of an anti-semitic nature (‘Go on, fat Phil. Nothing like a Jew that sees money slipping through his fingers’); homophobic (‘He’s a snake, a gay snake. Not to be trusted’; racist remarks (“Not many white faces amongst that lot but worth considering’; as well as anti-Chinese and anti-Black comments); and sexist discussion of women in the game (‘bet you’d love a bounce on her falsies’). Following the investigation, Mackay ‘admitt[ed] to sending text messages that were very regrettable and disrespectful to other cultures’, yet he quickly received public backing from several high profile individuals and bodies within English football.
The English League Managers’ Association, for example, came under intense public scrutiny after downplaying Mackay’s discriminatory remarks as just ‘friendly text message banter’. Indeed, a statement suggested that the messages were ‘sent in private at a time Malky felt under great pressure and when he was letting off steam to a friend’. An apology was later issued by the association, stating that ‘some of [the statement’s] wording which was inappropriate and has been perceived to trivialise matters of a racist, sexist or homophobic nature’, before acknowledging that ‘[i]t is beyond argument that any comments that are discriminatory, even used in private, are totally unacceptable’. At the time, current and ex- professional players condemned the organisation for its mishandling of the situation.
In the face of significant fan opposition, Mackay was then appointed manager of Wigan Athletic in late-2014. Club sponsor Premier Range immediately withdrew their support, and anti-racist football charity Kick It Out! publicly criticised the decision. He was dismissed a mere five months later, only to become Performance Director at the Scottish Football Association in December 2016 following Brian McClair’s departure from the role.
In a B.B.C. News report, the S.N.P.’s Clare Haughey (M.S.P. for Rutherglen) ‘called on the SFA to “see sense” and rule out Mackay as a candidate [for the position], arguing that his appointment would send out the wrong signals.’ She emphasised that ‘[y]oung people look to football for role models, and one of the most important jobs in Scottish football is not the place for someone who felt these conversations were an acceptable part of football culture’. As a community worker and educator practicing in adult education, youth work, and community development – with experience in anti-racism and queer inclusion; as well as sport-based work – I hold similar concerns about what signal Mackay’s appoinment would give off for my club. A reminder here that the comments were made on a phone he used for work-related communication.
The incredible thing is, neither Mackay nor Moody were really punished for their conduct, rather the two men merely received a stern talking to with the English Football Association ruling that ‘the communications were sent with a legitimate expectation of privacy’, claiming that ‘the FA’s policy in cases such as this has been to not bring charges in respect of private communications sent with a legitimate expectation of privacy’. This policy has since undergone extensive review.
In the aftermath, anti-racism organisations continued to condemn the ruling, commenting that ‘The FA needed to take a strong position to help prove football’s ‘zero-tolerance’ approach towards discriminatory practices. Instead, we have another example of the status quo being reinforced, and discriminatory practices being allowed to flourish in ‘no-go’ areas such as within the exclusivity of boardrooms, training grounds and dressing rooms, and via private communication networks’. The Women in Football network similarly criticised the result attesting that ‘privately discriminating against those with protected characteristics is no less dangerous than publicly doing so’.
During the case, Mackay was supported by many former colleagues who leapt to defend his character – among them ex-England manager Harry Redknapp. Then-Professional Footballers’ Association chairman Clarke Carlisle suggested folk would ‘struggle to find anybody in the industry who has worked with or played against Malky who has a bad word to say about him’ before suggesting that individuals would have their own opinion on the ‘severity of the issue’. Mackay’s agent, Raymond Sparks, followed suit stating that if ‘you were to know Malky Mackay, you would know him as a good man, from a good family, with good values’.
I wrote a column for Ungagged earlier this week, in the aftermath of the ‘All Lives Matter Burnley’ banner being flown over the Etihad on Monday night. In it, I argued that football clubs need to take responsibility for their representation by supporters and condemn actions of those who associate themselves with the teams and conduct themselves as the political and social bodies that they are. I suggested that ‘those of us with an explicit desire to address their own internalised and projected biases must understand the need to proactively challenge broader issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and the like within the communities we associate ourselves with’; adding that we must be ready to engage in the struggle when the moment called for it. Should Mackay’s appointment come to pass, one such moment will have arrived at my own club far sooner than I expected. I’ve already seen comments this morning on supporters’ Facebook Pages where it’s been suggested that the club ‘[w]ould’ve been able to nudge his past to the side of there wasn’t a massive BLM [Black Lives Matter] thing going around the [world]’; and I already hold serious concerns about the my team’s ethos after a player who appeared in blackface was allowed to continue his employment.
Earlier this month, Dundee United midfielder Ian Harkes spoke to The Courier about the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. During the interview he stated, ‘We need to stand together against injustice and all forms of racism. We need to continue to educate ourselves and understand that our system is broken and has always favoured the majority (white Americans like myself). We need to listen and support black communities and activists who are calling for change’. It’s a pleasure to see a player at my club engage so directly in politics, yet that same team may be about to appoint someone who has been found to have participated in discussions that directly contradict such beliefs.
Whatever happens, I’ll support the team on the pitch regardless of who the board appoints, but will take whatever collective fan action I can to voice dissent over such an appointment and should Malky become manager then I have grave concerns for the future of our incredible community work, the club’s image, commitment to our women’s team, and the message such an appointment sends out to fans and others in the city and beyond. There have been plenty of the regular names touted for the manager’s post and a handful of unexpected options, yet none of the others carry the same political and social baggage of Mackay. At this point in time, as much as I’d adore the club to be radical in its search and shortlisting process – perhaps following the lead of Stirling University (Shelley Kerr), Cork City (Lisa Fallon), Clermont Foot (Corinne Diacre), and B.V. Cloppenburg (Imke Wübbenhorst) by not limiting themselves to male candidates for the top job – I don’t hold out any hope for that. What I do long for, however, is better than this.