Mackay soars with the high-flying Canaries

Phil Shaw talks to Norwich's defensive linchpin, who is determined to keep newcomers in the Premiership

Malky Mackay is partial to Alan Partridge, a case of the tackler tickled if ever there was one. The sitcom monster had, after all, done more for Norfolk's profile than anyone bar Delia Smith until Mackay and his cohorts swept Norwich City to promotion last spring.

Malky Mackay is partial to Alan Partridge, a case of the tackler tickled if ever there was one. The sitcom monster had, after all, done more for Norfolk's profile than anyone bar Delia Smith until Mackay and his cohorts swept Norwich City to promotion last spring.

But as we sit in the canteen at Norwich's rural training complex, chewing over the circumstances that have led Mackay to the brink of a Premiership debut at the age of 32, it is apparent that the personable, articulate, real-life Scottish centre-back and the cringe- inducing, crassly insensitive, mythical DJ actually have something in common.

Both men, you see, know all about working the graveyard shift. For Partridge, it has been downhill all the way, from life as a television chat show host (A-ha!) to the 4am slot on Radio Norwich. Mackay has made the reverse journey, starting out as an unpaid player who would arrive back in Glasgow in the small hours from outposts like Stranraer and Arbroath before heading out to his day job.

Like many in his transient profession, Mackay recognised the atmosphere of the "Travel Tavern" where Steve Coogan's darkly comic creation was ensconced. And while he never sneaked his own, extra-large plate into the self-service restaurant, there were times last season when it seemed the towering defender had gorged himself on what Partridge would doubtless term the buffet of life.

One edifying course was heaped on top of another, starting with the birth of a first child, Callum, to Mackay and his wife, Pamela. He then became the oldest player to make his international debut for Scotland in 37 years, and within a month he had helped Norwich to claim the Football League First Division championship. For afters there was a place in the PFA's First Division all-star XI, as voted by his fellow professionals.

Never mind Up With the Partridge, Mackay's story is one of Up With the Canaries. For until he became one of Norwich's linchpins under the astute management of Nigel Worthington, his career was notable for its steady rather than spectacular progress.

Until he was 21, he worked for the Bank of Scotland and played for the famous amateur club Queen's Park.

"My father (also called Malky) had been a centre-forward with them and he's still on the committee," Mackay says. "Our home ground was Hampden Park, but there were usually three men and a dog watching us rather than the 50,000 for big Scotland matches.

"It was an unusual grounding, but though I missed out on the YTS thing that virtually everyone else I've played with went through, I was fortunate that our manager, Eddie Hunter, was a firm believer in giving youth its chance with a view to getting a break in the pro game."

Queen's Park, like Corinthian-Casuals in England, have a reputation for old-fashioned sportsmanship. Mackay, while scarcely renowned for being reckless, admits it was not integral to his initiation in senior football. "I've had a couple of sendings-off down the years," he says. "The big things I learned there were honesty and hard work.

"We never received a penny for playing. We'd go training three nights a week after work and not get in until 10.30pm. Then at the weekend you were often travelling to some far-flung place. You were just hoping that if you stuck at it, somebody would notice you."

Someone did. In 1993 Mackay made the quantum leap to Celtic. "Liam Brady signed me, but it was an unsettling time at the club and I had five managers in as many years. To be honest, the place was in turmoil.

"I found the adjustment difficult at first. When your body is used to sitting behind a desk in the morning, it's tough when all of a sudden you've got to be running about. It took me a few months to settle and I felt I needed to do a little extra to give myself the best possible chance. A close friend who's a sports psychologist, Tom Lucas, helped me by talking to me and also with sprint training."

Mackay gradually worked his way into first-team contention at Celtic, yet he was not immune to the volatility that typified their fortunes. "We played Rangers in the Scottish Cup when we hadn't beaten them for 11 games," he recalls. "We won 2-0 and I scored the first from a header, which was very special for someone from the east end of Glasgow. About a week later, however, we played them in the League. Rangers won and there were, erm, various incidents. I was sent off for receiving two yellow cards."

By 1998 it was the shirt that was yellow, a £350,000 fee taking Mackay to East Anglia. "Norwich were a middle-of-the-road First Division club then. Crowds were 12,000 and people would sooner talk about the price of corn and cattle than about the team." How did the transformation happen? "Delia Smith. Norwich were on the verge of insolvency before she and her husband came in with a rescue package. She's brilliant - she has even put her cookery books and television work on hold to devote more time to the club.

"Her approach is very hands-on, but down-to-earth. Every six weeks she takes the wives on a night out or weekend away. They've even lunched at 10 Downing Street.

"It's all part of her thing of everyone pulling together. When people pull in different directions, clubs fracture. We've gone from strength to strength. Norfolk people tend to be quiet and laid-back - except when we play Ipswich - but there's a real passion about the place now.

"For the play-off final in Cardiff two years back, we took 30,000 fans. I remember looking at the massed replica shirts and thinking: 'Where have they all come from?' The momentum has rolled on from there and our attendances are up to 25,000.

Norwich lost on penalties in the Millennium Stadium and the publication of the next season's fixtures rubbed salt in the wounds. "Birmingham started at Arsenal," reflects Mackay. "We played Grimsby."

The itinerary for the coming campaign could have been designed to compensate them for that disparity. "We're at home to Crystal Palace on the opening day. Then we've got Manchester United, Newcastle and Arsenal within a week, with Liverpool to follow soon.

"If you're going into the Premiership, you may as well pitch in with everything you've got. Catch 'em while they're settling; that's the theory anyway! I've played against a lot of the top strikers in cup ties and friendlies - Henry, Hasselbaink, Rooney, Beattie and so on. I'm not saying it's the same as the league but it did show me that they were only human. We've met three-quarters of the clubs in some form or other these past few years, so it's not as if we're stepping into the unknown.

"I'm anticipating 38 games with the intensity of the Ipswich derby. Even with my experience of the Old Firm I couldn't believe the hostility between the rival supporters when I came down here, especially since we're 45 miles apart.

"The last four Football League champions all stayed up the next year. We must strive to be this season's Portsmouth. Fourth from bottom has to be the club's aim, at least as a starting point."

The fewer distractions from that target the better, you would think, but Mackay will be "delighted" should he be summoned to World Cup qualifying service with Scotland, particularly at Hampden. Berti Vogts belatedly capped him in April and he kept his place for the ensuing two matches.

"I'm very patriotic and it's something I've dreamed of since I was a wee boy. A few minutes before my debut in Denmark, I came out of the toilet and glanced in a mirror. I caught myself in a Scotland strip and I had to have a chuckle."

He will enjoy a similar sensation, one suspects, at Old Trafford (where the manager is a fellow Queen's Park alumna), Highburyk and the rest. "I've been in banking, been in the real world, so I appreciate what I've got and I'm determined to make it last as long as possible."

Radio Norwich's finest would doubtless have fun with the idea of banking as the real world. The real Mackay, meanwhile, must take his leave of the lunchtime throng and continue working towards the big kick-off. This season, like Alan Partridge, he is going to have a lot on his plate.

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