Malky Mackay ushered Cardiff City’s autocratic owner out of the dressing room door during a dispute over players’ bonuses at the beginning of October, and from that moment Vincent Tan was determined to reciprocate in spades.
A team man to the core, Mackay brooked no interference from the boardroom and told Tan he was not welcome in the players’ inner sanctum, whether he owned it or not. The manager also laughed at the Malaysian’s suggestion that the players should shoot from the halfway line to get more goals.
The multi-millionaire businessman is accustomed to a more subservient attitude from his employees and was bent on revenge for these perceived slights.
It was finally exacted yesterday, less than 24 hours after a grim 3-0 defeat at home to Southampton left Cardiff with one win and five losses in their last eight matches, and just a single point above the relegation places.
To the fans Mackay remains a messianic figure, viewed as the best manager the club has ever had after delivering the Holy Grail that is the Premier League after so many near misses under his predecessor, Dave Jones. Apart from winning the Championship and overseeing promotion to elite level for the first time in over half a century, the 41-year-old Scot also took a homespun team to Wembley for a League Cup Final in which they took Liverpool to penalties.
It is against this background that Mackay’s dismissal after two-and-a-half years in charge outraged supporters who have been singing “Don’t Sack Mackay, Malky Mackay” to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart” since it first became apparent that Tan wanted him out.
He was never the money man’s first choice for the job. At midnight on June 14 2011 Alan Shearer told Cardiff he would not be joining them as manager and it was as Plan B that Mackay was appointed two days later. The then directors had also spoken to Chris Hughton and Roberto Di Matteo, but Mackay became the choice of Gethin Jenkins, who was the club’s chief executive at the time. The reaction of Jenkins’ Malaysian masters was “Malky Who?”
After finishing his playing career at Watford, Mackay had become first team coach at Vicarage Road, caretaker manager then assistant to Brendan Rodgers before taking charge in his own right when Rodgers left for Swansea in the summer of 2009. His start in management was unremarkable, Watford finishing 16th in the Championship in 2009-10 and improving only two places the following season so, after their dalliance with Shearer, Cardiff’s appointment of Mackay was a punt and one hardly greeted with unbridled enthusiasm in south Wales when they made their move. They soon learned to love him.
The man himself was disappointed when both the men who sold the club to him, Jenkins and Alan Whiteley, moved on, leaving him to deal with Tan and his Malaysian cohorts.
In an interview last season for a forthcoming book, Mackay told me: “Gethin is someone I worked with closely during my first few months. He was open to the structure I wanted to put in place and was a driving force behind that. Alan sat shoulder to shoulder with Gethin. They were the two men who interviewed me and, looking into their eyes, I could see they were passionate about Cardiff City. Men I could trust.”
The Malaysian cabal proved to be another kettle of satay.Mackay was under contract until June 2016 and, realising he was on borrowed time after receiving an infamous “resign or be sacked” email from Tan on December 15, he recently engaged a barrister who specialises in employment law to pursue a claim for the £3m he would have been paid had he served his full term.
He often says he is possessed of a “steely determination”, and it is with this that he will seek compensation for losing a job he loved and that he regarded as only half done.
What sort of a man is he? It says a lot that his mentors are Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes. Like those two fellow Glaswegians he does not suffer fools and has a ruthless streak, but he is fiercely loyal to those who deserve it and never criticises his players in public. Omerta is his dressing room code and his popularity, as an essentially fair boss, was such that none of his charges ever said a word against him, not even “off the record”, which is rare indeed in an increasingly egocentric sport.
He is well liked by his peers, too, a host of managers including Moyes, Brendan Rodgers, Roberto Martinez and Steve Bruce speaking up for him these past few troubled weeks. Well before that, I remember covering Watford’s Championship fixture at home to Nottingham Forest on August 25 when Gianfranco Zola’s first words in his post-match press conference were: “How did Malky get on?” I was able to tell him that Malky had done rather well. It was the day Cardiff beat Manchester City 3-2.
Mackay could have had the Norwich job earlier this season but rejected their overtures to finish what he had started in the Welsh capital. Like so many others he will now be reflecting that in football these days, with very few exceptions, loyalty is what they screw you with.
With promotion to the Premier League on his CV and the likes of Ferguson to supply him with a glowing reference, he will not be short of alternative employment, but he is a proud man and getting the sack for the first time will hurt. He deserved more time, but don’t they all?