1987: The Real MacKay

1987 Gary MacKay of Scotland and Hearts

Did you hear the one about the Scotsman, the Englishman and the Irishman? In November 1987 all three of them came together for a piece of football history.

Gary MacKay was born on the 23rd of January 1964 in Edinburgh. He joined his local club Heart of Midlothian or Hearts as a sixteen year old in 1980 and the midfielder made a handful of appearances in 1980/81 as he battled away to become a first team regular. His displays caught the attention of Andy Roxburgh and in 1982 and was part of the Scotland Youth squad that won the European Championship in Helsinki.

1982 Scotland Youth Squad for the European Championship (MacKay is top left fifth along)

By 1985/85 Hearts had a superb team with the likes of goalkeeper Henry Smith, veteran Sandy Jardine, Craig Levein, Gary and with John Robertson and Sandy Clark up front. The Jam Tarts (nickname) went on an amazing unbeaten run and went into the final game of the season at Dundee requiring just one more point to win their first Championship title since 1960. However in a cruel climax, Dundee substitute Albert Kidd scored two late goals to hand the Title to Celtic on goal difference. The following week Hearts lost the Scottish Cup Final to Aberdeen and finished the season empty handed. They and their supporters deserved better.

By 1987/88 Gary was part of the Scotland squad but competition in midfield was fierce with the likes of Paul McStay, Ian Durrant, Neil Simpson, Roy Aitken and John Collins all vying for a start. Andy Roxburgh was now the Scotland manager and he selected Gary for the dead rubber Euro 1988 qualifier away to Bulgaria in Sofia. The match meant little to the Scots who’s hopes of making the tournament in West Germany had long since evaporated. In fact Bulgaria had not lost a qualifier at home since 1983. Top of Group 7, they knew that a win or draw would see them win the Group ahead of the Republic of Ireland and 1986 World Cup Semi Finalists Belgium.

Few gave Scotland a chance as Andy Roxburgh used the tie to experiment with different players before the 1990 World Cup qualifiers that started the following Autumn. On a wet night in Sofia Scotland lined up as follows:

Leighton, Clarke, Malpas, Aitken (c), McLeish, Gillespie, Nicol, McStay, (MacKay) Sharp, (Durie), McClair, Wilson

Scotland had a dismal away record and were thrashed 4-1 in Belgium in April. Most people expected Bulgaria to win comfortably. However Jack Charlton the English 1966 World Cup winner was now in charge of the Republic of Ireland and he hoped for a favour from the Scots. He knew that a Scotland win would send Ireland into the first major tournament in their history.

The first half was a cagey affair with Scotland sitting back and allowing Bulgaria plenty of the ball. Jim Leighton had to be at his agile best to keep the scoresheet blank at half time. Gary MacKay replaced Paul McStay at the start of the second half, but the game continued to be scrappy with a series of fouls and free kicks breaking up the flow of the game. Then in the 87th minute Gary latched onto a pass and fired Scotland into the lead from the edge of the box. The goal stunned the crowd into silence and Bulgaria poured forward in desperate search of an equaliser. However Scotland held firm for an excellent 1-0 victory. The Irish fans could now start booking their trips to Germany the following Summer.

Gary later said: “I think we were all in shock, because no-one expected us to win and certainly nobody expected me to score the winner.”

“That was my international debut: it was my first and last goal for Scotland. I had come on as a sub for Paul McStay and I was just delighted to get on the field and get my debut, so to score was beyond my wildest dreams.”

The last Hearts player to score for Scotland was Jimmy Murray in the 1958 World Cup. It is hard to quantify the impact of that goal and the win in Bulgaria had back in Ireland. The Bulgaria-Scotland game was shown live on RTE and a stunned Jack Charlton thanked Andy Roxburgh and promised to send a crate of champagne to the victorious Scotland squad. To underline the freak nature of the Scotland victory, the following month the Scots drew 0-0 away to the part timers of Luxembourg. Gary was a substitute in that game and made two further appearances for Scotland in a 2-2 draw in Saudi Arabia and a 1-1 draw in Malta the following year, his only start for the national team.

So what of the Republic of Ireland? They were drawn alongside England, Holland and the USSR in the 1988 European Championship. Few expected them to finish in the top two and reach the Semi Finals.

On the 12th of June 1988 England the pre tournament favourites faced Ireland in Stuttgart. Liverpool’s Ray Houghton, ironically born in Glasgow to an Irish father, headed past Peter Shilton after just 6 minutes. Then an inspired display by Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner and some poor finishing by 1986 World Cup Golden Boot winner Gary Lineker, meant that at full time Jack Charlton and the thousands of Irish fans could celebrate a famous 1-0 victory.

Euro 1988: Ray Houghton and his Liverpool team mate Ronnie Whelan celebrate his winning goal against England in Stuttgart

Three days later in arguably their best display under Charlton, Ireland lead through a brilliant Ronnie Whelan goal but the powerful Soviets fought back to earn a 1-1 draw in Hanover.

Euro 1988: Ronnie Whelan (kneeling) celebrates scoring against the USSR with Ray Houghton no.8 and John Aldridge no.9 in Hanover

Remarkably the Republic only needed a draw from their final game against Holland a few days later to qualify for the Semi Finals, after England lost their next two games both 3-1 to Holland and the USSR. However despite a battling performance, the Dutch won 1-0 with a late Wim Kieft header (which should have been flagged offside). Holland would go on to beat the hosts West Germany 2-1 in the Semi Final with a late Van Basten goal and he would go on to score one of the greatest goals in European Championship history, a brilliant volley, to give the Dutch the Title, with a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union (who had defeated Holland 1-0 in the group stage) in Munich.

Euro 1988 Final: Marco Van Basten volleys home for Holland against the USSR in Munich

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