On a blustery August afternoon in Peterhead 2012, Rangers started life in the 4th tier of Scottish football with a turgid draw against the fired up Blue Toon. Andy Little’s last minute goal saved us from an embarrassing opening day defeat in what was the beginning of a pretty excruciating campaign. It’s not Little’s goal which is the most iconic from that match. It was the opener and first league goal of the “journey” which is yet to be complete, scored by unknown 17-year-old Barrie McKay.
Young, skillful, and most importantly Scottish, McKay embodied the type of player every Rangers fan hoped they would see regularly throughout the journey up the leagues. Given his chance by Ally McCoist, with effectively a brand new squad, the youngster grabbed his moment with both hands and fired Rangers into a first half lead – the first league goal of our climb up the summit.
It’s not just Rangers who are on a journey though; McKay himself has been on a roller coaster ride – playing in different leagues, under different managers and with several different clubs. It looked like McKay’s Rangers career was coming to an end in January this year when he commented on the club’s stance that he wasn’t ready for the first team. On loan at Raith, McKay said at the time:
“Rangers haven’t said much really, just that I’ve been doing well and I’ve to stay here. “I thought I’d have a chance of going back to Rangers but they didn’t want me, they wanted me to extend my loan instead.” This was the sign of a player desperately frustrated with his lack of involvement at his parent club. And can you blame him?
With the league all but over and managers coming and going, it looked like McKay would finally get his chance to prove his worth to the Rangers fans. Kenny MacDowell insted decided to keep him out on loan at Raith Rovers. McKay’s skill and flair could have proved vital in the latter stages of last season, but the ageing Kenny Miller and Newcastle loanee’s were preferred instead.
There isn’t a problem with players going out on loan to develop their careers and learn the trade but McKay has been ready since day one. His record at the club speaks for itself.
It’s easy to pluck stats from the 3rd division, but McKay was just 17 at the time and many big earners failed to perform massively even at that level. Starting 20 games, McKay scored 4 goals and created an impressive 15 in the 2012/13 campaign. That’s a goal or assist nearly every match. Impressive for a boy so young. The 7-0 Scottish Cup win over Alloa saw McKay come off the bench to net a stylish and assured double, the second a glorious strike from outside the box. It was clear then that we had a serious player on our hands.
Despite his efficiency when called upon, McKay only started half of the league campaign and drifted further from the squad as the season came to a conclusion. This exclusion continued the following year, with the manager opting for the less dazzling Fraser Aird on the wing instead, and in December McKay was shipped out on loan to Morton.
Having only made 2 substitute appearances all season, it was crucial for him to be playing regularly. Despite playing in the league above, his spell at Morton wasn’t an overly productive period. Saying that, he did show glimpses that he has what it takes to play at a higher level – scoring the winner at Livingston as well as creating goals at Hamilton and Falkirk. However, McKay Is a player who has to be surrounded by quality and one who deserves a proper audience to entertain.
Raith Rovers proved to be a similar experience for McKay – lacking game time and struggling to make any serious impact, it looked as if his career might take a similar path to his brother Daniel, who spent three years in the lower leagues on loan from Kilmarnock – now playing for Neilston Juniors. But to be fair to Barrie he never threw in the towel unlike some (Charlie Telfer), and is mow playing some excellent football under Mark Warburton.
McKay spoke about his time on loan recently and thinks it made him cherish what he has at Rangers.
“I don’t know if I’ve become a different person but going away has helped me.
“When you come back you see how good we really have it here. You see teams don’t have this facility and it makes you want to do better. “To go to another team that’s not regarded as big, you see a different side to the fans.
“Like they don’t expect to win every week. So there’s also bigger pressure at Rangers too but I like that. I put pressure on myself to succeed.
The last quote in particular is the one that stands out. It’s refreshing to hear a player so young enjoying the pressure of playing for Rangers. That’s what we look for at the end of the day – players relishing the challenge and not shying away from it. You can tell that when McKay plays, he is always hungry for the ball and enthusiastic about getting forward and beating his man. It doesn’t always come off but he gets bums off seats.
Much has been made of the arrival of Nathan Oduwa and his magic feet but Barrie McKay is a far more accomplished player. McKay is smarter on the ball, knows how to read the defender and has sublime ball control. His passing can be wayward at times but that’s nothing the magic hat can’t fix.
Still only 20-years-old, McKay has over 100 senior appearances to his name and finally looks like a settled player. The likes of Callum Gallagher might feel slightly hard done by that McKay was given a chance and he weren’t but Warburton knows exactly the kind of player he wants and Barrie fits the bill perfectly. At Brentford, Warburton had a similar player in the Spaniard Jota, also an attacking midfielder. Both relatively small and understated, the players have similar attributes – quick, dynamic and creative. Jota was famous for cutting inside at Brentford and McKay looks to have adopted a similar approach, although his weak foot needs strengthening.
The manager isn’t shy in his praise for the player and thinks he’ll go all the way to the top.
“When you go to a new club as manager, it’s a blank canvas,” said Warburton. “You can’t have any pre-conceived ideas about players. I didn’t know much about Barrie, but from the first day at training he caught the eye.
“He is technically outstanding, the quickest at the club, he’s only 20 years old, he can play wide left or right, in central midfield, he can play the eight or ten position. What’s not to like about Barrie?
“He could be a real gem. He has the potential to be a real talent at this football club. He’ll get better and better.
The player’s renaissance under Warburton is no fluke – he’s simply been given the freedom to play and excel in an attacking system. Having like minded players such as Holt, Oduwa and Waghorn brings out the best in him. His link up play with Lee Wallace is another aspect which has been particularly pleasing. That will only go from strength to strength. So far this campaign McKay has started 15 from 17 games, scoring 3 and assisting 7 and was man of the match last week against Livingston.
It’s not just for Rangers McKay’s talents have been applauded. He’s represented the Scotland national team from U18 level to U21 and has been a key player for the U19 side, starting five games and scoring two goals, winning Man of the match awards against the Netherlands and Sweden.
So what does the future hold? I’m sure that every Rangers fan will agree that he is far from the finished article but it’s clear that the player represents hope for the future and puts faith back into the Murray Park system.
It’s fitting that the player who scored our first goal on the journey back now looks like playing a key part in its completion.