A hugely enjoyable element of putting this publication together has been discovering more about players that I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness at Fir Park, quite often we’d find a contact along the way that brought us closer to the player in question. However, Keith MacRae proved to be a somewhat trickier prospect.
When I first discussed Keith’s inclusion in the’ 25 Greatest Post-War Motherwell Players’ with Graham Barnstaple, he admitted he was a Motherwell legend who had gone ‘off the radar’. Indeed, it was Graham’s memories of the goalkeeper who moved from Fir Park to Manchester City for £100,000 in 1973 that assisted me massively in putting this feature together.
Graham compiled a piece on Keith for the ‘Well fanzine ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forward’ in which he described him as ‘his top goalkeeper in his time watching Motherwell’. Graham’s knowledge on all things MFC is fairly unparalleled, it would have been poor form of me to seek further confirmation of MacRae’s abilities between the sticks and let’s face it, a large number of people voted them into their top players of all time, but I did a little check anyway – just to be sure of course…
Within minutes of seeking an opinion on Facebook, John Howie was in touch to back up Graham’s viewpoint – “Keith MacRae was the best goalkeeper I have ever seen, even the great Gordon Banks said that after we played Stoke in the Texaco Cup back in the Sixties.”
Gordon Kelman couldn’t disagree hailing him “the best keeper we’ve ever had – he was the Cat.”
Billy Moore went one step further: “Keith is Motherwell’s greatest keeper in my 63 years of supporting the club, he was an excellent outfield player too. As a goalkeeper, his handling and agility was second to none and I expected him to be Scotland’s goalkeeper for many years.”
Any doubts I had over Keith’s abilities between the sticks firmly dispersed, it was time to consider his career and, in particular, his time with Motherwell.
Keith was a local lad hailing from Lanark who split his football duties while training as a journalist with the Scottish Daily Express. He signed for the ‘Well in the late 1960s as understudy to Peter McCloy. While he waited for his opportunity to play for the first team in goal, he took the opportunity to make his debut as an outside-left and also played right-back in a League Cup fixture. He would get on the scoresheet in a League Cup tie in 1963 against Montrose and later on in the season added a goal in league action – a 4-0 victory over Alloa as the Steelmen romped to the league title.
When McCloy moved to Rangers, Fir Park boss Bobby Howitt had no hesitation in giving the number one jersey to MacRae and it was a role he made his own. Within a short space of time he was selected for the Scotland Under-23 squad (no it’s not a typo, that’s what it was then!) and then even the full squad.
The flame-haired stopper was proving to be a firm favourite with the ‘Well supporters and their manager Ian St John, his excellent performances earning him the club Player of the Year award in 1970.
MacRae was quickly becoming one of Graham’s Motherwell idols, and he recalls travelling to Wembley for a fixture between England and Scotland and the excitement of seeing one oh his Claret and Amber heroes potentially turn out for Scotland.
“I remember going to Wembley for the Scotland vs England game in 1971, which was my first International game, and Keith was a sub,” he recalled.
“When the subs made their way round the edge of the field to the dug-out I was so thrilled to see him and was probably the only person in the crowd shouting his name. Then during the game desperately hoping that Bobby Clark of Aberdeen would get injured to let my hero on to the pitch. Unfortunately, he didn’t and sadly Keith never made it into the full team at any time in his career.”
Perhaps the most memorable games in MacRae’s time at Fir Park would be the Texaco Cup fixtures against Spurs in 1971. MacRae would play a pivotal role in ensuring the Steelmen defeated the side laden with internationalists over two-legs. In the second-leg he showed everything that he was good at, confidently clutching crosses and easily saving shots as they rained in.
Archive footage shows one save in particular from Alan Gilzean which looked as though it would loop over him and into the net, but he got up to tip the ball over and ensure that Motherwell went on to win the game 3-1.
Making a big impression in high-profile fixtures meant it was little surprise that MacRae began to attract the attention from down south -familiar territory for Motherwell supporters and Graham recalls vividly the moment he learned that his hero would be departing Fir Park.
“I became a bit panicky one Saturday when I was waiting for the bus home after playing football for the school in the morning,” he explained.
“As I waited I saw a face I recognised, it dawned on me it was Tony Book who was the manager at Maine Road at the time. Sadly the £100,000 transfer fee they offered was too good to turn down and my goalie hero moved south.”
At City, Keith was a regular until he broke his wrist one week allowing Joe Corrigan back into the City side. Corrigan never looked back, including playing for England, and MacRae disappeared from football to make a return to the world of journalism. Incredibly, MacRae would have a spell where he would fail to take part in a league game for City for almost five years, when injury to Corrigan gave him a run of three games in the side before losing his place once again.
During this time, when he was permanent second choice keeper, Keith had taken a part-time job as a journalist for the Manchester Evening News. After making a total of 72 league and cup appearances for City in his eight years with the club, MacRae was transferred to American side Portland Timbers in 1981. He returned to England shortly afterwards in January 1982, signing for Leeds United, but failed to make a first team appearance.
And while his career perhaps ended in a more low-key fashion than it deserved, Motherwell fans will forever treasure their memories of their flame-haired, goal-scoring goalie.