JOE MCKEE - Curtain Call

From a Bairn to a Son, Joe McKee has seen it all. The playmaker has stories to tell from a career that has boomeranged across borders - both geographically and contractually. Right now, McKee is working his way back up the SPFL ladder having enjoyed a successful part-time pitstop at The Rock with Dumbarton. There, under the stewardship of his former Morton gaffer (“never Jim, always ‘gaffer’”), he recorded a sensational 15 assists in League 1 during a curtailed 2019/20 season, which led to a Midfielder of the Year nomination and, with it, a resurgence of confidence. A return to the full-time game was imminent. 

Joe actually gave us the inside scoop on his latest venture during our chat but, to avoid getting in to trouble, we’ll stick to what we know. Here’s what was said over a coffee in Cumbernauld. 

I want to start from the beginning, you were signed by Dundee United in 2000; how did they pick you up as a 7 year old? So Dundee United had a base in Glasgow, a base in Edinburgh and a base in Dundee with a team in each area for that age group. The one in Glasgow was over in Glasgow Green; my dad actually seen it in the paper or something like that. He told me they were doing trials and just encouraged me to go along. When I went in, though, all the boys were older than me - I was playing a year above myself. Boys like Scott Allan and Paul Slane were in that team - but I really enjoyed it. I played in that team for three or four years and then I went back to my own age group; we had a really good team in Glasgow for that age group. I was playing 7-asides and 9-asides with them but, when it came to going 11-asides, all of the players at the three bases were put in to one big trial match on the astroturf at Gussie Park up in Dundee. You walked in and you had to find your name on a sheet of paper, there were so many kids! We were split in to two teams that had players from each base, we didn’t know each other, but we all played with Dundee United. So it was basically a trial game to identify who was getting kept on and who wasn’t. I’ll always remember it as it was my first ever 11-aside game. My team won 4-1 and I scored two from outside the box; you know what it’s like, we’re all tiny, as soon as you strike it high then it’s a goal. After that game, we were told who was getting kept on and the team came together; I actually was given the captaincy. That’s when we started playing teams like Hearts, Celtic, Rangers - all the good teams. 

You then moved on to Livingston; was that because of the travelling up to Dundee? Or was it purely a footballing decision? I actually really liked it at Dundee United. The coach we had there at the time was a guy called Joe Wylie who was really good for me. He then went to Livingston as they had a really good youth set-up. So there were actually about five or six boys who followed him down to Livingston. Dundee United wanted me to stay, but I wanted to go and work with Joe. He taught me how to play centre midfield and how to position myself on the pitch. So I moved on to Livingston and stayed there for three or four years until I went full-time. 

During your time at Almondvale the club was taken over by Italian owners who overhauled the culture at the club, with players made to stay at the stadium hotel and training changing to evening sessions. Were you part of that shift or were you out of it a little with the youth team? I never seen too much of that at the start. I actually left school 6 months early because I got permission from the headteacher, he encouraged me to do it as he was an ex-professional footballer. So, at that time, Derek McWilliams had just came in and was taking our under-15 team - Joe had left by this point - and Derek was doing his best to pull a team together; we were all over the place. That team was rubbish. I remember we took some doings that year - we went up to Aberdeen and lost 10-0! Despite that, it was one of the best seasons I had; I was actually progressing. By the end of that season, I would play the game with the under-15’s and then be told to stay behind so I could be in the squad with the 17’s. That under-17’s team had Andy Halliday in it, Gordon Smith, the Jacobs triplets, their older brother Keaghan and Leigh Griffiths - it was a really good side and we had a great coach called Paul Connelly. But, out of everyone in my team from the under-15’s, I was the only one who got kept on and went full-time. But I was only 15. So, for the first six months, I was only getting my bus pass paid for, I wasn’t getting a wage. Then it wasn’t long after that when the Italian’s came in. So, as you’ve said about making boys stay in the hotel and stuff like that, I never got to see that as I was mainly with the youth team at that point. There would only be a couple of times when I was told I’d be training with the first team and I was told to come in for 3 o’clock for training - but I never knew any better; I thought that was normal. Whereas some of the older, more experienced players were moaning about it as they had been used to training Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday off, then back in Thursday and Friday. But it never lasted too long if I remember - maybe five or six months and then they were away. But it was a mad six months! That was the whole Parma thing…

Well that was going to be my next question! I’m sure the story is that one of the owners at the club was also Nakamura’s agent, who was playing for Celtic at the time. I remember coming in to training one morning and Andy Halliday came over to me: ‘We’ve to go in for a meeting in five minutes - me, you and Leigh Griffiths’. I’m asking him what for and he told me that the club wanted to send us to Italy! But, see at that time, the changing room at Livi was crazy - so much stuff was getting done to boys. Everyday! I would just walk about, hoping that nothing would happen to me! I feared for my clothes, I thought my boots would be stolen - it was just constant pranks on people. You’d come in from training and there would be at least one thing done to someone. The first thing I done after training would be to check my pockets to see if everything was still there! So, when Andy told me that, I just thought it was another wind-up. ‘Aye, nae bother… no chance!’. Five minutes later, I think it was one of the owners pulled us all in to his office. He’s talking to us in an Italian accent: ‘You guys.. next week.. go to Parma.. five days’. I’ve just turned 16! I’m like that: ‘Whit?!’ (Laughs) But you don’t realise how big a club Parma are; you don’t realise they are a massive club. Straight away, Sparky says: ‘I’m no gawn!’ (Laughs) So we went over with a fitness coach as he could speak a little bit of English. We were just stuck in these dorms for five days in a training complex. I know that, recently, the boys have told this story on their Open Goal interviews but, from my point of view, when we got to the training ground, there were so many players, right? We had to train with the Under-20’s. I was only 16. And these guys were men. There were guys from all over the world there as well. Anyway, I remember that, when we went in to get changed, Andy and Sparky went in to a different changing room from me, and I went in to another changing room with boys my age, just to get changed. I don’t know why. So I’m in this changing room by myself, a 16 year-old boy from the east end of Glasgow, don’t know anybody. Next thing, this boy comes over to me and starts speaking to me in Italian. He’s not smiling or anything, but he’s quite chirpy. I’m sitting there like: ‘Whit?!’. But another boy could speak English and he explained that he was asking me what position I played. That’s the first thing he’s saying to me! It wasn’t ‘Ciao’ or anything like that, it was ‘what position do you play’ straight away! Then they gave me a training top. It was tight as anything - it was like an under-armour shirt… and we are going out to train in 30 degree heat! Then we got to the pitch. They had about 10 pitches. Nine of them were immaculate and we trained on the worst one. It was horrendous! And then, the boys, as I said, were just like men. But I was quite chirpy at that point myself - boys used to say I was big time. I wasn’t, I was just confident in my ability. I just always wanted the ball. So I managed to find out how to say that in Italian. I was just running about, shouting at people: ‘Passami la palla! passami la palla!’ at these boys who were four or five years older than me! We done well, though; the three of us done well.

That’s what I was going to say to you, as Andy Halliday mentioned in his Open Goal interview that you guys ripped up the trial match and Parma wanted to sign all of you but he personally wasn’t interested. Nor was Leigh Griffiths. But were you ever tempted to make the switch? So, when we came back, we weren’t told what the script was one way or another. It was all hearsay. The person who was Nakamura’s agent was the one dealing with it. A few days after we came back, my dad had a missed call from an unknown number and the person left a voicemail. It was him. I remember he let me listen to it. It was like something out of a gangster movie. They were telling me to get rid of my agent and that he would be my agent. He said that the club would sell Griffiths permanently, but myself and Andy would be loaned with a view to signing after a year. My dad just looked at me and went ‘nah, you’re not going’.

And were you in agreement with him? Yeah. I didn’t want to go. But, after that, from what I heard, they had agreed a fee for Leigh Griffiths, he said no, and it all fell through from there. Then, a short time after that, the owners left and the club went in to administration. It was just a mental time. I used to get my wages late all the time. 

You never had long to wait to make the move to a big club as Burnley came in for you. But I read that they were alerted to your ability after you scored 13 goals in 17 starts for the Under-19’s. How did you manage that? I played as a right midfielder as I was too small to play in the middle for the 19’s. I actually remember how I got in to the team. We had a game on a Friday night against Ayr United on the astroturf behind the stadium at Livingston. I was on the bench and we were winning 2-1 at half-time. The manager put me on for the second half on the right-hand side. After five minutes I had scored, and after ten minutes, I had set one up. We beat them 9-1. From there, I was in the team and I just went through a spell of scoring all the time. We had a really good season that year - we won the league and won the cup. It got to a point that I was being told to train with the first team, so I started going up and training with them. My duties at the time were sweeping the floors. I remember doing it this one time on a Friday the day before a first-team game against St. Johnstone. Just as I was sweeping up, the squad list went up for the game on to the gaffer’s door. One of the boys shouted on me to tell me I was in the squad. I thought it was another one their pranks! I thought he was trying to get me to go down to have a look at it and all the boys would start laughing. But I had to sweep down that end anyway, so I tactfully went down and had a look. My name was at the bottom of the sheet. So I went to St. Johnstone. I wasn’t on the bench, I was just in the stands. But even to be quoted by the gaffer, Paul Hegarty - I mean, he played for Dundee United in the European Cup, he knows the game - so I was buzzing. Then it wasn’t long after that when I got asked to go down to Burnley for a week. It was between Burnley or Rangers at the time. We had played Rangers in a game and I played really well, after they came and watched a few more of my games, then they offered me a contract. They actually tried to pay money for me as I was only six months in to a two-year contract with Livingston. But I just thought it would be too hard to make it there – they had a strong youth set-up and had guys like John Fleck coming through at the time. So I decided to go down to Burnley for a week, and I loved it. Within six weeks, they had bought me and I was away. That was it. 

You signed for The Clarets having only made one league appearance for Livingston and proceeded to not make a first team appearance for both Burnley and then Bolton; with hindsight, do you wish you had stayed on at Livingston and gotten first team experience before making the move down south, in a similar vein as Andy Halliday? Yeah, I wish I had went down there with more first-team experience. Well, I do and I don’t. As, at the time, Burnley had Owen Coyle - a Scottish manager - and they were sitting about 6th in the Premier League. At the end of the trial week, I thought I would just go back to Livingston as I was signed with them; I was under contract. It’s not like I was an Irish boy over on trial who could sign, as they are all amateur over there, aren’t they? But, at the end of the week, they offered me a