There has never been any need for apocryphal stories about Jim McLean. Verified events are extraordinary enough. McLean’s glory days at Dundee United are once again in the spotlight following his death on Saturday aged 83. So, too, many of the crazy episodes that endorsed his legend.
This was the manager whom, in the hours following United’s title win in 1983, poured a drink for a journalist in his office at Tannadice while looking skywards and apologising to his own mother. McLean was fastidiously teetotal. He duly branded it an “absolute disgrace” his team had been crowned champions. Pointing to the players’ appearance chart on his wall, McLean asserted this tiny squad should never have achieved such a feat.
If players summoned the courage to approach McLean for a new pair of boots, he would inspect the old ones before insisting on a visit to a cobbler.
And then there was the case of the reporter handed the shortest of straws, a visit to McLean’s home on a Sunday. When approaching the door, he spotted the United manager diving behind an item of furniture. As Mrs McLean politely insisted her husband had gone out for the day, the journalist bid her farewell. When halfway down the path he about-turned, rang the bell once more and informed the manager’s wife that, if she was indeed alone, she should be vigilant as there appeared to be a strange man lurking in the dining room. Enter “Wee Jim”, hurtling down the hallway and with athunderous tone. “Get off my property” is the polite version.
Owing to a messy departure from Tannadice and subsequent years of ill health, McLean has not been at the forefront of Scottish football for a considerable time. If United fans are entitled to revel in his exceptional reign, the rest of us can reflect on more palatable times.
When his team won the league they succeeded Celtic. Aberdeen were champions in 1984 and 1985. Since then, only the Old Firm have claimed the flag. That Aberdeen – under Alex Ferguson – and United were far more than lucky was emphasised by their performances in Europe.
On the day McLean died, Rangers were praised for edging out Hibernian and Celtic lauded for swaggering past Hamilton. The huge financial advantages enjoyed by the Glasgow clubs mean Scotland’s top flight is essentially non-competitive before a ball is kicked. It is not the fault of supporters for failing to recognise the broader context but they have been conditioned to ignore it. In McLean’s pomp, the Scottish game was far more compelling.
Quite what Jerry Kerr, the United general manager, saw in the 34-year-old across the street at Dundee in late 1971 is unclear. McLean, after only a decent playing career, planned to build homes for the rest of his working life. Dundee’s players were fit and McLean, part of a strong football family, had started studying tactics of overseas teams. Beyond that? The case looked flimsy. As it transpired, Kerr was a visionary and McLean a genius.
United afforded McLean the commodity that is never available now: time. United were a mid-table side until 1975, when they finished fourth. A year later they slipped to third bottom of the new Premier Division. Third in 1978 was the indicator of things to come and they won the League Cup in the following two years, the club’s first major honours.
The 1982-83 campaign was peak for McLean. The manager was carried from the pitch at Dens Park as United, at best a medium-sized club, were crowned champions. In the same season, Aberdeen took delivery of the Cup Winners’ Cup. The New Firm, with Ferguson and McLean revelling in dishing out bloody noses to the Old Firm, was born.
McLean’s success was built on basic principles: sourcing of promising youngsters, picking up players who had struggled in England after moves from Scotland – Eamonn Bannon a case in point – fitness and tactical chicanery that was well ahead of its time. Formation switches were constant.
Comparisons to Brian Clough’s revolution at Nottingham Forest are entirely valid, albeit McLean’s temperament was more volcanic compared with Clough’s eccentric genius. McLean seemed to harbour senses of grievance that only fuelled his competitive spirit.
Whereas Ferguson planned and took a path to bigger things, McLean rejected lucrative overtures from both sides of the border. Perhaps he felt, not unreasonably, he could never exert the level of control available to him at Tannadice – for a spell McLean was manager and chairman. He was routinely ferocious; either towards the media or his squad. There was a generous, compassionate side to McLean but it was wonderfully disguised, certainly pre-retirement.
This approach ensured a complicated relationship with some players. Duncan Ferguson, sold by United to Rangers for £4m, famously had little time for McLean’s approach to man-management. Bannon, a key member of the famous United team, was asked in a recent interview whether he would be attending a play delivered in his former manager’s honour. “No thanks,” said Bannon. “I had enough of the reality.”
McLean was one of the first managers to introduce performance-related pay. Bank managers would afford his first-team squad members quizzical looks when mortgages were sought on a basic salary not at all in line with the perception of what footballers of the time earned. “But this is what I get when I play” would be the explanation.
United had points bonuses and even extras for entertainment value; McLean once withheld the latter after a 6-1 win. For any underlying resentment at the club’s frugality and the manager’s methods, he kept squads together. Winning is addictive, just as it was McLean and McLean alone who could dictate changes.
His team’s European Cup semi-final defeat by Roma in 1984 gained infamy after bribery allegations about the referee for the second leg. McLean may not have won the trophy but a final against Liverpool that year would have underlined the meteoric rise of manager and club.
United were Uefa Cup regulars thereafter, reaching the final in 1987 after Barcelona had been swatted aside on the way. Only a decade earlier United really were regarded as their city’s also-ran club; Dundee, with Alan Gilzean et al, were the reference point.
The Scottish Cup evaded McLean’s grasp half a dozen times, most agonisingly in 1991 with a 4-3 defeat by a Motherwell side managed by his brother Tommy. Their father had died just days earlier. As managerial control over players began to loosen – including legally, given McLean had regarded six- or eight-year contracts as perfectly valid – so too did the extent of his touch. Yet United remained a prominent team until McLean stepped back towards the boardroom in 1993.
The punching of a TV reporter in 2000 marked the end of his Tannadice era in all-but name. Even that incident, completely out of order and extremely unpleasant for the individual involved, rather summed up McLean’s propensity to deliver epic theatre. He was never likely to slope off quietly.
The trouble with the achievements delivered by McLean is that they set an unrealistic reference point. United, the club he branded a “corner shop”, had never seen the like before and never will again. He was a remarkable manager; central to remarkable times.