The two closest professional football grounds in Britain lie roughly a decent goal kick apart in Dundee. Although mainly famed for its scientific discovery, with Robert Scott’s Antarctic exploration ship the RRS Discovery being built there, football plays a massive role in Scotland’s fourth biggest city. Both Dundee and Dundee United have experienced many highs and lows over the course of their existence, led by marvellous domestic triumphs and fabled European nights. But there is one man that stands out above the rest however, who should be placed in the Pantheon of all Scottish managers. The maverick that is, Jim McLean.
Up until 1971, Dundee Utd played second fiddle to their city counterparts Dundee. Bob Shankly led them to a famous league title in 1962 and narrowly missed out on a European Cup final spot the following season. A revolution was needed at Tannadice and ironically, it would be a Dundee coach who would lead it.
Jim McLean was prised away from his coaching role at Dundee to manage Utd and take over from Jerry Kerr in 1971. The board were impressed at the fitness levels and tactical proficiency of the Dundee team, in which McLean had studied and utilised West German methods to great effect on the squad. Kerr had left a solid foundation for McLean when he took over. Crowds had been fewer than 10,000 at the start of his reign, with money being tight; McLean would need to turn to youth in order to build a side that would be capable of competing for honours.
He had a knack for picking up young players who had slipped through the net elsewhere and gave them the platform to shine at Tannadice. Ralph Milne and Paul Sturrock were signed, as well as Hegarty and Gough – two of the finest centre halves Scotland has produced. Adding in some experienced recruits gave McLean’s side a fine balance and he also persuaded Eammon Bannon to sign from Chelsea reserves.
He had an underwhelming first few years in charge; the only light was a Scottish Cup final appearance in 1974, losing to Celtic (he would lose a record 6 finals with Utd). In an era in which managers were given more time to shape a side than they are now, McLean finally tasted success by winning the league cup in 1979 by defeating a certain Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen side in the final. Eight years after taking charge, his patience was rewarded and this was to be the catalyst for further accomplishments.
The league cup was retained in 1980, defeating rivals Dundee at a freezing Dens Park, the tides had finally turned in Dundee, with Utd being the team on the rise and looking like the team to beat for the foreseeable future. The next goal for McLean was to win the league, having never finished higher than third; this was proving to be an elusive goal.
In light of the recent success McLean and Utd were having, it couldn’t take away from his tyrannical approach to managing the team. Players certainly respected him but that was about it as far as feelings went. He famously tied down players on long contracts and low basic wages, with the majority of their income topped up by bonuses. This may have been an early frontrunner for excellent sport psychology, however players felt trapped.
McLean’s annus mirabillis came in 1983, although in January of that year it didn’t look like it would amount to much – sitting third in the league and out of the two domestic cups – it looked like another trophy-less season. Oh how football can change. Utd started winning, and kept winning. A victory against arch enemies Dundee on the last day would win them the league. A nerve-wracking 2 -1 win crowned them champions. McLean was now the messiah and what else could this Utd team achieve?
Arguably though, McLean’s greatest accomplishments with Utd came in competitions in which they didn’t win. Their run to the European Cup semi-final in 1984 was wonderful. The away leg against Roma in which they lost 3-0 to just come up short was marred by controversy. With many people to this day still claiming the referee was bribed. Brian Clough summarised it up perfectly 11 years earlier by referring to the Italians as “cheating bastards”.
Consecutive third place finishes followed the incredible European run, but the 86/87 season would prove to be McLean’s apex at Utd. The league campaign didn’t amount to much and another defeat in the Scottish Cup final was a low point. The UEFA Cup on the other hand would go on to give many Utd fans their most cherished memories.
A scintillating run through to the final, which comprised of defeating the mighty Barcelona in the quarter finals and Gladbach in the semi set up a final against IFK Göteborg. After a 1 nil defeat away, hopes were high for the return leg. It wasn’t to be for McLean and his men as they lost out 2-1 on aggregate. For a team the size of Utd’s to go on and reach the final while defeating European heavyweights was an achievement in its own right.
United and McLean wouldn’t be the same after this exhausting campaign and two further cup final defeats ensured the Scottish Cup would be McLean’s kryptonite. Due to a resurgent Rangers team, Utd’s title aspirations were limited during the latter end of McLean’s reign. The end of his 22 year tenure as manager was topped off by a heavy defeat to Aberdeen in May 1993. He continued in his role as chairman however, until October 2000. An altercation with journalist John Barnes was the final straw for McLean. The bond between him and Dundee Utd was broken after almost 30 years.
Jim McLean will continue to be looked upon as a god by many of the Utd faithful, providing them with some of the most exhilarating highs in the club’s history. He may not have been loved by each player, but he was certainly respected by all, as he ruled Tannadice with an iron fist. Alan Pattullo, the author of the excellent book ‘In Search of Duncan Ferguson’, summarises McLean perfectly, stating “McLean was a complex character, but ultimately a genius who was so far ahead of his time”.
One thing is for sure, Dundee United will never have another one like him.