Jousting with Jim

From Tannadice to the local bowling green, McLean was a formidable, complex character whose fire ignited Dundee United as they rose to giddy heights.

By Neil Forsyth

This article first appeared in Issue 11 which was published in March 2019.

Illustration by Matt R Dallinson

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A wonderful, daring football manager, whose teams played joyously attacking football and spread happiness for decades, but a man who spent those decades in a state of self-imposed sufferance.
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Barcelona had Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes. They were managed by Terry Venables. We were managed, however, by Jim McLean. United attacked and attacked. A young, spindly Kevin Gallacher struck what was surely a cross but the ball carried through the hushed evening air and into the net.

My great uncle Bill was perplexed. Which was unusual. A retired bank manager in Broughty Ferry, Dundee, Bill was a reliably genial man. He bought us our weekly copy of Roy Of The Rovers. He pretended he had a motorbike. He taught us a disappearing coin trick that, when I bravely attempted to recreate it, led to a frantic journey to Ninewells Hospital, an X-ray lamp and my traumatised mother spending weeks grimly sorting through my despatches.

But on this day, sometime in the late 1980s, there was no magic trick, or imaginary motorbike, or Roy Race. Because Uncle Bill was perplexed. Worry rampaged through his days and into his sleep. My Aunt Sadie had found him muttering in the darkness. The source of his troubles was an unfolding crisis. And it was unheard of.

Broughty Ferry Bowling Club, a grassy enclave on Albert Road, was historically a model of serenity marked by the clicking of bowls and hushed conversation. Uncle Bill was on the committee. They respectfully discussed buffets, raffles and umpire rotas. It wasn’t a difficult gig. Uncle Bill had been in the War.

But there was a problem. A rogue member. He had been welcomed with some fanfare a few years before but now, well, now the trumpets had fallen silent. Because this member, this member was different. This member disputed decisions, berated team-mates, antagonised the opposition and queried the workings of the bewildered groundsman. This member arrived at matches taut with tension and only grew more so. This member saw himself as the victim of a dark conspiracy lurking behind the masking smiles of Broughty Ferry retirees.

There had been whispers of objection. And then there had been complaints. And now there was a crisis. There had been a meltdown. An outburst on the greens. A wheeling, pointing, multi-faceted onslaught of anger and accusation that, the way it was told, had seen onlookers running for cover, elderly limbs reawakened by primal self-preservation as they leapt over walls in a search for shelter.

The inquest had fallen on the broad, war-hardened shoulders of Uncle Bill and left him muttering in the night time. He had tried everything. Sit-down chats. Jokey de-escalations. Arms around shoulders. Appeals to better angels. None had worked. The impasse had hardened. The anger, if anything, had festered and grown.

And now, on a sunny afternoon in Broughty Ferry sometime in the late 1980s, Uncle Bill was at his wit’s end. He had nothing left. Nothing but a final, plaintive, visceral call for sanity.

“I said to him,” Uncle Bill told me, his kind face frozen in confusion, “Jim, why don’t you just calm down?”

The opening chapter of Jim McLean’s autobiography Jousting With Giants is McLean in microcosm. He starts by declaring his lifelong inferiority complex (the title was a clue), then has an entirely unconnected, furious pop at the press for never giving enough credit to United’s utility man Billy Kirkwood, followed by an entirely unconnected, even more furious pop at Dundee fans for the stick he got during an unhappy period at Dens Park as a player.

The innate sense of grievance, the smouldering anger, the capricious, relentless hunt for injustice. Here comes Jim McLean.

He was a distinctively average footballer. The stick from Dundee fans came at the tail end of a career that was ready to end. For several years, McLean had spent his summers building houses. When he retired his plan was to do so full time, yet instead he received the unlikely invitation to stay at Dens as part of the coaching staff.

He gained a reputation for hard work, discipline and innovation. In his book he talks about overseeing the players’ “conditioning”, and studying West German football for tactical guidance. His reputation drifted down Tannadice Street. In 1971, Dundee United’s long-serving manager Jerry Kerr stood down. McLean applied for the job, and was horrified to get it.

Instantly, he felt the roaring arrival of the nerves that would plague his managerial career. The pressure, the tension, the invasiveness of public attention. In short, the paradox of Jim McLean. A wonderful, daring football manager, whose teams played joyously attacking football and spread happiness for decades, but a man who spent those decades in a state of self-imposed sufferance.

On paper, his managerial career started slowly with mid-table finishes and no hint at future success other than United’s first Scottish Cup final (and the first of McLean’s six Scottish Cup final defeats) in 1974. But this was a time when managers were allowed to shape careers, and the league table only told half the story. McLean, after all, was a builder. In those early years, he was laying a foundation. 

He started with kids. He went to the Douglas council estate to persuade a young Ralph Milne to choose United over Celtic. To the 19th floor of a multi to persuade a young John Holt to choose United over Aston Villa. To the house of a Dens Road Primary pupil, Davie Dodds, to persuade him to choose United over Dundee.

And he looked for teenagers who had been missed by others. That’s how he found Paul Sturrock, an 18-year-old amateur striker in Perthshire scoring 50 goals a season. And Maurice Malpas, a 17-year-old defender cruising through the Fife men’s leagues.

As his youngsters came through, he added inspired recruitment. He signed a mediocre centre forward, Paul Hegarty, from Hamilton and turned him into an international centre-half. He tempted a forgotten Scottish winger, Eamonn Bannon, back north from the Chelsea reserve team. He offered a second chance to an 18-year-old South African, Richard Gough, who had slipped out of the Charlton Athletic youth system.

As his team steadily assembled, McLean added a tactical nous matched only by Alex Ferguson in modern day Scottish football. Obscene levels of fitness and organisation, a militantly observed twin objective of ‘win the ball, keep the ball’ and a constant fluidity of formation. Paul Sturrock has often remarked on the praise that managers such as Mourinho and Guardiola receive for apparently trademarked formations, with the observation that he’s never seen them use one that McLean didn’t employ along the way.

Finally, success arrived. In 1979, United won the Scottish League Cup, beating Ferguson’s Aberdeen in the final. For the players, for the fans, for the club it was revelatory. We could win things. McLean found long-serving director Ernie Robertson weeping in the boardroom, bewildered by the club’s first major trophy after 70 years of existence. A year later, they won their second, retaining the cup by beating Dundee at Dens Park on a pitch so frozen that Davie Dodds wore a pair of Adidas Sambas.

For the players, the arrival of success was a blessing and curse. It justified McLean’s tyranny but it also trapped them within its orbit. They were the cornered cadre of a dictator, gaining riches and scars in equal measure. But they knew that McLean was entwining them into a force greater than their parts. That the volcanicity of his anger caused a rising tide that lifted all boats.

They enjoyed the success and lived with the abuse. Sometimes they were rewarded. Such as the time he kicked the kit hamper in frustration, got his foot stuck and spent the rest of the team talk hopping on the spot, forcing Davie Narey to pull his jersey over his face to hide tears of joy.

If they had any lingering doubt that it was worth following their despotic leader, it would soon be dissipated.

By 1982/83, United were firmly established alongside the Old Firm and Aberdeen as one of the nation’s top four clubs, but had yet to finish higher than third in the league. And it didn’t look like that would change. In January 1983 they were third and out of all cup competitions. Yet an accelerating run of victories would see them play Dundee at Dens on the last game of the season for the chance to win the Premier League.

United won 2-1, setting a new scoring record for the league in the process of winning it. It was a miracle. At full time, United’s players lifted their messianic leader upon their shoulders and McLean found himself with no emotional choice other than a reluctant disclosure of happiness.

When he was persuaded to fleetingly break with his teetotalism to sip champagne from the trophy for the TV cameras, he said with genuineness that he hoped his mother wasn’t watching.

People often remark with surprise that Richard Griffiths was only 39 when he played Uncle Monty in Withnail And I. Well, look at McLean when United won the league. He looks old, but he wasn’t. He was 46. And he was only just starting.

In season 1983/84, three things happened that demonstrate the preposterous level that United’s league-winning team attained. Firstly, Davie Dodds did an interview with Shoot! Magazine. Asked for his biggest ambition, the reliably unassuming Dodds gave an entirely reasonable answer – “To win the European Cup with Dundee United.”

Secondly, he should have done so. United reached the European Cup semi-final without losing either a game or, incredibly, a goal at Tannadice. Their semi-final opponents were Roma, who amongst their gilded ranks had the Brazilians Falcao and Cerezo and recent Italian World Cup winners Conti and Graziano. They came to Tannadice for the first leg and were dismissed 2-0.

After the game the Italian press asked McLean if the United players were on drugs. It was a sign of what was to come. Rome was hosting the final. Roma had to be there.

United arrived to mayhem. From the warm-up onwards, they were pelted with missiles and McLean received an onslaught of fury from the stands. The players were unnerved. Ralph Milne missed a sitter and the Italians won 3-0.

At full time, the Roma players ringed McLean, screaming in his face while he walked to the changing rooms. McLean never even looked at them, meeting their hysteria with dourness in a particularly Scottish pyrrhic victory. It would emerge later that the referee had been bribed. To this day, Paul Sturrock is waging a quixotic, one-man campaign to have UEFA reverse the result and award United’s players finalist medals.

The third indication of the level United had reached was McLean turning down Rangers. They offered to double his salary and to buy him a £100,000 house. They coaxed him through to Ibrox and told him he would be a legend. He drove home and turned them down.

His reasons have wandered a bit over the years. It was because they wouldn’t let him sign Catholics. It was because on the road home he saw the lights of Dundee and was overcome with emotion. It was because United’s directors sent flowers to his wife. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Maybe he wanted to write a book called Jousting With Giants.

He would also turn down Hearts, Hibs, Motherwell (three times), Chelsea, Newcastle United, Wolves and West Ham. He made it clear he had no interest in managing Scotland, after being unimpressed by the job’s reality during a spell as assistant to Jock Stein. Strangely, the job offer he came closest to accepting was from the Toronto Blizzards, to spearhead the launch of Canadian football.

But he turned them all down and got on with the job. United finished third for four years in a row after winning the league. Two cup finals were lost. Five United players went to the 1986 World Cup (Gough, Malpas, Narey, Bannon, Sturrock). And then, well, then came Barcelona.

I think the first United match I attended was against Hamilton. But the first one I remember was Barcelona. It was the quarter-final of the 1986/87 UEFA Cup. My grandad bought main stand tickets for me and my brother, my dad, uncles and cousins. Tannadice heaved under the lights. The Shed was a swaying, singular movement. I was already hooked. And then we won.

Barcelona had Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes. They were managed by Terry Venables. We were managed, however, by Jim McLean. United attacked and attacked. A young, spindly Kevin Gallacher struck what was surely a cross but the ball carried through the hushed evening air and into the net. I can still remember the explosion, as my brother and I watched in wonderment.

The day after the game, John Holt asked McLean if he could have a new set of boots, his existing ones being torn. McLean asked to see the boots, then gave Holt £3 and sent him to a local cobbler.

We beat Barcelona again in Spain for good measure, on our way to the UEFA Cup final against Gothenburg. That set up a regrettable week when we lost both that game and a Scottish Cup final to St Mirren, a match that McLean recalls cheerily in his book as “A disgrace. An absolute, utter disgrace.”

Those cup final defeats couldn’t hide the achievements. Dundee United were famous around the world. For decades, holidaying Dundonians would receive a flicker of recognition followed by “Ah, Dundee United”. The fact that many of those Dundonians would be Dundee fans is a source of immeasurable joy.

In Dundee itself, McLean bestrode the city as an Emperor. One morning, my boys’ team were training in Dawson Park when we became aware of a hunched figure watching over the fence from the Arbroath Road. “This is your chance, lads,” joked one of the dads. I remember feeling faint until the team bus picked McLean up, on the way to Aberdeen.

He lived on Caenlochan Road in Broughty Ferry, an Eighties home with a vast first floor balcony that befitted his status. When we saw him there we would cycle past repeatedly, and perhaps sinisterly, until he retreated with dignity behind his French windows. Then he moved to Albert Road. Where there was a bowling club. Which he joined. With catastrophic results.

Some United fans feel that week of pain and snatched glory at the end of 1986/87 was McLean’s apex and, by extension, the beginning of the end. I think that’s nonsensical. We finished fourth for the next five seasons and reached cup semi-finals, while he brought through youngsters including Billy McKinlay, Duncan Ferguson and Ray McKinnon, and made inspired signings such as Darren Jackson from Newcastle reserves and Miodrag Krivokapić from Red Star Belgrade.

For me, the beginning of the end for him was the 1990/91 Scottish Cup final. Objectively, it was one of the best finals of all time. Motherwell beat United 4-3 after extra time in a seesawing drama. Subjectively, it was a day of seismic trauma. This was, surely, time to rid ourselves of what we had come to see as a Hampden hoodoo. It was our sixth final under McLean, and our best chance of winning it. It wasn’t a tentative trip to play the Old Firm. This was Motherwell. They had Davie Cooper and not much else. And they were managed by Jim’s wee brother.

It’s hard to imagine the Freudian forces assembling in McLean’s mind as he led out United alongside his younger brother Tommy, the Motherwell manager. Their father had died the week before the final.

I stood on the East Terracing with my Uncle Jimmy, watching in alternating joy and horror. When Motherwell got themselves in front their goalkeeper Ally Maxwell picked up a rib injury that he utilised to dramatic effect. Every time the ball strayed near the Motherwell box, Maxwell crumpled to the turf. There he would lay as day turned to night, before flinging a heroic arm to the side and starting the weeks-long process of rising from the Hampden turf, grimacing and gasping as he bravely waved away all offers of help.

That grey day in Glasgow, as McLean stood in the haunted Hampden dugout watching his dream stolen by his brother, and Ally Maxwell gave me a teenage insight into the true meaning of evil, that was the end.

McLean was a man out of time. His historically unassailable control of the players was creaking, as his most potent tools started to unravel.

There were the wages. The league-winning team were on highly incentivised deals of £250 a week basic and £200 win bonus plus an extra £50 that was awarded by McLean if the team “entertained the people” (a bonus he once memorably refused to pay after a 6-1 win over Motherwell). As the game modernised, players demanded a standardised package.

Furthermore, McLean’s traditional demand that United’s players live in the city was becoming a serious restriction, particularly after it cost us the signing of Paul Lambert, whose wife proved somehow immune to the city’s charms.

Worst of all for McLean was the loss of his contracts. For decades, he’d signed United’s best young players on contracts of such length that they threatened to overlap with their funeral arrangements. It put the club in a strong position, both in keeping wages manageable and with the prices achieved when McLean decided to sell. But then two players, Alec Cleland and Gary Bollan, took United to court to challenge the restrictive deals. They were, somewhat handily, sold to Rangers as the case developed, but United quietly stopped the practice as a result.

Footballers had more money and less respect. When McLean disciplined the then-youngsters Duncan Ferguson and Andy McLaren by ordering them to paint Tannadice’s gymnasium, Ferguson painted in large lettering “Jim McLean is a Cunt”. Sturrock, by now McLean’s assistant manager, remembers McLean’s bewilderment being so overwhelming that he initially reacted by laughing. Initially.

McLean’s relationship with Ferguson was a microcosm of his confusion with the new breed of player. “Football means too fucking much to me,” he once told the defiant young striker, “and too fucking little to you.”

McLean’s dissatisfaction was contagious. The United fanzine The Final Hurdle called for him to go (they wanted United to go to “the next level” which, presumably, wasn’t where we are now). Two nondescript seasons later, McLean announced he was retiring as manager to join the board of directors.

The last game of the 1992/93 season was a painful 4-1 defeat at home to Aberdeen. Afterwards, McLean toured the pitch, grew momentarily tearful in front of The Shed, and then slipped away. We sang for him to come back out, but he never did.

In 1996, I interviewed McLean for a school project. Uncle Bill arranged it. I arrived in the Tannadice boardroom dry-throated. The Final Hurdle had memorably reported a telephone exchange with a United fan who called McLean with two suggested signing targets, only to be met by an instant double dismissal of “Nae pace, trick knee” then the click of the phone.

I was pleased to have my own McLean experience. He asked to see my schoolboy questions, scored out half of them and handed it back.

By this time I was a programme seller at Tannadice. We arrived early, filled our bags then wandered the stadium before taking up our perches outside.

One day McLean caught myself and another seller lurking around the dressing room. “What the fuck are you two up to?” he asked as the blood exited our bodies. He instructed us to follow him upstairs where he gave us a jovial tour of the trophy room, pointing out trophies and talking about the relevant finals, as we stood in spellbound silence.

Publicly he was largely hidden from view, although he made one spectacular appearance. It was a Scottish Cup game at Huntly and the United support had largely spent the marathon bus journey drinking heavily. During half-time, United fans knocked over an advertising board behind the goal. The next day my friend Simon would be on the front of the Sunday Mail, immortalised in mid-air as he followed the collapsing board to the ground, and his mum would be black affronted.

For McLean, watching in teetotal, Presbyterian fury from Huntly’s small stand, it was too much. He strode menacingly out to the United fans, stood in front of us and delivered a finger-jabbing lecture. The United fans fixed the hoardings, held up palms of apology and fell sheepishly into line.

McLean’s subsequent chairmanship was bookended by a double whammy of entirely predictable, deeply unlikely events. On a sunny day in May 1994, we finally won the Scottish Cup. The next day 20,000 United fans stood in the City Square and watched in astonishment as McLean and his somewhat more relaxed successor Ivan Golac stood on a balcony gripping a handle each of the trophy. Davie Bowman, a player who bridged the McLean and Golac reigns, compared it to going “from Colditz to Butlins”.

And then, after a few years of a reliably tense stewardship of the club, where the majority of his public interactions were to defend financial prudence, McLean’s time with United ended in October 2000 in perhaps the only way it could do so. By punching a journalist on television. The next day in London, I travelled to work listening to Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles repeatedly playing the clip and painstakingly describing the sequence of events in tearful mirth.

In retirement, McLean became a ghostly figure. Sometimes he’d visit the hotel up the road from my parents (“He was in for his soup,” the owner would say, with dignified reverence). Sometimes he’d be spotted on a golf course (“He didn’t look happy,” an onlooker would laugh).

I last saw him at Davie Dodds’ pub in 2003. It was a gathering of the League-winning team on the 20th anniversary. The players fell silent when he walked in. Richard Gough joked that they should hide their pints. Ralph Milne asked McLean for his fines back.

When I spoke to McLean I was surprised that he struggled to remember my Uncle Bill. He laughed it off by saying “I can’t remember what I did last week” but perhaps it was something else, for today McLean is in a Dundee nursing home. He is gone from public view, and a city moves on without him. As does a club, consigned by football’s new financial reality to forever be a pale imitation of the one he created.

We live in a time riven with superficiality and fleetingness. Newspapers, books, prolonged moments of mental silence, all swamped by the urgent irrelevance of social media. Football has changed accordingly. The deification of instant gratification and dismissal of patience means clubs are a churning bowl of personnel.

Testimonials, once a pre-season flurry, are rare events. Managers come and go so rapidly you can forget they were ever there. A slow burn success would be extinguished long before it sparked into life.

Jim McLean represents a different time. A time of permanence. A time when, for an entire childhood and teenage years, your football club could have one manager. Time passed slowly under McLean. Seasons came and went as he stood glowering at the side of the pitch, feathering the nest of his legend. For my generation, his impact was formative. He was how we saw football. He was how we saw manhood. And the game doesn’t make men like that anymore. There isn’t the time.

“Jim,” asked my Uncle Bill, “Why don’t you just calm down?”

He couldn’t calm down because he was a coiled spring of hunger and anger and determination, who rose in the morning wounded and seeking revenge. And his revenge was to take a provincial football club and drag them to domestic glory and on to impossible foreign adventures. His revenge was to give an awed set of supporters a set of experiences that would mark heavily upon their lives.

He taught us to fight against the natural order. He taught us that the world, that vast, murky, unknown pre-Internet world, was not to be feared but to be invaded and conquered. He taught us that our club mattered. That our city mattered. That we mattered.

I’m so glad that he didn’t calm down. I’m so glad that he raged and fought and scrapped and roused a band of men into feats so far beyond them. And I hope it didn’t cost him too much. I hope it didn’t contribute to where he is now.

And I hope that Jim McLean remembers. As he sits where he sits, with his memory being steadily frayed. I hope that he remembers who he is. I hope that he remembers what he did. And I hope that he knows that he is a hero. Like all men, he is many things. But Jim McLean is a hero.

This article first appeared in Issue 11 which was published in March 2019.

Illustration by Matt R Dallinson

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