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What was Jim McLean thinking? Look to his programme notes for clues

Jim McLean’s often blunt, unforgiving matchday columns remain as a vibrant historical record of his decades-long managerial heyday, and as a fascinating glimpse into the workings of one of Scottish football’s great minds.

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This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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What was Jim McLean thinking? If you really want to know, then the regular programme notes the United boss wrote as an ongoing monologue communicated to the club’s fans, his players and the wider football world represents an incredible resource.
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While McLean’s assessments will be too blunt, too unforgiving for those brined in the mores and manners of “be kind” modern football, at least Wee Jim can justifiably lay claim to being an equal opportunities objector. Everyone, as he saw it, failing in their professional responsibilities became a target for his ire.

What was Jim McLean thinking? In tones of wonder, admiration and often exasperated incredulity, this eternal question has preoccupied Scotland’s press pack, football people and fans alike; from the moment ‘Wee Jim’ made his first tentative steps upon the coaching ladder at Dundee in 1970, to the minute and hour he signalled his emphatic departure from public life, just shy of three decades later, with an infamous and televised off camera attack on the BBC journalist John Barnes in October 2000.

McLean resigned as chairman, managing director and board member of the Tannadice club in the immediate aftermath. Retirement years of well-heeled exile in Broughty Ferry were cut short by a long, cruel battle with dementia that robbed McLean of his famously pin-sharp memory and the pleasures of reminiscence. Even the timing of his death on Boxing Day 2022 intensified the pathos. Covid robbed McLean of a funeral, the public recognition that his contribution to the game so richly deserved, and a fitting send-off among his own people in the city of the four J’s: Jam, Jute, Journalism and Jim McLean.

Taking the reins at United aged just 34, Jim McLean’s much-emulated blueprint was to augment his own youth system’s indoctrinated youngsters with experienced players brought in to specifically address areas of pressing concern. Hot-housed in a cult-like atmosphere, exposure to McLean’s exacting standards, obsessive methods, mind games and caprice ensured that players were bonded strongly together and ready for anything football could throw at them.

In more patient times McLean was given licence to reimagine Tannadice and its environs as his own private fiefdom. He led United to their first ever Scottish Cup Final in 1974, and in 1979 guided the team to its first ever major honour, the League Cup. United retained the trophy the following year and cup finals became a regular occurrence. In the 1982/83 season, Dundee United confirmed their credentials as they fought off challenges from Celtic and Aberdeen to win the Premier Division at Dens Park, home of their city rivals Dundee.

Under McLean, Dundee United became feared throughout Europe over 14 unbroken years of continental competition. Barcelona, Borussia Mönchengladbach, AS Monaco, Werder Bremen and PSV Eindhoven were dispatched along the way, the Terrors reaching a European Cup semi-final in 1984 and a UEFA Cup final in 1987.

The denouement undoubtedly diminished the man but if anything, it intensified his legend. His achievements are a matter of public record but we are no nearer to answering the question: What was Jim McLean thinking?

Jim McLean’s programme notes set the standard

If you really want to know, then the regular programme notes the United boss wrote as an ongoing monologue communicated to the club’s fans, his players and the wider football world represents an incredible resource. And Jim McLean’s notes set the standard in terms of breadth, depth and ambition. They are a record of what McLean said and a window into the singular obsessions of one of football’s greatest minds – arguably the man most responsible for creating the roadmap that Scottish managers at all levels have followed for over 40 years.

The role of the managers’ column has become somewhat diminished in the era of 24-hour media and club content. A programme simply isn’t what it was as a central plank of the matchday experience and more’s the pity. Taken together, McLean’s matchday columns provide a vibrant historical record of pivotal moments, satisfaction, disappointments and the vanity of managers defined, ultimately, by the fickle nature of results and circumstance largely outwith their control.

But neither experience nor preconception can quite prepare the modern reader for the visceral shock of the home truths contained within McLean’s self-styled “complaints file”, greeting fans attending Tannadice to watch their corner shop club “joust with giants”.

Take this random rallying call, delivered prior to a routine home game against a relegation-threatened Partick Thistle: “The goal supply has dried up in recent games as far as Messrs Dodds, Sturrock and Milne are concerned, and it is worrying. Even more worrying however is the fact that so few others on the staff appear capable of challenging those out of form regulars – and that is indicative of the remainder of the playing staff.”

He continues: “Several weeks ago, when the problem was first becoming apparent, I had the choice of turning selections upside down in an effort to freshen things up or allow the regulars time to play their way out of their spells of inconsistency. I would probably now make the same decision of leaving well alone, but the time is fast approaching when the situation will have to be examined more closely.”

Welcoming Airdrie, McLean took time out to reflect on the “intense pleasure” of United retaining the Bell’s Cup at Dundee’s Dens Park in 1980. “For in m  view we played some marvellous football on our way to the trophy, with only a couple of indifferent performances to mar the series. And let’s face it, two bad performances out of 11 games at Premier League level would satisfy any boss at the top sphere of the game in Scotland. So I am seeking a repeat of the determination which grabbed the prize last week in every league game ahead. Because with that characteristic in our make-up, allied to the skills in the side, there should be only one direction in which Dundee United should move – upwards!”

But then as was customary with McLean in what became something of a formula, with praise there came a sting in the tail. “Finally a word on Joe Ward, whose goals at vital stages in the League Cup run paved the way for last weekend’s celebrations. He clearly has the talents if not the instinctive determination to succeed and my message to him is, ally the two quickly for the benefit of both yourself and the club.”

The record shows that this was a challenge too far for 6ft Glaswegian striker Ward, who’d previously played for Aston Villa and Hibernian following his 128 appearances for Clyde. Six games for United were as good as it got for the forward, who went on to Ayr United, Stirling Albion and finally St Johnstone where he scored just eight times in 39 appearances.

McLean, renowned for ruthlessly moving on signings he deemed “mistakes”, would, I suspect, have taken no pleasure in having his public assessment proven correct.

It is in the act of setting the programme notes of other Scottish managers that the singularity of Jim McLean’s vision and the purity of his prose is revealed. Ally MacLeod had the force of nature to persuade a nation of success-starved, football-mad Scots that the team he’d be taking to Argentina in 1978 would be travelling to the World Cup to win it. However, there is no sense of MacLeod as a future Pied Piper of Ally’s Tartan Army in the almost homely programme notes of his first spell as boss of Ayr United, between 1966 and 1975.

Ally McLeod protected his players

‘Alastair’ MacLeod’s notes (as he signed himself then) have the impressionistic quality of schoolboy postcards. Whether the day’s topic is John Murphy’s relinquishing of the Ayr captaincy due to “an adverse effect on his play” or the installation of continental-style goalposts and the covered enclosure at The Somerset Road end as “a welcome addition to our trim stadium”, the tone remains consistent: bright, optimistic and sincere.

Like McLean, MacLeod built his team around a nucleus of home-grown youngsters. But the differences between both managers’ instincts, when it came to protecting their fringe players, could not be more pronounced. While McLean accepted with equanimity that his youngsters would have to sink or swim in the toughest of schools, MacLeod felt moved to defend the players of his second string against the criticism of both fans and the local press.

“A close inspection of the side will show that for most games the team is formed of at least six or seven players under 17. They are the same players who were successful members of last year’s youth side and therefore completely inexperienced and learning what professional football is all about. Most of the younger members of the playing staff are Ayrshire born and at this stage encouragement from everyone would be far more beneficial to their career.”

In more recent times, both Brendan Rodgers and Neil Lennon at Celtic deserve much credit for using their home game programme platform as a mechanism for cementing the bond between the team and its fans in what is an increasingly corporate era for the Parkhead club.

Signed “Brendan Rodgers Without Fear”, the Northern Irishman celebrated the first of two league titles at Celtic with the following: “Today I will get my hands on the league trophy for the first time. When I arrived here and over 13,000 fanatical supporters turned up to meet me, I didn’t touch the trophy. It wasn’t mine. I hadn’t won it. I needed to earn the right to hold it. Today I will hold it. We have won it together and like I did on my first day, I will look to the sky to my mother and father and hope they are proud of their son and their team.”

The sentiments will be too mawkish for some, too self-regarding, but there is no denying that the former Liverpool and Leicester City manager Rodgers has a myth-maker’s gift for connecting with an audience.

Celtic managers not always keen to talk

As a Celtic staff writer, Scotland on Sunday’s Andrew Smith organised the pre-game thoughts of five successive managers in a run from Billy McNeil to Wim Jansen. He says that it was an obligation treated with varying degrees of seriousness by those with the keys to the manager’s office and also a difficult brief to fulfil.

“Big Billy always had interesting things to say and Liam Brady always wanted to see what I’d written in advance of publication,” says Smith. “It was important to him to present himself well and to see that reflected in his words in print. Wim Jansen probably represented a natural endpoint. He resolutely refused to talk about anything of significance whether that be results, his own players, opponents or even his general thoughts on the game of football. Like a lot of managers he saw committing his thoughts to print as a negative – a potential hostage to fortune.”

Smith says that ultimately it became a thankless task. “There were a lot of constraints, both from the club and from the managers. The format had also become increasingly hackneyed, and the reality is that a big club like Celtic always has other, better outlets if they want exposure for a particular message either from within their own club or in the national media. There are probably better and more efficient channels to do that with a greater reward to risk ratio. Rangers’ captain James Tavenier found that out the hard way when he tried to explain his side’s poor response to pressure in a matchday programme in 2020.”

Smith continues: “You can see why some of the managers are so cagey. Wim Jansen would definitely have preferred a glorified caption saying ‘welcome to the game’. Even back in 1997 it felt like an obligation that had had its time. At their best, programme notes can be fascinating but too often they end up as a whole page of nothing.”

Perhaps they are most interesting as a historical record, and there is something utterly compelling about them where a snapshot in time records the vainglorious musings of a manager who has bitten off more than they can chew. When Hearts suffered a 5-0 defeat against Celtic at Tynecastle, allowing Brendan Rodgers’ side to claim their sixth consecutive league title, an under-pressure Ian Cathro claimed: “The international break has also provided us with the chance to spend more time on the training pitches and preparations for this game has been good. The players have been working hard and we feel ready for this game.”

After the game Cathro claimed Hearts’ heaviest home defeat in 127 years was an unfair reflection on his side. He said: “Take away the goalposts and we are able to compete. We are able to go toe to toe and put in a performance which made the game a game. It wasn’t one team waiting for Celtic to score.

“I know they scored five against us. But if we assessed what happened in the period when the game was there and alive, I can’t allow anyone to say we were inferior.”

The strength of McLean’s programme notes during United’s 1980s golden era relied on the manager’s credibility as a manager, a complete consistency of voice, reinforcement through repetition and a formula that combined a preview of the game at hand with condemnation, some praise, and a last paragraph pay-off with a strong but double-edged message for a suitable victim.

The perfect encapsulation of this formula can be seen after a UEFA Cup tie against the Belgians Lokeren where the out-of-sorts, perennial manager’s scapegoat Eamon Bannon is hailed for his return to form: “Throughout the opening half it was always a case of safety first as far as the midfield man was concerned. And yet once again, after the interval we once again witnessed the powerful and direct running at defences for which he is known – and feared by opponents.”

This time the ending concerns an unnamed player, McLean clearly expecting him to maintain a recently-set level of upped commitment: “It has been my delight to witness a particular member of our staff putting in extra voluntary sessions here at the club in recent weeks. As far as I can remember that player has never throughout my term here offered himself for over-time work. That’s the attitude I am seeking!”

Jim McLean versus the writers

While McLean’s assessments will be too blunt, too unforgiving for those brined in the mores and manners of “be kind” modern football, at least Wee Jim can justifiably lay claim to being an equal opportunities objector. Everyone, as he saw it, failing in their professional responsibilities became a target for his ire. From the individual who arbitrarily knocked 1,000 off a Tannadice attendance; to the journalists whose superficial impressions defy what, for the manager, are immutable facts, with the charge of “stealing a wage” by not discharging professional responsibilities with due care and commitment worthy of damnation in the scriptures of Jim McLean. “Finally, I read with some annoyance the inference made by a certain Sunday newspaper writer concerning Frank Kopel’s magnificent UEFA cup-tie clincher in Brussels recently. His description of it as a ‘blooter’ without any build-up makes me wonder just what Iain Philp, Dave Narey and Paul Sturrock were doing in creating the four-man move.”

Elsewhere, McLean’s targets are consistent: fans should be rewarded with value for money – entertainment to justify their unflinching financial support of the team. The players can always give more but the rewards are there for them too, in glory and in money terms should they go and express their quality. It is a consistent refrain that “too few players in the modern game have the in-bred pride and motivation to go out in ALL games and give off their best”. And it is a course of constant irritation that United’s fringe players, players he’d given a platform to, “have contributed little to our efforts”.

What would McLean think looking back on it all now? Only in the final analysis I expect he would have been able to make peace with the course he took, his decisions and the bridges he burned. We may not know what McLean was thinking, even now, but Andrew Smith is adamant that he would have enjoyed the challenge of working with the Dundee United boss. In a game where words in quotes can make fools of even the best of managers, Smith has no doubt that McLean’s collected thoughts represent the gold standard for a view from the dugout, for their bravery alone.

He finished: “As difficult as he clearly was, it would have been energising to work with Jim McLean. No one would ever describe him as anodyne. As a journalist you want to engage with people with opinions and Jim McLean had no shortage of them.”

This article first appeared in Issue 28 which was published in June 2023.

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