The notion that Dundee United were just a few minutes away from appearing in a European Cup final in 1984 is extraordinary to contemplate at this distance in time. But they really did get that close, and the man who led them so far was their inspirational manager, Jim McLean, who has died aged 83.
Under the McLean era, from 1971 to 1993, Dundee United enjoyed by far the most successful period in their history, twice lifting the Scottish League Cup, in 1979 and 1980, and then winning the Scottish league title in 1983 for the first and so far only time.
It was their league championship victory that gave them entry into the following season’s European Cup. They went into the second leg of the semi-final against Roma with a 2-0 lead from the home tie at Tannadice Park, only to succumb 3-0 in the Stadio Olimpico, losing on aggregate. Roma scored their decisive third goal in the 58th minute, yet an unanswered Dundee United score at any point thereafter would, on the away goals rule, have seen the Scottish team into the final and a match-up with the eventual winners, Liverpool.
Three years later Dundee United actually did make it to the final of a European competition – this time the 1987 Uefa Cup – on the way to which they recorded a 3-1 aggregate quarter-final win over Barcelona and a 2-0 aggregate victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach in the semi-final. They lost the final 2-1 over two legs to IFK Gothenburg, and the defeat was a huge disappointment for McLean and his team. But it was nonetheless a strong indication of how far the club had risen from its previously low pedigree.
Born in Larkhill, Lanarkshire, Jim was the son of Tom, a baker, and his wife, Annie (nee Yuille), whose father had played for Rangers. Jim grew up in the nearby village of Ashgill and after school became a joiner. From 1956 onwards he was also playing semi-professional football as an inside-forward for Hamilton Academical and then Clyde, before finally becoming a full-time player at the age of 27 in 1965, when he signed for Dundee’s other principal club, Dundee. In 1968 he moved to Kilmarnock, where injury brought his playing career to an early end in 1970.
Soon McLean found a job on the coaching staff back at Dundee, and in 1971, aged 34, moved 250 yards up the road to take over as manager at Dundee United. His predecessor, Jerry Kerr, had brought United to the top flight of Scottish football in 1960 and kept them there.
McLean took the club on to even bigger and better things. A hard, ambitious young task master, he set about micro-managing all aspects of the club and signed up a host of new players on modest wages, with performance bonuses making up the largest part of their income. Among them were future Scotland internationals who spent most of their careers at the club, including David Narey, Paul Sturrock, Paul Hegarty, Davie Dodds, Eamonn Bannon and Maurice Malpas.
A devout, teetotal Christian with a puritanical streak (his father had been a member of the Plymouth Brethren), McLean was renowned for refusing to take much delight in victories, despite his obvious will to win. Known, not always affectionately, by his players as “Wee Jim”, he pushed them hard in training and even got them to clean out the toilets – but gained their respect through the success he engendered.
Never much of a man-manager, although he did employ psychologists, he was strong on the tactical and organisational side rather than in the kindly nurturing of his playing resources. Some caricatured him as “the tyrant of Tannadice”; the Independent called him “blunt but brilliant”.
Good results were not immediate, but there was a first appearance in the Scottish Cup final in 1974, which was lost 3-0 to Celtic, and by the late 1970s Dundee United were a top-four team in the newly formed Scottish Premier Division, gaining valuable European experience by regularly qualifying for the Uefa Cup. They won the first major honour in the club’s history by defeating Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen 3-0 in a replay of the League Cup final in 1979, then retained the trophy the following year with the same scoreline against Dundee.
The victorious title race in 1982-83 went down to the last day of the season, with United winning their final match (against Dundee) to fend off Celtic and Aberdeen by a point. They fully deserved the honour, winning 24 of their 36 games and losing just four, with McLean using a core of only 14 regular players, ten of whom had been through the club youth system that he had so efficiently reorganised.
The subsequent European Cup campaign of 1983-84 featured impressive wins over Standard Liège and Rapid Vienna as United progressed to the semi-final against Roma. But after their comfortable 2-0 victory at Tannadice the 3-0 defeat in the second leg on a sweltering Rome afternoon was a body blow. By half-time Roma had cancelled out the deficit from the first leg, and not long into the second-half Agostino Di Bartolomei converted the penalty that eliminated United.
While the European Cup run was arguably the high point of McLean’s reign, plenty more football of merit followed. United were third in the league for four seasons in a row, were finalists in the 1985 Scottish Cup and League Cup finals, and in 1987 reached the Scottish Cup final again, as well as the final of the Uefa Cup. Defeats in all those matches meant there was a feeling of unfulfilled ambition about the club during the latter part of McLean’s tenure. But by the time he resigned as manager in the early 90s there was no doubting the scope of his achievements. All lists of the best ever Scottish managers include his name.
McLean had become United’s managing director and club chairman in 1988 as well as manager of the team, and he frequently turned down offers to manage other clubs on the grounds that he loved the city of Dundee and that he was unlikely to get the same degree of control anywhere else. For four years in the early 80s he had also been a part-time assistant manager to Jock Stein with the Scotland national team, including at the 1982 World Cup, but he was never interested in taking on the full-time Scotland job, partly because he had a low opinion of the Scottish Football Association.
After stepping down as manager of United in 1993, McLean remained in his two other roles at the club until 2000, when he resigned from both after punching a BBC reporter who had annoyed him with his line of questioning. For many years afterwards he wrote a column in the Daily Record newspaper. In February this year the intensity of his devotion to his sport was given a sympathetic examination in Philip Differ’s two-hander play Smile at Dundee Rep.
He is survived by his wife, Doris, and their sons, Gary and Colin.
• James Yuille McLean, football manager, born 2 August 1937; died 26 December 2020