• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

'Wee Jim never hit you with a pillow, it was always a shovel . . .'

Jim McLean is now 77 years old and in poor health.

Billy McNeill leaps  to win a header in the 1974 Scottish Cup final, a game which United lost  to Celtic because, according to Jackie Copland (right of picture), Jim McLean was such a poor man manager. Picture: Herald Archive
Billy McNeill leaps to win a header in the 1974 Scottish Cup final, a game which United lost to Celtic because, according to Jackie Copland (right of picture), Jim McLean was such a poor man manager. Picture: Herald Archive

Our football seasons come and go, and everything is forgiven. McLean, the old tyrant of Tannadice, the brilliant football manager, is being well remembered this weekend as Dundee United, the club he built up, prepares for the 2014 Scottish Cup final.

It is 40 years almost to the day since McLean, just two years into his new job, led United in to the 1974 Scottish Cup final against Celtic: the first hint of the formidable progress and excellence he would bring to Tannadice in his 22-year reign as manager.

There was both good and bad to savour about United on May 4 1974. In players as disparate as the late Frank Kopel and a young Andy Gray, McLean knew how to build a team. Yet United lost 3-0 to Celtic and, as with all six of McLean's doomed Scottish Cup final experiences, a gloom seemed to invade him and infect his players.

Dundee United today, as chairman Stephen Thompson asserts, "would not be the club it is without Jim McLean". Just about all of McLean's former players recall him as a brilliant football man, but with an Achilles' heel.

"Jim McLean really taught me the game of football," says Jackie Copland, who played under McLean at Tannadice for five seasons.

"All of a sudden it clicked with me. Tactically, technically and in terms of his training and fitness, he was very impressive. He had a tremendous knowledge and an incredible work ethic.

"What stopped him winning more was his man-management style: he just never mastered that. I played in that 1974 Scottish Cup final for Dundee United, and Jim basically lost us that game, and maybe others.

"He never let you enjoy the experience of Hampden. It was a cup final; it should have been a spectacle for us to enjoy. But Jim put you under so much pressure you could never do that."

Years later in his career, long after he had left Tannadice, Copland took in one particular scene which he says struck a deep truth.

"I'll never forget watching the 1987 Scottish Cup final between St Mirren and Dundee United. When it went to extra time I watched Alex Smith and Jimmy Bone going round their players, clapping them on the back, encouraging, egging them on.

"Then I looked over at Jim and the United players - there he was, his veins bulging, his usual finger-pointing. That was Jim. He tended to bully players into doing what he wanted them to do, when quite often a different approach might have served him better."

That said, McLean achieved magnificently with Dundee United. The club today, more than anything, remains rooted in his legacy. As much of a martinet as he was, McLean gave United a sheen, a reputation, through his flawed managerial genius. United's brilliant defeat of Barcelona, home and away, in the 1987 Uefa Cup perfectly captures the sentiment.

Over various stages of his 22 years he built and rebuilt his Dundee United teams, adding players as varied as Willie Pettigrew, Eamonn Bannon, Jim McInally and Ian Redford to the Sturrock-Narey-Hegarty triumvirate which was his cornerstone.

Success duly came, as did the rammies and fall-outs. Pettigrew, who signed for McLean from Motherwell in 1979, provides a vivid, often witty testament to it all. The striker had a habit, not just of scoring goals, but also of speaking his mind. It was a trait which turned McLean apoplectic.

"He was a very hard man to work for: screaming and shouting all the time," says Pettigrew. "Wee Jim never hit you with a pillow, it was always a shovel. In a game, even in training, you were under pressure to get it right, to do it his way.

"Dundee United teams always had to play it by the book: his book. I remember we did a training session one day where his strikers, me included, did a drill over and over again about running to the near post. We got it hammered into us.

"On the Saturday we played a game at Tannadice, where we attacked down the left. I lurked by the penalty spot, just sensing that's where the ball was going to arrive. Jim was out his dugout screaming at me: 'Petty! Petty! Get tae the f****** front post!' I just stood where I was, the ball came right to me, and I scored.

"At half-time he ripped into me. 'Why did you not attack the near post?' he demanded. 'Because I just knew - don't ask me how - the ball was going to come to the penalty spot,' I replied. Jim was raging. 'That's not how we practised it!' he shouted. 'Well, I scored, didn't I?' I said. But he just flew off the handle; he couldn't accept what I was saying."

That said, like Copland, Pettigrew looks back now over a span of 30 years and acknowledges that he worked for one of Scotland's finest football managers. McLean, he says, was simply irrepressible.

"He could get the best out of you. I went to Dundee United and won two League Cups under Jim, and I doubt any other manager would have got that out of me."

"Wee Jim's biggest problem was his personality. He always rubbed people up the wrong way. When he signed me for Dundee United he said to me, 'Willie, just score goals; that's all.' I think in my first season with United I scored something like 23, 24 goals in all matches but he started complaining, saying I wasn't doing enough. 'But all you asked me to do was score goals; I've scored a barrowload for you,' I told him. He said to me: 'Don't talk s****, that's no' the point.'

"People go on about the tactical side of it with Jim, and that aspect was there. But, more than anything, Jim just trusted his players.

"He was tremendously driven. Everyone knew that Jim McLean thought about football day and night. And as your manager, if you didn't fit into the Jim McLean way, you didn't last long."

Years later, when McLean fought bitterly to resist Eddie Thompson taking over the club, it seemed his ardour for Dundee United was turning sour. Eventually, with Thompson's takeover complete, amid much acrimony McLean was banished from Tannadice, while also applying his own self-imposed exile.

The point came when Stephen Thompson, even given the past bitterness, decided to take him an olive branch.

"About nine months after my father died I went down to see Jim. I had a cup of tea with him and I said: 'Jim, please come back to the club.' He's such a huge part of Dundee United. This club wouldn't be what it is today without Jim McLean. The past is the past, in terms of some of these personal issues. I wanted us all to move on."

For McLean and Dundee United, the past is no foreign country. It is a brilliant, troubled story, which sustains the club to this day.

Contextual targeting label: 
Football

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

234041