Dundee Rep

Neil Cooper

Four stars

There will only ever be one Jim McLean, the legendary football manager, who, in the 1980s, when the former joiner’s calling was still the people’s game, built a rundown Dundee United team up from its foundations to become a major European force. But beyond the emotional debris and layers of machismo protecting him, McLean was a fragile construction likely to crumble before the final whistle blew.

All this is brought home magnificently in Philip Differ’s dramatic love letter to McLean, which moves between the blustering rage of his subject’s public persona and the doubt-fuelled self-flagellation of the private man. This is made flesh in Sally Reid’s production by a wonderful Barrie Hunter, who captures McLean’s vulnerability with a lightness that can’t help but endear him even to those who loved to hate this most pugnacious of characters.

With Hunter pacing urgently across the expanse of Kenny Miller’s symbolic building site set to the buzz of Fiona Johnston’s soundscape, he is accompanied by Chris Alexander’s Jimmy. This track-suited foil marks the touchlines of McLean’s life, prompting, pushing and cajoling like some good angel manager in waiting.

Over the show’s hour-long duration, Differ teases the devoted with a few key anecdotes that define McLean, but goes for the man rather than the ball in exposing all the complexities of a working class Lanarkshire kid thrust into the spotlight.

Beyond McLean, Differ has penned a much bigger elegy to the breed of back-street mavericks such as McLean and other managers of his generation who had a near holy devotion to a sport yet to be overtaken by those obsessed with money more than football. Out of this comes a human portrait of a flawed genius, delivered with a warts and all mixture of brutality and tenderness that makes the game beautiful once more.