When Jim McLean took on the job of manager of Dundee United, early in 1972, few people saw the club as anything more than a middle-ranking Scottish First Division side, with little chance of winning top honours, and no international profile at all.
Yet in McLean’s 22 years at Tannadice, he transformed the club’s reputation, first driving his team into Scotland’s newly-formed Premier Division, then beginning to bring home serious awards, including the Scottish League Cup in 1979 and 1980, and the Scottish League Championship in 1983. Dundee United also began to play extensively in Europe, reaching the semi-final of the European Cup in 1984, and the final of the UEFA cup in 1987. Small wonder that McLean is a true local hero in the city that became his home, and which he always refused to leave, despite lucrative offers from Rangers and from top English clubs; so much so that fans have recently created a fund for a statue of McLean at the entrance to Tannadice, set to be unveiled this May.
The statue, though, will not be the only celebration of McLean’s career in Dundee this year. Next week, as part of a year of celebration of its own 80th anniversary, Dundee Rep theatre will launch a new show called Smile, designed to explore the character and achievement of a man who had a famously dour public persona, and whose years as club chairman – a role he took on after he stepped down as manager – ended abruptly in 2000, after he famously hit BBC Scotland sports reporter, John Barnes. “I met Jim McLean a couple of times,” says Glasgow-based writer and comedy producer Philip Differ, who has written the play for the Rep, “and the first time I felt he really was that grumpy, brusque character of legend.
“The second time, though – when he came to appear on a football chat show I was doing, called Offside – he was absolutely charming, and really wonderful to talk to about football. I began to glimpse this man who reminded me of my own dad, in that he was very shy, but with this wonderful dry sense of humour. And I became intrigued by two things about Jim’s story, I think. One was this drive that all great sportsmen have, this need to win that really takes over their personality, when they’re in the heat of a competition. And the other was this story about fame, and about how it creates both an image, and a pressure to continue to live up to that image, that can really leave people trapped in their own public persona.”
At the age of 82, and still living in Dundee, McLean is now seriously ill with a form of dementia; but Differ says that it was absolutely vital both to him as writer, and to the Rep’s director Andrew Panton, to make sure that McLean’s wife Doris and their two sons were in full support of the project, and were happy with Differ’s determination not to create an image of a “Saint Jim”, but to explore all the complexities of McLean’s character. The play is a two-handed drama featuring Rep ensemble member Barrie Hunter as McLean, and Chris Alexander in more than a dozen other roles; and it will be directed by ScotSquad star Sally Reid, who is both one of Scotland’s leading television and stage actresses, and – in recent years – a skilful director of plays at Oran Mor and elsewhere.
“I didn’t think twice about taking this job on,” says Reid, after a day’s rehearsal in Dundee. “It’s a great opportunity to direct on a main stage, and although football is still such a male-dominated world, I am interested both in football itself – my dad is a huge Aberdeen supporter, and used to take me and my brother to matches from a really early age – and in the wider psychological themes that the play explores.
“Football is theatre, after all – definitely a form of theatre; and I’ve been fascinated to talk to Jim McLean’s wife and other people who knew him, and to learn more about him as a man who had to help create these terrific performances, every week. I remember someone saying that he was a really nice, genial, approachable man all week, until about Thursday afternoon or Friday morning. Then he would be gripped by the need to focus on Saturday’s match, and to win it; and everything else would just fall away for a couple of days.”
And Differ, too, says that he has found the process a richly enjoyable one. “Jim’s wife Doris is a theatre fan,” he says, “and she has been a great support – she even came down to a rehearsal, and gave us a few very useful notes.
“And then, of course, there’s the hope that a play on this subject will attract an audience that might otherwise never go to the theatre at all. One evening last week, there was an “in conversation” event at the Rep featuring the ex- Dundee United player and manager Paul Sturrock, and it was just amazing to see this football crowd pouring into the Rep and packing it out. We thought we would take advantage of the situation to record them all singing “Jim McLean”, as the Dundee United crowd would do during Jim’s great days.
“And d’you know, it was hard to stop them. They did it loud, they did it softly, they did it as many times as we wanted; and it would be lovely to see that crowd again, at the Rep, watching the show. Although in the end, this isn’t really a play about football. It’s a play about a man’s life, and his great talent, with football as a backdrop; and we hope everyone will be interested in that.” Joyce McMillan
Smile is at Dundee Rep from 18 February until 7 March