Theatre celebrates birthday with play for legendary manager Jim McLean

Jim McLean on the play's poster.
Jim McLean on the play's poster.
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The life of the legendary Scottish football manager Jim McLean is to inspire a new play being created in the city where he made his name and became a folk hero.

Billed as “funny, moving and surprisingly honest”, the play will pay tribute to the man who turned Dundee United into a force in European football, but also became one of the game’s most controversial and divisive figures.

It will be staged in February by Dundee Rep as part of its 80th anniversary celebrations, which will also feature a new play honouring the victims of the Tay Bridge Disaster 140 years ago.

Dundee Rep, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its own permanent ensemble theatre company in 2019, has already unveiled plans to create a new musical inspired by the Oor Wullie comic strips.

Entitled Smile, in a nod to McLean’s famously dour image, the play is being billed by Dundee Rep as a celebration of a “football visionary, tactical genius and greetin’-faced moan” and an exploration of who “the real Jim McLean was”.

Smile is being written by Phil Differ, who is best known for the Scottish football comedy show Only An Excuse, and who recently launched a one-man play about the legendary Scottish footballer Billy Bremner. Directed by Sally Reid, one of the stars of hit BBC sitcom Scot Squad, it is expected to examine how his personal and private life affected his public persona.

The play has been announced months after a group of Dundee United fans launched a campaign for a statue to be erected in McLean’s honour.

McLean, now 81, has been suffering from ill health in recent years. Differ and Andrew Panton, Dundee Rep’s artistic director, pictured inset, have developed the play in close collaboration with his family, particularly Doris, his wife.

Dundee Rep said the play would “reveal for the first time the complexities and contradictions, the highs and lows, and the triumphs and regrets of this totally unique individual”.

It will recall how the club’s longest-serving manager turned his side into a championship-winning outfit in 1983 and led them to European triumphs over opponents including Barcelona, Borussia Mönchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht, Werder Bremen and Rapid Vienna during the 1980s.

However, it is also likely to recall the club’s infamous Scottish Cup hoodoo, notorious run-ins with players, the gradual decline of the club under his reign, its relegation from the top flight in the 1990s, his difficult relationship with the media, including an infamous altercation with a BBC journalist, and boardroom wrangles during his final years with the club as chairman and director.

Dundee Rep said it would “celebrate the memories of a difficult yet inspirational man, ultimately revealing a Jim McLean you never knew”.

Panton said: “We have been talking to Doris and the McLean family for about 18 months now about what the play might be and how it might work. She was cautious at first, as you might expect.

“We wanted to create a very balanced picture of Jim McLean. It became very clear early on that there are two sides to him – the public figure and also the private figure and family man. That’s what we will be exploring.

“It will be a story that you think you know and you will know some of it, but hopefully you will get a different insight into who he was when he went home, sat on the couch and chatted to Doris, who will be represented in the play.

“We haven’t cast it yet, but there will be two actors, one to play Jim and the other to play all the other characters.

“We know what he did professionally and we know that some of it was divisive and controversial, but what was going on behind the scenes? His story is absolutely fascinating.

“It’s not a story about football. It’s a story about a man and how he interacted with football ... I really hope people who might not normally go to the theatre might take a chance on it.”