Jim McLean: Legendary Dundee United manager comes home - emotional hurdles for family, Dundee derby request and story of statue

Opposite a large grey Pickfords warehouse, next to the headquarters for a cleaning services company. Along the road from a boxing gym.

The Jim McLean statue undergoes some final touches at the Powderhall Bronze fine art foundry in Edinburgh

It would be no surprise to learn productivity levels have shot up over the last 12 months at the Powderhall Bronze fine art foundry, a vermillion-fronted building a stone’s throw from the Forth, nearer Easter Road than Tannadice.

No one puts Jim McLean in a corner. But that is where he was stored for over a year, keeping an eye on proceedings and facing off against Ken Buchanan on the other side of the dusty workshop – this statue of the boxing great is waiting to be installed at the top of Edinburgh's Leith Walk. Meanwhile, artisans busied themselves with their blowtorches, weld guns and assorted metal work tools, conscious, perhaps, they were being watched by the ultimate taskmaster.

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The woodworker in McLean will have appreciated the artistry. He was good with his hands as well as his feet. The joiner from Larkhall who thought he was a carpenter from Nazareth. That was one memorable phrase used to describe McLean.

Jim McLean takes a walk along the beachfront at Broughty Ferry in 1995.

Sculptor Alan Herriot has done a grand job in unenviable circumstances. Everyone knows the supreme jeopardy involved in creating a football likeness after recent skewed efforts, the most high-profile of which is a since removed bronze bust of “Cristiano Ronaldo” at Lisbon airport.

At just over 6ft, this version of McLean is slightly larger than life; Big Jim as opposed to Wee Jim. Some might perish this thought. There are players who struggled with the more compact 5ft 8in ball of bristling energy never mind a bigger, more foreboding figure cast in hot bronze and designed to endure the harshest of Scottish winters. They say he will be visible from the Law, the volcanic sill that dominates the Dundee cityscape. Jute, jam and Jim McLean.

He’s home again.

On Wednesday I watched as he was forklifted onto a truck owned by local Dundee firm Norman Jamieson ahead of the journey from Edinburgh.

Jim McLean waves to the Dundee Utd supporters after his last match as manager against Aberdeen in May 1993. He was still only 56

It was a surreal sight, likewise 24 hours earlier when I visited the yard for the first time. McLean had been trussed up in bubble wrap in preparation for this final trip and was lying perpendicular on a pallet with something protruding from his side. This bulge is the Scottish league title trophy – “my trophy” McLean apparently whispered despite being in dementia's firm grip after he was shown the maquette for the first time.

The attention to detail is remarkable. “There’s not much you can do with a man in a suit,” says the self-deprecating Herriot. “It’s slightly mundane subject matter.” The image chosen to work from was a posed shot of McLean with the cup shortly after United secured the Premier Division championship at Dens Park in 1983.

But even the suit had to be right. Herriot’s original sketches had McLean in a double-breasted jacket. No, no, no came the family feedback. He wasn’t wearing one at the time. It was single breasted. Herriot was also sure to include McLean’s wedding ring. "These little things matter to the family," he says.

The facial features were another challenge. McLean was still only 45-years-old at the time – the same age as St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson is now. “Even though it was starting to thin a bit, his hair was slightly longer at the back and then the sidechops, that kind of thing," explains Herriot. "It was a different style in the 1980s.”

Tributes - including a Dundee FC strip - are left for Jim McLean at Tannadice Park shortly after his death in December last year (Photo by Roddy Scott / SNS Group)

This composition of McLean and trophy is now imprinted more firmly on the 69-year-old Herriot’s mind than that of the most ardent Dundee United supporter. A Hibs fan, the sculptor is based near Penicuik and has an additional footballing claim to fame other than creating this McLean masterpiece. His brother-in-law was the late Hearts and Everton legend Alex Young, otherwise known as the Golden Vision.

McLean would have approved of that. However, one wonders what the famously cussed workaholic would have said about a statue of himself being erected at Tannadice. “It’s no smilin’, is it?” you can almost hear him say.

However, in Jousting with Giants, an autobiography published in 1987, he wrote that “the club and the players, the directors and even the ground itself is in my blood now – I would never want to work anywhere else.”

Now he is a part of the stadium. As long as it’s there, he’s there. He is perched on a plinth on a ramp up from Tannadice Street towards a stand largely funded by Duncan Ferguson, who McLean sold to Rangers for a British record fee of £4m in 1993.

Jim McLean played full-time football for the first time when he signed for Dundee from Clyde in 1965. He scored 43 goals in 120 appearances and re-joined the Dens Park club as coach in 1970.

A poignant but difficult day ahead for McLean family

“Behind all the bluster, I am sure he would have been delighted,” says Willie, the elder McLean brother who will attend the unveiling ceremony at Tannadice on Saturday, on the eve of the first top-flight Dundee derby for five years.

Now 86, he will go to the following day’s Premiership match as guest of the club – the first game of football the former Motherwell and Ayr United manager has attended since a 6-6 draw between Motherwell and Hibs nearly 12 years ago. Only a McLean could be put off football by such high-voltage excitement. Jim once famously withheld a special bonus payment because his side had eased up after scoring five first-half goals in a 6-1 Scottish Cup win over Motherwell.

It’s been a lot longer than a dozen years since Doris, McLean’s widow, was last at Tannadice for a game. Try nearer 20, dating back to that unhappy period when McLean returned for a final stint as chairman.

Against the advice of many, he had come back from a spell in purdah following that post-interview punch on then BBC Scotland reporter John Barnes in October 2000. There wasn’t a lot of joy around as Eddie Thompson redoubled efforts to buy the club. McLean eventually agreed to sell his shares to someone he viewed as a bitter enemy after years spent resisting this course of action.

While McLean agreed to return for a game when the club affixed his name to the Fair Play Stand, Doris, who turned 80 earlier this month, never went back. There have been several emotional hurdles for her to cross this week as she prepares to take a seat at Tannadice again nearly nine months after her husband’s death. McLean passed away aged 83 on Boxing Day last year after a long period of ill health. His final years were spent in a home in Broughty Ferry just walking distance from the house he built for his family, including sons Gary, recently retired from Police Scotland, and Colin, who works in IT for Dundee City Council.

They will be present at Saturday’s unveiling too, as will Heath, Willie’s wife, and Tommy, the youngest of the band of professional football playing brothers. He has had his own health troubles recently and won’t attend Sunday’s game at the club where he, too, managed for a short spell under the critical gaze of chairman Jim.

It was hard for the brothers to watch the once vibrant lifeforce slowly slipping from their middle sibling.

“It was very difficult for me to see him deteriorate,” reflects Willie, from his home in Ayr. “It was a blessing in the end from his point of view. But it was still difficult. You thought of all the things you did as a kid....He was just as determined as a kid as he was when he was a manager. Things had to go Jim’s way. If they did not go Jim’s way, then all hell broke loose.”

It is Doris, this heroine, who will bear the greatest weight of solemnity this weekend while also hopefully experiencing some closure as well as immense pride. Not many football figures are honoured with a statue in Scotland. Greig at Rangers, Johnstone, McNeill and Stein at Celtic. Jim Baxter at Hill of Beath, his birthplace.

McLean would enjoy this final victory over New Firm rival Alex Ferguson, whose Aberdeen statue has only just been commissioned. “He always challenged himself against Fergie,” says Willie. Ferguson was involved in the initial fund-raising efforts with over £60,000 having eventually been raised to cover most of the costs.

Current Dundee United owner Mark Ogren put in £5,000 himself. The healing has most definitely begun between the club and the McLean family, who felt a severing of ties during the Thompson era.

Not now. McLean is being fittingly remembered forever. The statue will be accessible to all during working hours each day and will be floodlit for a spell each evening. It’s hoped it will form a destination point for more than just Dundee United supporters in a city attracting more and more tourists thanks to the V & A museum. “Leisure and Culture Dundee are planning a culture trail,” says George Haggarty, chairman of the statue steering group. QR codes will be added to the plinth so visitors can read more detailed articles online about McLean’s achievements.

Remembering his legacy – and a minute’s applause

Few linked to the club will require any such education. Haggarty hopes the statue can be a source of inspiration. “It’s a celebration of the greatness Dundee United have achieved but we are also thinking that Jim is standing there challenging the club by saying, ‘this is the sort of trophy you should be bringing to Tannadice’,” he says. “There’s that aspiration. A generation has not lived the experience but have heard about it through their families – if you are linked to Dundee United at all, then you will have heard all about Jim McLean and that era.”

Several former players will attend Saturday’s private ceremony, which will be broadcast on YouTube at 5.30pm. Paul Hegarty might be next in line to be immortalised. After all, he was the skipper during these great days even if he and the manager did not always see eye to eye. “Wee Jim put Dundee United on the map,” he says. "He put together a team that did well domestically and distinguished themselves in Europe."

Hegarty joined the likes of Hamish McAlpine, David Narey and Maurice Malpas in the street when McLean’s funeral cortege passed by Tannadice in January. It’s clearly heart-breaking he didn’t live to see this day.

Although the original plan was to erect the statue in time for the 40th anniversary of United winning their first major trophy in 1979 the Covid-enforced delay means being able to schedule its unveiling for the first top-flight derby in over five years.

Out of respect to Doris, fans of both clubs will be asked to partake in a minute’s applause before kick-off to honour McLean on such a significant day. The identity of the opposition provides another narrative strand.

It could be argued that the Dens Park club are why there is a statue at all. They were the original reason McLean came to the city he ended up calling home for over half a century.

He signed for Dundee in 1965 and even played in a European semi-final against Leeds United. But he struggled to live down a debut in a 5-0 defeat at Dens against ….Dundee United and fell foul of the home fans.

He described his three seasons there as “miserably unhappy” and he was as surprised as anyone when manager John Prentice invited him to return to become a coach. He flourished out of sight of the critical Dundee fans, forming lifelong bonds with players who risked club censure when dropping in to see McLean at home in Broughty Ferry following the Dens Park side’s return from winning the League Cup at Hampden in 1973. McLean had since moved on to become the manager of Dundee United after falling out with Dundee chairman Ian Gellatly and being passed over for the top job at Dens after Prentice suddenly resigned. These were fateful times in terms of the city’s tremulous footballing fortunes.

McLean changed the face of the game in Dundee and it must be noted that the three major honours he won at Dundee United were all secured at Dens Park, something he will have relished as much as the club’s supporters.

Favour from the neighbour

“We are hoping Dundee fans might join United fans in honouring Jim McLean,” says Haggarty. “He does have a positive link to Dundee as well as United. It’s an opportunity for both sets of fans to show their appreciation.”

Whatever happens in the white-hot atmosphere of a derby, where niceties aren’t always observed, McLean’s story – which was turned into a well-received stage play last year, entitled “Smile” – will continue to echo in Scottish football. His deeds and those of his players will always be referenced as demonstrating what’s possible, although in today’s game, where completely different market forces exist, one wonders if that really is the case. Can United ever hope to reach a European final again, for example?

Raised in a Plymouth Brethren household, McLean wasn’t even supposed to play professional football, never mind go on and create history. Tom, his father, was given a choice by his prospective father-in-law: give up the prospect of making a living from football – he was provisionally signed by Hearts - or be refused the hand of the girl he was proposing to marry.

He chose the former option and he and wife Annie produced three professional footballers of their own. More than that, they all became successful managers. Only one is now being worshipped to an extent that might have caused some discomfort in old Plymouth Brethren circles, where drinking alcohol was forbidden and prayers were said before each mealtime.

“It’s not an idol that is going up there,” contends Willie. “It is just somebody who was very popular and who worked tirelessly for Dundee United, often at a great personal cost. It’s an appreciation of the work and effort that Jim put into the club.”

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