Since it is also a few days since confirmation that the club will be spending a third season in the second tier, United’s glory days have never seemed so far away.
May 1993: football’s strongest, most dependable pillars seemed to crack and crumble as a pair of titanic managerial figures stepped down within days of each other.
Brian Clough once told BBC sports presenter Bob Wilson how McLean had vowed to keep on going “longer than me”. He did – seven days longer by dint of the Scottish league season finishing a week later than the English one.
Clough bowed out in terribly pitiful manner. Blotchy and bloated from the alcohol abuse that was by now common knowledge, Clough could not prevent his beloved Nottingham Forest’s slide towards relegation from the Premier League; demotion was confirmed in his last home game against Sheffield United.
United’s decline was nowhere near as dramatic. Compared to what has happened now, it was barely a slide at all. They would finish fourth in the Premier League for a fifth successive season, whatever happened against Aberdeen. McLean’s last teamsheet read: Main; Clark, Van der Hoorn, Welsh, Cleland; Bowman, McInally, McKinlay, O’Neill; Dailly, Connolly. Despite the promise contained in the side McLean had decided the time was right to quit.
For those accustomed to the bland platitudes of modern-day columns, his manager’s notes in that afternoon’s programme will seem unusually thoughtful. He said he would leave it up to each individual to make up his or her mind about the merits of his managerial career. He paid tribute to the club directors, particularly George Fox “who has put up with me the whole time”.
He then ponders Aberdeen, who together with United and under the guidance of McLean and Alex Ferguson had formed a New Firm power base in the 1980s: “For the final match of my 21 years, Aberdeen couldn’t have been more appropriate opponents. Encounters with them have produced many outstanding moments”. McLean’s first trophy success – and the club’s –had been against Aberdeen in a League Cup final replay at Dens Park in 1979. “Conversely we have been on the receiving end too,” he adds, their 4-0 semi-final defeat at Tynecastle in 1990 being one of the most painful. “Frankly, we got a doing that afternoon.”
Sadly, there was to be a similar outcome in McLean’s last stand: Dundee United 1 Aberdeen 4. It meant he looked even more uncomfortable than expected when ceding to a request for a lap of honour afterwards. If he seems slightly agitated in archive footage of this event it might be because he had already accused some of his players of contriving to ruin things.
Marcus Dailly, younger brother of Christian, the scorer of United’s goal that afternoon, was a hamper boy that day – or a “scud book” as it was termed at Dundee United in those days. Why? “Because we were used and discarded,” he explains.
He could stand slightly detached from it all as McLean read the riot act one last time: “Thanks for ruining the day with that performance, Paddy!” he roared at Paddy Connolly, who, despite being United’s top goalscorer that season, was afforded no clemency.
“It was kind of sarcastic but he (McLean) meant it as well,” recalls Dailly, who crossed the road to sign for Dundee later that summer and is now a schoolteacher in Dublin. “He was like that. He hid behind anger a bit. When he should have been a bit more emotional about it being his last day, he could not resist one last dose of pelters.”
McLean was only 55 years old, the same as Jose Mourinho is now. Arsene Wenger, 68, is walking away from Arsenal a fit-looking, energetic man. He still has another job in him, perhaps more than one. McLean, meanwhile, was heading upstairs to the boardroom, and doing so slightly reluctantly.
He looked older than he was, worn down, perhaps, by a new breed of player, chief among them Duncan Ferguson, who were less inclined to endure a managerial style that was dogmatic to say the least.
Within weeks of McLean’s final game Ferguson had signed for Rangers for a British record fee of £4 million. He had already played his own last game for the club by the time it came to such a landmark occasion as the final match in McLean’s tenure, which began in December 1971 against Hearts. Ferguson was not included in the squad – injured unsurprisingly. But Michael O’Neill, the current Northern Ireland manager, was. He remembers it like yesterday.
After overcoming a contract impasse with McLean to be reassimilated to the first-team squad it was to prove O’Neill’s own last appearance for Dundee United. It’s possible to wonder, given the grievances so many players harboured, whether McLean’s imminent departure from the dugout was a cause for celebration amongst some members of the dressing room.
O’Neill explains there was suspicion in the air: no one could believe McLean was finally leaving. In a sense they were right since he continued to wield influence at the club until the early 2000s.
“I was out of contract, there was a lot of uncertainty,” recalls O’Neill, who returned for pre-season training – these were still pre-Bosman days – before angering chairman McLean one final time by moving to Hibs. “We didn’t know what was coming next, what the extent of his influence would still be at the club. Then out of the blue Ivan Golac popped up as manager.”
There were no emotional goodbyes. “I was 22, 23,” says O’Neill. “You just did not have that relationship with Jim McLean at that age – some of the older players who had been there a long time, possibly. But not the younger players.
“At United at the time, and given the nature of the environment, you never actually believed Jim McLean would ever not be the manager.
“People who were at a football club other than Dundee United would find it hard to comprehend what the environment was like. There was, particularly among the younger players, a sense of disbelief: ‘We are going to come back for pre-season and he’s still going to be here!’
“It was never going to be a glorious send-off. There was too much water under the bridge with too many players.”
Dailly illustrates the Big Brother-type atmosphere pervading Tannadice at the time. The sense of McLean watching over everything and everyone was still very strong indeed and would remain so as he took his seat in the boardroom.
A few days prior to McLean’s final game, Dailly and Andy Cargill, who joined him at Dundee before long, were ordered to clean the seats in the George Fox stand. “We stopped to talk to each other and Jim McLean’s voice came across the Tannoy – he’d obviously been watching us. ‘Marcus Dailly and Andy Cargill, get round here!’ We sprinted round and Andy slipped on one of the advertising billboards and when we got round to him we could not stop laughing. But he was going mental at us.”
There’s a sense of his voice still echoing now at Tannadice, where Paul Sturrock, one of the contenders to replace McLean in 1993, has returned to the staff as head of recruitment to try to recreate something of what once was.
The youth system is currently in the process of being overhauled in an effort to get the player conveyor belt going again. The McLean era gave way for the Thompson era. But United fans realise they never had it so good and probably never will.