An enjoyable night was drawing to a close earlier this summer at the Dundee Contemporary Arts centre, when an audience member, someone called Stella from memory, rose from her seat at the back of the cinema.
This was following the premiere of Tannadice ’87, a documentary broadcast on Alba TV in May to mark the anniversary of Dundee United reaching the Uefa Cup final 30 years ago. Some time was set aside for members of the invited audience to ask questions of several players from the era, including Paul Sturrock, John Holt and Jim McInally, who were sitting in a half-circle on the stage, and who’d all featured in the film.
However, Stella didn’t wish to ask a question. Instead, she wanted to make a point. It was that none of the players up there would have been there had it not been for Jim McLean. She didn’t want them to forget that.
“He was ordinary, he wasn’t posh,” she continued, ignoring the slightly awkward vibe she had delivered to a room that until then had been chortling merrily along to tales of Jim’s behavioural excesses, though never in a way, it must be stressed, that was unpleasant or cruel.
She seemed understandably peeved by the absence of a McLean family member in the film itself or at the function. “None of yous would have been the players you were if not for him,” she added. Paul Sturrock, the nearest to what could be termed a favourite son to McLean, attempted to stage an intervention.
“Of course… we know that,” he said. Jim Spence, the MC for the evening, then hurriedly brought proceedings to an end.
There was, declared Spence, no time for further questions. That was the last question. But it had not been a question. It was a statement, a slightly frostily delivered one at that. Most of the room had previously been enjoying the trading of anecdotes, the majority of which featured McLean at their heart. I’ve often wondered how one single person could be responsible for so many anecdotes.
Holt recalled going to see McLean in 1981, while United were sponsored by Adidas. He’d had the same boots for a while and they’d developed a rip. He showed McLean. Surely now they were sponsored by Adidas he’d be able to get a new pair? “Let’s have a look,” said the manager. “Oh aye.” He was told to go see the girl in the office, who’d give him three quid. “There’s a cobblers down the road,” McLean instructed.
Fitness coach Stuart Hogg recounted McLean leaping up to celebrate John Clark’s equaliser in the Nou Camp and cutting his head on the dugout roof. Sturrock remembered a training incident when McLean’s tammy was blown off in the wind and his comb-over went up like a bin lid.
“Don’t you dare!” he warned the players as they fought to control their mirth. “Unfortunately for Jim hair only seemed to grow up one side of his head,” smiled Sturrock.
McInally recalled a tour to Holland when his wife’s call got put through to McLean’s room for some reason and the manager politely left to allow the midfielder to take it there. It was then McInally spotted a can of hairspray on the table – a very unlikely McLean accoutrement.
All this came to mind as I walked up towards Dens Park seven days ago, en route to another Dundee derby, past The Jim McLean Fair Play Stand, past the gates to the old Shed end, flung open so a street seller could set up a table, on which was strewn United-associated merchandise. On the railings of the gates were pinned tangerine t-shirts, one depicting an image of McLean, clutching the league title trophy from 1983, with the words printed on: “The best there is, the best there was, the best there will ever be.”
Born in Larkhall on 2 August 1937, McLean turned 80 last midweek. Perhaps fittingly, this milestone has fallen between two Dundee derbies, the second of which is a League Cup second-round encounter on Wednesday night back at Dens, where McLean first played full-time football after joining Dundee in 1965.
McLean’s health has been failing for several years now, though I’m assured he brightened this week, when surrounded by his family, including brothers Willie and Tommy, pictured, both similarly steeped in football, and the heroine Doris, his wife, as well as their two sons, Gary and Colin.
There was a cake and balloons (tangerine, of course), exactly how it should be. There was a bouquet of flowers from a Dundee United fans’ group. But nothing arrived from Dundee United themselves.
In fact, there was little of note at all from a club now suffering ridicule for trying to hawk goalkeeper Cammy Bell on Twitter, like a cheap second-hand suit. The same official Dundee United Twitter page did send out a birthday message for McLean. “A true legend,” it described him – with a love heart added for good measure.
But it seemed strange not to have saluted the occasion in some way on the club’s official website. There is an invitation to buy a commemorative brick at Tannadice Park to mark the club’s first 100 years. But nothing about such a significant birthday in the life of the architect of the modern Dundee United, the man who turned Jerry Kerr’s vision into a reality. It’s an omission that seems to me unforgivable.
One (generous) explanation could be the confusion that has reigned over when McLean’s birthday actually is. Wikipedia originally had it down as 21 April, then, when someone sought to rectify this error, it was changed to 21 October – again wide of the mark.
Only since Wednesday has McLean’s birthdate been accurately recorded on the site, although having checked again, it seems to have reverted to October. He’s back to being 79.
The subject of managers, and their age, seemed particularly relevant last week. On the eve of McLean’s 80th, Ian Cathro, who’s just turned 31, learned of his sacking by Hearts. “He needs to go away and learn how to be a manager, gain some experience elsewhere,” was the advice from some observers, seemingly still outraged by Cathro’s callowness.
But when McLean pitched up at Tannadice in December 1971, lured from a coaching position across the road at Dens, he was only 34. When he turned 40, at the start of the 1977-78 season, he was preparing to lead United to third in the Scottish top flight – the club’s highest position to that point.
When United reached the last four of the European Cup, McLean was just 46. (Ray McKinnon, the club’s current manager, turned 47 yesterday.) And when he finally stepped away in the summer of 1993, he was still only 56, just three years older than Tommy Wright is now, and three years younger than Peter Houston.
We think of Jim McLean as old, even in the glory years, as long ago as 30 years – and more – now. But, really, he was young, so young.