Tommy McLean talks old times and family dynasty

PICTURE the scene: a gripping season is reaching its climax, one with neither of the Old Firm in the top four places, one that would make you greet for how richly diverse our football used to be.

Former Kilmarnock and Rangers star Tommy McLean. Picture: John Devlin

Tommy McLean, just 17, is making his own way to the championship decider but as he pilots his Humber Sceptre along the western approaches to Edinburgh he soon gets caught up in a throng of opposition fans. The men are wearing ties – the Sixties have yet to swing – and the boys are carrying rattles. There’s a lot of them, all hugely expectant.

But McLean makes it to Tynecastle in good time – in fact he beats his team–mates on the Kilmarnock bus. And Killie beat Hearts by the required 2–0 scoreline to become champions. The “young pup” of the team crossed for Davie Sneddon to head the first goal and also has a hand in the second, scored by Brian McIlroy, to give Scotland’s oldest professional club their first–ever title on the final day.

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Wee Tommy, the pint–sized right–winger with the splay–footed scamper, would go on to win two trebles and the European Cup–Winners’ Cup with Rangers and as a manager guide Motherwell to the Scottish Cup. But I have come to his immaculate home in Larbert, Stirlingshire – with the young pup of this household shut behind a tiny fence held in place by Sir Alex Ferguson’s memoirs and the ten–to–two feet of its master encased in a pair of baffies – to talk about the club who gave him his chance in the game. McLean is more than happy to do this as he roots for Kilmarnock in today’s last–day shootout – back in Edinburgh, against Hibernian, only this time to avoid the play–offs.

“I was at Rugby Park in 2010 when Kilmarnock saved themselves from relegation against Falkirk. That was such a fraught day. These can be horrible games because no-one has any form. But they got through that one and given what we did in 1965 they seem to be able to negotiate final days.” Then comes one of those little lemon smiles he shares with the other members of Clan McLean, brothers Jim and Willie. “Hopefully I’ve not just given them the kiss of death!”

Back to the ’64–’65 campaign. Hibs were in serious contention until manager Jock Stein left for Celtic. Dunfermline Athletic stayed in the hunt for even longer. Which by 24 April left Hearts and Killie. “Hearts were two points ahead and red–hot favourites,” says McLean, 66. “They were a good team and when we went back to Tynecastle for an experimental friendly at the start of the following season – no offside until the 18–yard line – they won 8–2 and Donald Ford scored five. Anyway, that day there was a sense Kilmarnock were just fulfilling a fixture. I do think that was the Hearts attitude. They were sure they were going to win the league. They were complacent.”

The Kilmarnock team was Bobby Ferguson, Andy King, Matt Watson, Eric Murray, Jackie McGrory, Frank Beattie, Wee Tommy, Jackie McInally, Bertie Black, Sneddon and McIlroy. Adds McLean: “We were a good team, too. Bobby was a fine goalie in the Kilmarnock tradition, Matt always did well against Jimmy Johnstone and Willie Henderson, Andy would sort out anyone who kicked me, Jackie was a ball–playing centre–half and Bertie bucked the trend of the big centre–forwards of the day and was small and nimble and quick.

“But, although we’d been on a wee run towards the back end of the season, I don’t think we’d ever led the league. There was no big speech from the manager [Willie Waddell]. He did what he always did: took off his Burberry, put it on the peg, read out the team and disappeared. Then a few minutes before kick–off he told us to go out and do ourselves justice.

“Our goals threw them. The crowd got agitated and Tynecastle was bursting at the seams that day. In the second half they hammered us. Even one goal would have won them the title because back then it was goal average that counted. Bobby pulled off a magnificent save near the end and then we’d done it. Euphoria. Waddell ran onto the park and hugged Frank. That amazed us because he wasn’t a man given to emotion. His usual thing was to pop his glasses onto the end of his nose, peer at you and say: ‘Well done.’ Or if you hadn’t you just got the peering.” The players shared the only bottle of champagne they’d brought with them, possibly because the victory was unexpected. “Then I drove straight home and picked up Beth,” says Lanarkshire boy McLean of his future wife. “Normally we went to the pictures on Saturday night – a good western down the Larkhall Regal. But we had to get across to Rugby Park for the celebrations.”

We should pause here at mention of McLean’s usual post–match wind–down. You wouldn’t have caught his father Tom at the flicks – nor, more crucially, the football. Tom took up the religious code of the Plymouth Brethren when he married the McLean boys’ mother, Annie. “That meant no cinema or telly in the house and Dad stopped playing juniors. My mum’s dad had wanted him to do this. He was William Yuille, once of Rangers as it happens – an auld bugger who was very strict.

“Willie and Jim had it harder than me. By the time I came along we had a telly. But I know Dad missed the football. He was nicknamed Speeder and all through my youth I was told: ‘You’re no’ a patch on Speeder’. So he would look forward to Saturday tea–time for the reports on the McLeans. Willie and Jim would have watched me play for Larkhall Academy or Birkenshaw Juniors in the morning and I would have gone to see whoever was at home in the afternoon, Jim at Hamilton Accies or Willie at Airdrie. I can still hear Dad: ‘The boys said you were murder the day’!

“He was a baker and sometimes he’d stop the van to watch me for a few minutes. I found out later that he saw some Kilmarnock games without telling anyone, which I’m pleased about.” Tom died in 1991 just before that 4–3 Scottish Cup triumph for Tommy’s Motherwell over Jim’s Dundee United – one of the greatest–ever finals. “Football gave all his boys good careers. Dad was very proud of that.”

Tommy talks with great affection about his brothers, the McLean dynasty being one of the great stories of the Scottish fitba–scape, although there’s a poignancy to its recent chapters. “Sadly Jim isn’t in the best health. Willie suffered a heart attack four years ago on the golf course, but he’s got over that. The pair of us look in on Jim. “The McLeans have aye been close and it was Willie and Jim who taught me about all the important stuff, tactics and the finer points.” Willie, he reckons, was best–suited to management. “All of us are passionate about the game but Willie was the diplomatic one. He could put up with interference from directors more than Jim or me.” Now Tommy is laughing as he recalls his fallouts with Jim as Rangers vied with Dundee United. “Once at Ibrox, as David Narey tried to play offside, I nipped in and scored. As usual, when Jim came across from Dundee, I had presents from our mum for the kids. I met him after the game in the big hall and he said: ‘Ach, I’m no’ wanting your blinking parcels. You were offside!’ ”

Tommy would consult his mentor–brothers on every football matter. “When I was a manager I’d phone them about players I was interested in signing. ‘Don’t touch him with a bargepole’, one of them might say.” Mind you, Tommy didn’t always listen to them, such as at Killie when Chelsea wanted to buy him. “Willie told me I should go but we come from Ashgill, a tiny wee place, and London was an awfie big step.” Waddell, by then a football journalist, thought he could change his mind. “ ‘I’ll be right round’, he said, and he told me I could be a superstar. Chelsea had Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson, all these Carnaby Street guys, but I said to Beth: ‘I don’t think this is me’. Ashgill’s only got the one shop. We had a family plot for a house of our own and stayed there 23 years. I can still hear Waddell: ‘Foolish, foolish boy’.”

Back to Tynecastle ’65: I mention a fantastic photo of Waddell and assistant Walter McCrae on the Killie bench, both puffing like lums. McLean: “We used to laugh on Mondays at training at Rugby Park, seeing all the fag butts on the track. Before every game the pair of them would send the groundsman out for 20 fags each and smoke the lot.”

McLean has a lot to thank Killie for. A homely club with a sheep – Angus – on staff to cut the grass on a wide park where wee wingers could roam and youth would have its day. Earlier in the league–winning season, not yet a regular, he was pitched in against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Inter–Cities Fairs Cup with Killie 3–0 down which quickly became four. On one of Rugby Park’s greatest nights, he provided three assists in an amazing comeback – and in the following season’s European Cup he got to play against Real Madrid, scoring with a penalty, swapping shirts with Ferenc Puskas. McLean passionately believes that the only way forward for our game is youth development and he wants to see more clubs play Scottish kids rather than so many “second–rate foreigners”.

As you can tell he had a good relationship with Waddell – The Deedle, as he was known – and this continued into the managerial career. “He’d phone me up after a game. ‘I can just see you sitting there with your wee face tripping you’, he’d say. I’d say: ‘I need a striker’. ‘What do you need a striker for? The more players you’ve got, the more headaches’.” And before then the pair had another spell working together – at Rangers.

McLean struggled there at first. “Willie Henderson was the fans’ favourite and rightly so.” He didn’t enjoy the Old Firm blood and thunder. “Larkhall is a Rangers stronghold. I’d be in my garden and folk would shout: ‘You better win on Saturday’. There was a helluva lot of pressure in those games.” But there were great times, too, and he follows the club’s fortunes with a keen interest and, as you’d expect from a McLean, isn’t short of a forthright opinion. “Are Rangers making progress? For the money being paid out they should be doing better. Take the boy [Ian] Black, rumoured to be on £10,000 a week, half a million a year. What does he do for that half–million? Does he score goals? No. Who sanctioned that? And I come back to kids: why when Rangers went down did they not give youth a chance?”

Ibrox produced some great laughs as well, such as this encounter between that giant of a ref Tiny Wharton and our man in the heat of Old Firm battle: “It’s no’ fair, it’s just no’ fair.” “Mr McLean, what is it that’s not fair?” “That I have to pay exactly the same for a suit as you do!” Of course, back the, suits had to be worn at all times if you were a Ranger, even to training. “The turn–ups on your trousers could be no more than the width of three fingers and we weren’t allowed out at night after Wednesday and nor could we play golf. Then before games Jock Wallace would give us the fireman’s hose, skooshing us with water to make sure we were alert. To finish off, this strange oily lotion was rubbed on our scalps so we ran out onto the park with our heads tingling.”

And Tommy thought the Plymouth Brethren was strict?

Finally, let’s end our tale by returning to Kilmarnock, just as the ’64–’65 team were returning victorious. “There was no lap of honour because we hadn’t been given the trophy, but we waved to the crowd from the stand and then went downstairs for a buffet tea. We were £25–a–week players who’d won the league with quite a modest home support, just 5,000 sometimes, and I’m as proud of what that side achieved as anything else I did in football. Then on the Monday night we played Ayr United in the final of the Ayrshire Cup and got beat!”