It appeared as though he ruled the club with an iron fist.
Cut from similar managerial cloth as Sir Alex Ferguson, the man whose Aberdeen was thought to be the only club in Scotland that could challenge the Rangers-Celtic dominance, Jim McLean propelled little Dundee United to unprecedented success and almost capped it all by reaching the European Champions Cup final.
And it wasn’t Ferguson’s very fine Aberdeen side of the time which broke the Old Firm’s stranglehold on the Scottish title, it was McLean’s tangerine dream-team, Dundee United.
That was in 1982/83 after winning consecutive League Cups in 1979 and 1980.
But it was winning the championship which took McLean’s Terrors into the following season’s European Cup for the only time in the club’s history.
They negotiated comfortable early round victories over Malta’s Hamrun Spartans and Standard Liege before edging Rapid Vienna on away goals in a tense quarter-final.
When they defeated AS Roma 2-0 at Tannadice in the first-leg of the semi-final, it looked like an all-British final might occur. Liverpool had won at home to Dinamo Bucharest in the first-leg of the other semi-final.
But the return leg at Rome’s Olympic Stadium saw United go down 0-3, exactly what Roma needed to progress to the final scheduled for the same venue in a few weeks time. The most controversial moment was a second-half penalty awarded to the Italians from which they established a 3-0 lead. The Scottish FA urged UEFA to launch a probe into the goings-on, but the suits at the governing body didn’t want to know.
In later years Roma director Riccardo Viola, son of Roma’s late president, Dino, confirmed his club gave French referee Michel Vautrot £50,000 ahead of the second leg.
After Liverpool had defeated AS Roma in the final, McLean didn’t hold back: “Any individual or club that stoops so low as to go in for this tactic deserves to be nowhere near the game. It’s an utter disgrace because I’ve always tried to believe football is honest.
“I’m pleased Liverpool won the Final, even if we were denied the chance to play in it. I’m glad a bunch of cheaters didn’t win.”
McLean had angered the Italians after the first-leg after a reporter asked if his tam were on drugs, by joking, “... if we were, I hope we are still on them for the next game.”
He was jostled by some Roma players and officials as he left the pitch at the end of the unsuccessful second-leg, protected by assistant Walter Smith and reserve ‘keeper, John Gardiner, who received punches to their ribs and back.
United had established a quite fearsome European reputation under McLean, accounting for Anderlecht, Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach (twice) PSV Eindhoven and Werder Bremen over two legs and winning home and away to Barcelona.
My own personal memories of McLean surround a testimonial game he brought his Dundee United side across to Belfast for in August 1980. As part of the organizing committee I met the Dundee United team at the airport and found the chance to chat with McLean during the trip to the hotel.
His knowledge of local, Irish league football and its players simply blew me away. He knew details of several young players of potential and asked plenty of questions. Questions I believe he already knew the answers to. When I mentioned recently-capped John Devine who would be playing against his Dundee United side the following evening for Glentoran, he said quick as a flash, “... but he didn’t do that well in his international match.”
Later that evening, as his team was set to leave the Oval Stadium, their team coach in the parking-lot had it’s exit blocked by another car. McLean sought me out, somewhat irritated and asked, nay demanded, if I’d get it moved. “No problem,” I said. “Give me a few minutes.”
But it was a problem. Could I find the driver of the Merc? Not a chance. Ten minutes later, McLean came back up the stairs, breathing fire and in no mood for compromise. The reputation I’d heard about was unfolding before my very eyes and here was me on the receiving end.
Eventually of course we tracked the unwitting, offending driver down. The situation resolved, McLean did indeed say thanks, but he wasn’t smiling.
The double defeat of Barcelona helped Dundee United reach the UEFA Cup Final in 1987, but wilting from a game-laden season, the Terrors fell to IFK Gothenburg of Sweden.
But just think of that now. Dundee United blazing a trail through Europe, within a whisker of a Champions League final, defeating Barca home and away and reaching the Europa League final. Doesn’t seem remotely likely does it? But this is what Jim McLean achieved.
During his playing days McLean had been an inside forward with Hamilton Academical, Clyde, Dundee and Kilmarnock, and was on the coaching staff at United’s city rivals when he was asked to replace Jerry Kerr at Tannadice in December 1971.
Inducted to the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2005, McLean also served as assistant to Jock Stein with the national team for 4 years, including at the 1982 World Cup finals.
His 31-year association with Dundee United as manager, board-member and chairman, ended in 2002 when he sold his stake to Eddie Thomson.
He was manager for 22 years and resigned the chairmanship in 2000 after assaulting a BBC reporter.
Confirming his death yesterday Dundee United’s statement said: “An integral part of our history and rise to the forefront of European football, Jim was simply a titan of Dundee United folklore, cherished by the United family the world over.”
And McLean’s family, in a statement published by United, added: “Jim was a much-loved husband, father, brother, uncle and father-in-law, and we will all sadly miss him.
“His remarkable six-decade career made him a true legend not only at Dundee United, but across the world of football.”
Former players joined in the tributes too, goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine claiming he was the best British manager given the resources at his disposal -
“He is the number one British manager as far as I’m concerned. What he did for Dundee United was fantastic, with the players and budget he had.
He would never be happy with what you were doing, but he was always looking for that reaction of ‘I’ll show him’. We didn’t realise it at the time he was winding us up - but it worked.”
And one of his former captains, Maurice Malpas had this to say...
“In terms of football he was miles ahead of everybody, we were doing things in the early 80s that people are just starting to do now - dieticians, nutritionists, sports scientists, fitness coaches. He actually got ridiculed because he had sports psychologists in trying to get that extra 1 or 2% - now it is the norm.”
James Yuille McLean - Born Larkhall, Scotland, 2 August 1937. Died 26 December 2020.