Dundee United announce death of Jim McLean

Former manager guided Dundee United to European Cup semis, Uefa Cup victories over Barcelona and the 1983 Scottish title.

Jim McLean, who passed away today.
Jim McLean, who passed away today.
Image: EMPICS Sport

PEOPLE OF A certain age simply wouldn’t believe the idea that Dundee United were once one of the best teams in Europe.

The idea that they could come within a goal of reaching the 1984 European Cup final, that they would knock out Barcelona in the 1987 Uefa Cup en route to the final, it just seems improbable today.

Yet it happened. So many good things did when Jim McLean was their manager. At one stage, in the early 1980s, he was Alex Ferguson’s biggest managerial rival. 

McLean led United to their only league championship in 1983 after transforming the fortunes of the Tayside club.

A statement on United’s website read: “Dundee United are extremely saddened to learn Jim McLean has passed away.

“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.

“He will be sorely missed by us all. In remembrance of Jim, the flags at Tannadice will fly at half-mast.”

McLean also played for and coached at United’s local rivals Dundee, who tweeted: “All at Dundee Football Club were saddened to learn of the death of former player Jim McLean this evening.”

He took over as United manager in 1971 but it took time for his methods to click, though, with the Terrors hovering in mid-table until the youth system which he had installed began to bear fruit. The League Cup was won in 1979 and retained a year later.

dundee-v-barcelona-1987 Barcelona's Gary Lineker battles with Dundee United's Jim McInally. Source: PA

As the 1980s dawned, McLean’s side combined with Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen to forge the ‘New Firm’ as Glasgow’s big two were left trailing.

With a side that reflected his tireless work ethic, McLean’s crowning glory came in 1983 when United claimed their one and only Scottish League title. A team that included the likes of Maurice Malpas, Richard Gough, Dave Narey, Ralph Milne and Paul Sturrock clinched the trophy with victory over city rivals Dundee at Dens on the final day of the season.

It was the springboard to Europe and McLean almost transferred domestic success to the continent as his team marched all the way to the semi-finals of the European Cup the following season.

Only a contentious defeat to Roma denied them the chance to go after the biggest prize of all, but McLean’s side continued to punch above their weight.

Barcelona were beaten home and away, while Monaco, Borussia Monchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and Werder Bremen were also seen off during the McLean era.

However, there was more disappointment in the final of the 1987 UEFA Cup as Gothenburg prevailed over two legs.

The other prize which eluded McLean was the Scottish Cup. Six times he led his side out at Hampden, but the club had to wait for Ivan Golac to take over in 1994 before they could finally land the trophy.

McLean’s last attempt in 1991 – by which time he had added the role of chairman to his Tannadice tasks – saw him frustrated by his brother Tommy, whose Motherwell side edged an all-time classic final 4-3 after extra-time.

But for all that he achieved with United, McLean’s irascible nature undoubtedly prevented him from forming closer bonds with his charges.

Many of the relationships he held with his players ended strained as frustrations grew over the lengthy contracts he famously dished out, usually on meagre terms.

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He fell out with his captain Malpas just before the 1994 cup final, leaving the defender to lament: “I think I went from being loved to hated, back to loved and then hated again.”

But the players’ respect towards him as manager was unwavering.

“Jim McLean was always ahead of the game,” said Michael O’Neill, who moved to Tannadice from Newcastle in 1987. “However, you had to withstand the abuse at times.

“I was different from a lot of the young lads at United because I’d been signed. At the time it was a record fee they paid for me and it was almost as if Jim McLean held that against me.”

An unsavoury incident in 2002 when McLean attacked a BBC journalist ultimately brought an end to his association with the club as he was forced to resign his boardroom post.

But his place in United’s history will not be forgotten.

The inaugural winner of the Scottish Football Writers’ Association manager of the year award in 1987, he was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

In addition to his Dundee United duties, he was part-time assistant manager to Jock Stein with the Scotland national team for four years, including at the 1982 World Cup.

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