It may seem strange for a Celtic fans’ website to post an appreciation of someone who was never connected with Celtic in any way. However, Jim McLean’s recent passing has united (no pun intended) the world of Scottish football in both grief and respect.
I made the point on Twitter the other day that Jim McLean had spent an astonishing 22 years as Dundee United manager. To put his service to Dundee United in perspective, he took over at Tannadice in 1971 when I was 5 years old. By the time he left as United manager in 1993, I had made communion, confirmation, passed o levels and highers, passed driving test, had two jobs, mortgage and got married. That was an incredible tenure for anyone to manage any football club at any level and showed how many life changes most of us would have experienced during that time.
He certainly had his successes. Dundee United won the League title in 1983 and two League Cups, in 1979 and 1980. But it wasn’t that success alone which he was respected for. Dundee United teams throughout Jim’s time were always admired and respected for their technique and style of play. This was never more obvious than on the European stage where the modest Tanndice club took on and defeated some of Europe’s finest clubs. Anderlecht, Monaco, Borussia Munchengladbach (twice), PSV Eindhoven, Werder Bremen, Standard Liege, Rapid Vienna and, most famously, Barcelona, were all put to the sword over two legs by McLean’s men.
There were disappointments on the continent along the way. In 1982 United lost out to the modest Slav outfit, Radnicki Nis, when they were tantalisingly close to reaching the UEFA cup semi-finals. In 1984 there was the controversial defeat to AS Roma in the European Cup semi-final stage, where to this day there has always been a strong whiff of controversy over the officials, especially given the fact that Roma faced the prospect of playing the European Cup final in their own stadium. In 1987 United became the fourth Scottish club to reach a European final when they narrowly lost to Gothenburg. It’s my own opinion that had that final been played a few years earlier, with McLean’s men at the peak of their powers, then they would have won that final over two legs.
If there was one statistic which haunted Jim it was the fact that he failed to win a Hampden cup final, reaching that stage of the Scottish Cup or League Cup on no fewer than nine occasions and never winning once. Celtic fans will fondly remember the memorable Scottish Cup finals of 1985 and 1988 where United had led for long periods on both occasions only to lose late in the game in cruel fashion, from a United perspective.
In October 1985 McLean’s United side came to Glasgow and beat Celtic in convincing fashion by a 3-0 score line. In all my years of following Celtic I cannot recall any side dismantling a Celtic team in a domestic game in such a fashion on their own turf. Around that time a friend of mine wrote a letter to Jim McLean, complimenting him on the performance of his side. Not long later he received a reply from the United manager who said that he had always enjoyed bringing his teams to Parkhead as Celtic fans were always appreciative of good football, which he respected.
There are two personal memories I have of Jim McLean. The first was in the mid 1980’s when the Govan Emerald supporters’ bus was always one of the first buses to arrive in Dundee when Celtic were playing. As the bus stopped at the lights someone shouted, ‘There’s Jim McLean out for a run.’ Jim was standing waiting for the bus to pass to continue his run. As we passed him by, many of the guys on the bus ‘saluted’ him. Looking up wryly, the bold Jim ‘saluted’ us back, much to the amusement of all on board.
In March 1993 the newspapers made a big deal of the fact that Celtic’s visit to Tannadice would be Jim’s last occasion in opposition to Celtic as manager, before retirement. The game was a typically exciting affair which resulted in a hard fought 3-2 win for Celtic. David Narey and Maurice Malpas were still there from the United old guard as a new breed of younger player was introduced, with Duncan Ferguson, Paddy Connolly and Christian Dailly, representing the faith in young talent which Jim always displayed. It’s a long walk from the Tannadice dug outs to the dressing rooms and as Jim passed the Celtic fans in the main stand, they rose at once in spontaneous applause for a respected opponent. Jim, realising that the applause was for him, looked quite taken aback and waved in return before shooting up the tunnel.
Jim McLean’s passing is a reminder of a time when Scottish football was more competitive and, arguably more enjoyable. His Dundee United sides were always formidable opponents to Celtic and they not only earned the respect of the most ardent Celtic supporters, but were appreciated for their performances across the continent, where they were a credit to Scottish football.
May he rest in peace.