A lasting legacy via a joiner from Larkhall.
They were the corner shop outfit chiselled into a unit by a joiner from Larkhall over more than two decades. One incarnation ended up champion of Scotland; another was a two-time Scottish League Cup winner; others still were conquerors of European giants of the time, Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, Monaco and Werder Bremen among the victims.
Several teams, one club. Not Rangers, not Celtic, not even Aberdeen, Hearts or Hibs. Dundee United FC, a provincial club with a support to match, dwarfed by the magnitude of the Old Firm in their own land, and more so by the illustrious names with which they jousted and, more often than not, humbled. The joiner? One Jim McLean, man of many mood swings, mean right hook and, most importantly, at least in Dundee, footballing genius.
His epoch has long since passed, the teams he assembled from 1971 through 1993 the cherished memories of precious few. They do say, of course, that time waits for no man. Most times. The tangerine side of Dundee is a notable exception. There, even the indignity of losing six Scottish Cup finals – Scotland’s national cup competition is the one missing piece from the joiner’s personal trophy cabinet – does not darken McLean’s legend. Not even a lunge and a punch, televised, at a BBC reporter; nor even his inglorious tenure as chairman after retirement from management.
Because, recently, United fans got their messiah the final piece of recognition for which they had long been banging on the doors of Tannadice. At a recent official dinner in his honour – and for no other recognizable reason than to celebrate his greatness in the eyes of pretty much anyone with a United affiliation – current chairman Steven Thompson announced that a stand at the club’s ground would adopt his name. Until that point, almost every side of the ground bore the name of someone significant in United’s history. Everyone, it seemed to many of McLean’s adoring followers, but the man who delivered most.
It is a considerable irony, then, that the modern stadium that Tannadice is today was built on cash earned both by the unlikely glories McLean’s teams delivered on the pitch, and, more shrewd, by the storied youth system he instituted and on which he placed an absolute emphasis. Not too shabby, some might say, for a joiner from Larkhall.
But in the shadows of every great man, no matter how many corral around him, there are the detractors, the begrudging purveyors of plaudits. In his day and indeed after, some could not resist punctuating narratives of McLean’s achievements with snide remarks. Some mockingly said that rather than some mere joiner from Larkhall in the west of Scotland, McLean, on the contrary, believed he was a carpenter from Nazareth. Others have complained of a rather large ego. Perhaps. But though he is not Jesus and bears no claim on any kind of Biblical miracle, the evidence suggests there might be something more to the metaphor than ego.
Take season 1986-87. Even though his club, stable not yet complete, and, in this particular season, sponsored by a corner shop chain, he managed, as one chronicle alludes, to turn what were essentially rags into riches. In fact, they were very nearly super-riches. United were fighting on three fronts: for the league championship, the Scottish Cup and the UEFA Cup. They put in a mammoth effort in each. Ultimately, though, they fell short in all three, each failure individually mirroring the others: running out of steam in the race for the league title, losing finalists in the Scottish, and losing finalists in the UEFA. United, basically, had burned out when victory counted most.
This particular McLean assembly became a legend, its constituent parts United greats. But for the absence of one final push, though, they could so easily have been legends of the nation, talked of in the same breath as then-Celtic manager Jock Stein’s European Cup-winning legends of 1967, the first British side to win Europe’s top prize.
All told, there must have been some in Dundee in the late 1970s and most of the ’80s who were seriously pondering whether divine intervention was indeed at work. For those of a blue persuasion, supporters of United’s city rivals Dundee FC, the cry was probably more that the Devil was at play. Until the point, it was Dundee and not United who could rightfully claim to be the city’s – Scotland’s fourth largest – most successful club. Before McLean arrived in 1971, United had yet to claim a single major honour, and their forays onto the continent, with the notable exception of one memorable home and away victory over Barcelona in 1966, barely registered on the radar.
Dundee, by comparison, had clinched all bar one piece of their entire major silverware haul to date and had a European Cup semi-final appearance to their name as McLean took over the reins at United’s Tannadice Park. Ironically, the then 34-year-old had been serving his apprenticeship as a coach in Dundee’s very own Dens Park stable, before downing tools, gathering up his hammer and nails, and sloping off across the couple of hundred yards it takes to reach Tannadice from Dens.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. United today stand as the city’s premier club, pitched on a course to heady heights by one man (though many insist McLean’s predecessor at Tannadice, Jerry Kerr, deserves special mention, having laid the brick work that formed the foundations of United’s rise under him). Underpinning everything, of course, was a youth system that produced the likes of Maurice Malpas, Dave Narey, Kevin Gallagher, Duncan Ferguson and Christian Dailly. So it was perhaps no surprise that, during the recent dinner to remember his days as manager, it was also revealed that all monies raised – which turned out to be a sizable six-figure sum – would not feed the pocket of the man himself but United’s present-day youth set-up.
And it probably couldn’t have arrived at a better time. These days, United, like most Scottish clubs outside the Old Firm, struggle to maintain consistent finishes in the prize-winning positions of the league. They are also saddled with debilitating debts, whose roots, it must be said, can be traced to the time when McLean was still the major shareholder in the club (it is worth pointing out that when McLean finally relinquished his shareholding, he sold to Eddie Thompson, the owner of a corner shop chain). They have a relatively threadbare squad compared to days of old, current manager Peter Houston supplanting departed experience with youthful potential.
The last four seasons, on the other hand, have delivered a level of consistency not seen since the tenure of McLean. They have managed four consecutive top five finishes in the league, bagged a Scottish Cup, narrowly lost a Scottish League Cup final and qualified for European competition the last two years in succession. Fatefully, this season, 2011-12, has witnessed the emergence of perhaps the club’s most promising group of youngsters since the days of McLean. The vital signs of the youth system have looked positive in recent years, producing the likes of David Goodwillie, the subject of a recent big-money transfer to Blackburn Rovers, and the highly rated Johnny Russell. Mercifully, the rein of previous manager Craig Levein saw a return to the McLean philosophy of a club built on the solid ground of a fully functioning youth system. Somewhere along the line, this tried and trusted asset fell by the wayside.
It was left to current chairman Thompson -- son of corner shop kingpin Eddie -- to assess the magnitude of the folly of its dispensation. A manager from United’s recent past, he remarked, had said he did not have the time to devote to developing youngsters, words now, he made clear, now considered sacrilege at Tannadice. The culprit, not identified, was part of period United fans consider some of the darkest in living memory, where unthinkable relegation was the elephant in a Tannadice boardroom festooned with regalia of the McLean era.
Currently massaging their debts, desperate for a couple more products from their youth system to break free from the banker’s shackles, McLean’s recent financial gesture may not be a lynchpin but it puts something of a seal on United’s back-to-the-future trajectory.
Will this re-discovered emphasis bear the kind of fruit enjoyed under McLean? In these days of Arab billionaires and plentiful TV cash, probably not. But it should ensure the stable built by the joiner from Larkhall survives until there’s another miracle of Biblical proportions.