Jim McLean - An Appreciation

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Our last match of the 1983/84 season took place on the 14th of May away at Tannadice. I remember very little about the match itself other than the facts that Rangers won and that there was a rousing rendition of ‘Rangers are back, Rangers are back’ from the away support situated under the old covered terrace along Sandeman Street.

Season 83/84 was one of major change for Rangers. For only the 9th time in our history we changed managers when John Grieg, arguably our greatest ever captain, resigned following a run of poor results and vocal supporter unrest. Ironically we replaced the eighth manager in our history with the seventh, Jock Wallace. There were 14 days between Grieg resigning and Wallace being appointed, during those 2 weeks former Rangers player, supporter and Govan boy, Alex Ferguson, signed a new, improved contract with Aberdeen amid much speculation that he was top of Rangers wanted list and Dundee Utd manager, Jim McLean, travelled to Glasgow for an interview for the job, returning to Dundee and announcing he didn’t want it.

It might seem strange to some that the death of a man who never played, coached or managed our club should warrant any comment in a Rangers supporter’s website, but for me Jim McLean actually had a profound and long lasting influence on Rangers, despite the lack of any formal attachment.

The feeling of rejuvenation our supporter’s felt at Tannadice that May afternoon wasn’t a delusion. Following Wallace’s appointment in November Rangers only lost 2 matches for the rest of the season and won the League Cup, defeating Celtic in the final. Dundee Utd finished one place above us that season, so beating them in that final match felt significant, like laying down a marker for the following season. It wasn’t, but we didn’t know that at the time. The other aspect required to understand the context of that victory was just how good a side Dundee Utd were back then.

Dundee United weren’t even the best team in their street before appointing Jim McLean as manager. People with greater insight than I will be able to explain how he transformed Tayside’s second team into Scottish Champions and a genuine force in Europe. Much will be written about his methods, his perpetual sense of injustice and his volcanic temper. What shouldn’t be overlooked though is the magnificence of some of those Utd sides. Dundee United had width and speed, they played fluid, attacking football and featured players you hated and coveted in equal measure. As surprising as it might seem now, visiting Tannadice in those days wasn’t an unpleasant experience either. I never felt the hostility that exists now. Perhaps their supporters, unaccustomed to success, were simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps back in the 1980s, during enormous social upheaval, we all realised we were more alike. Whatever the reasons it feels like a long time ago now.

McLean was one of 3 brothers born and raised near Larkhall in Lanarkshire. It was a footballing family, his grandfather had played for Rangers, his father had played Junior and McLean and his two brothers, Tommy and Willie, all played and managed professionally. Tommy, the youngest brother, was the the best player, winning the league with Kilmarnock before joining Rangers and enjoying a long and distinguished career.

When Jim McLean was interviewed for Rangers manager, his brother, Tommy, was the caretaker manager. Tommy McLean was assistant manager to Greig, and while not really in the running for the manager’s job at the time, his presence must have played a part in his brother’s thinking. Many theories exist as to why both McLean and Ferguson didn’t want the Rangers manager job, most of them are without substance. What can be said though is that Rangers were at a low ebb. Our scouting and player development was poor and the creativity our board showed in planning and building the Ibrox Stadium we recognise today was sadly absent when looking at football matters. It sounds arrogant, but the inability of a club like Rangers to attract the manager of Dundee Utd was a seismic blow to our standing. McLean, then in his mid-forties and at the height of his mercurial powers would have transformed Rangers, had he been allowed. At Utd he had complete control of the football side, it’s unlikely he’d have ever got that at Rangers. Ultimately his loyalty to Dundee Utd and his family, who were settled in the city, is admirable and should be recognised as such.

McLean’s refusal led to the second Wallace era. It started well but ended badly. Wallace was unable to craft a side from the ingredients he inherited. Despite some success his tenure went the way of Grieg as crowds fell and mediocrity normalised.

There had been a change in the Rangers boardroom too during this time and Wallace’s dismissal, whilst sad, was largely welcomed by the support. The imagination lacking in his appointment a few years before was very much present in the choosing of his successor; Graeme Souness. This is where Jim McLean’s influence on our club is most significantly felt. Souness was wise enough to know he needed someone beside him who understood Scottish domestic football intimately. He chose well, he chose Walter Smith, Jim McLean’s assistant, confidant and consigliere.

It’s impossible to overstate the influence McLean had on Walter Smith. Smith was signed from Junior football for Utd by McLean’s predecessor, Jerry Kerr, but it was under McLean that he became a first team regular. Smith stayed there for 9 years, returning for a further 2 as a player following a couple of seasons at Dumbarton. On retirement from playing at the end of the 1970s McLean took Smith onto the coaching staff and he eventually became Dundee Utd’s assistant manager. Smith’s time as a coach coincided with Dundee Utd’s most successful spell. Winning the League Cup twice, reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup and of course winning the league itself. McLean and Smith achieved this with a side largely made up of home grown players and cast-offs. Perhaps the greatest tribute you can pay that United side is that during a period when Scotland were rich enough player-wise to overlook European Cup winning captains for caps, Dundee Utd supplied 5 players to our World Cup final squad for the Mexico finals in 1986, more than any other team. Rangers only supplied one player, two if you include Souness.

Smith’s tenure at Rangers needs little embellishment from me here. His long time assistant, Archie Knox, was also a disciple of McLean having played under him in the 70s. I mean no disrespect to McLean’s memory when I point out that Dundee United’s decline as a force in football started after Smith left.

There was a time in Scottish football, and it doesn’t feel all that long ago to me, when any one of five clubs could realistically expect to win the league and when an away win at Tannadice was something to be really savoured. Jim McLean belongs to Dundee United, and it’s their supporters who will feel his loss, but we shouldn’t overlook his influence on Rangers, both directly and indirectly. The last 30 years would have been very different without him.

Sincere condolences to the family and friends of Jim McLean, a genuine football legend.

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