top of page

Second to none

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

When the statue of Jim is unveiled at Tannadice, I hope the crowds are enormous; he deserves nothing less.

From 1979 onwards, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I bombarded Dundee United with ideas on how I thought various aspects of the club could be improved. In the first couple of years I got some slightly disappointing replies from the Club's secretary but a breakthrough was achieved when I began addressing my letters to a specific person at Tannadice. For twenty years, whether in his role as Manager or Chairman, I never once failed to get an encouraging response from Jim McLean.

In my first meeting with Mr. McLean, on 12 January 1981, I must admit it didn’t get off to the best of starts. We were in his (then) little office just above the tunnel. He saw I had several sheets stapled together so he asked, “so what's this youv'e brought?”, and at the same time pulled my papers over to his side of the desk. He started reading out aloud: “Increase enthusiasm for the club”; “Increase revenue”; "Improvement of Tannadice". He stopped. He’d read enough. “What the f… do you think we’re all trying to do here?” I must have taken my brave pills that morning. I grabbed the papers back and informed him that he was reading a summary sheet. If he turned over, I said, he would see details of how I thought these aims could be achieved. To my great relief, he calmed down and gave me an hour of his time, which I appreciated. Towards the end of our discussions, we must have touched on a supporters-related topic and this set off the following conversation: JMcL: “See the supporters over there,” he said pointing out the window towards the North Terracing, “they never give Kopel a chance. On his back for the least thing.” Me: “Och, all supporters are the same. They tend to pick on one or two players. Just look at Rangers fans, they absolutely hate wee Tommy McLe…” What a gaffe! I didn’t even complete his brother's name. Against all my expectations, and considering we had struggled at the beginning, he burst out laughing. When the lunch-time meeting ended, I headed back to the office. I felt my suggestions had been reasonably well received but I think I was even more pleased that I had managed to make Jim McLean laugh, albeit inadvertently!

In my second January 1981 follow-up meeting, in the Tannadice boardroom, Jim McLean introduced me to George Fox. In those days there was a little bar in the corner of the boardroom and placed on top of the bar was the League Cup trophy, which United had retained a couple of months earlier at Dens. I asked Mr. Fox how he felt about the club finally winning a national trophy after seventy years, many of them a real struggle. This truest of United supporters was just bursting with pride; he could hardly contain himself!

After spending quite a bit of time discussing the two League Cup victories at Dens , we eventually got down to business and Mr. Fox agreed to discuss my suggestions with the rest of the Board and then get back to me, which he did on 2 March 1981.

One of my suggestions concerned the location of the Souvenir Shop in the Main Stand, when a majority of the supporters assembled on the terracing. That made no sense to me – and the Board agreed. To quote the reply: The manager and ground staff are to construct a permanent structure at the Sandeman Street side of the terracing to serve as a souvenir shop for terracing supporters.

So, three months after United won its second major honour, the dedicated football man who built the team was designated to go back to joinery duties! I suspect he wasn't too unhappy at the prospect of getting back on the tools.

George Fox’s letter is reproduced here:

I moved back to Glasgow in 1985 but continued to be a United season ticket holder and an occasional correspondent with the club. My intention in writing to Tannadice was always to be as constructive as possible but on Saturday 7 January 1995 I sent Jim McLean, by then Chairman, a bit of a stinker of a letter. United had been inconsistent throughout the season and as a result were struggling near the bottom of the table. That wasn't my gripe. I felt the club appeared at times to treat "good servants" badly, and I mentioned Miodrag Krivokapic in this regard. These thoughts had been prompted by the handling of an earlier in the season transfer request by the hugely popular midfielder Jim McInally.

The club were receiving a lot of adverse publicity and I felt much of it could have been avoided. That was the gist of my note and the following Monday at lunchtime in the office canteen I mentioned I had written to Jim McLean, not about the team but about the McInally situation. At home on the Friday night of that week, the phone rang and my wife Ann answered it. She put her hand over the phone and said, "that's Jim McLean on the phone for you." Aye right, I thought, assuming it was a friend/work mate having a laugh. It was indeed Jim. I immediately thought that he was going to tell me to mind my own business but to my complete astonishment he went through my letter, line-by-line, and explained what had happened in every incident I had raised. In doing so, he also provided information about signing on fees and wages being demanded by certain players, the role of agents, his relationship with Ivan Golac and so on. Much of what I was told was clearly confidential and shouldn't have ben imparted to me, a mere supporter, but Jim was determined to explain his position. With regard to the whole Jim McInally saga we eventually agreed to differ. In a final twist to the conversation, he invited me to come and see him at Tannadice before a forthcoming match. I said that the United v Clyde Scottish Cup tie would suit me best, and I asked if I could bring along my daughter Laura (also a season ticket holder) and my brother-in-law Stewart, who was not only a season ticket holder but a joiner too! At 1.30pm on 29 January, Jim welcomed us to Tannadice. He was standing at the top of the stairs, immaculate as always. After the opening formalities it was clear he still wanted to convince me about some of the things we had talked about on the phone, not least the Jim McInally situation. He went over the same ground again. Eleven year old Laura just sat and listened. Meanwhile Stewart was sitting next to me, remaining characteristically quiet but, unknown to me, he was taking notes! Eventually Stewart, who was a huge Jim McLean fan, got the opportunity to enter the conversation: "Do you still have a sawhorse?" he asked Jim. It was like a light being switched on as the two ex-joiners immediately bonded and started talking enthusiastically about "jigs", "chapping". and other things beyond my ken. It was trasformative stuff and Jim McLean's usual pre-match tensions seemed to ebb away. Later, we all went through to the adjoining boardroom for some photographs and by 2.30pm we were back out in Tannadice Street, not quite able to evaluate the sixty minutes we had just experienced.

Because of my United and Clyde connections I was that week's Fan-File subject in the match programme. Normally that would have been some sort of big deal. Not that day it wasn't! I cannot think of any other football club chairman who would have gone to such lengths to explain (and justify) his decisions to a trio of supporters. Simply remarkable. In August 1999, a year after I retired from BT, I was asked to join the Commercial Department at Tannadice and during those twelve months I saw at first-hand what Jim was like. Monday to Friday he really was charm personified, miles from the public image. I think it’s fair to say on matchdays he was more intense. I know he had his faults but I just loved the man. His achievements with United are almost beyond belief and as the years pass his record gets even more impressive. In recent years I have frequently said to Ann that when Jim McLean died I would really like to attend his funeral, if that was possible. Sadly, he will not get the send-off he truly merited. However, when the statue of Jim is unveiled at Tannadice, I hope the crowds are enormous; he deserves nothing less.

29 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page