Jim McLean: New play reveals 'the man behind the grimace'

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Barrie Hunter / Chris Alexander
Image caption,
The play follows Jim McLean's decades at Dundee United

A new play about Jim McLean has set out to show another side to the famously gruff former Dundee United manager.

Smile follows the career of the no-nonsense Tannadice boss, who led the football club to within a whisker of European glory in the 1980s.

Writer Philip Differ's two encounters with the former manager sowed the seeds of the new production at Dundee Rep.

Differ said: "On one occasion he was in a bad mood, so that was the Jim McLean everybody expected."

But the second meeting, following the recording of a football radio show, revealed a different Jim McLean.

He said: "Jim beckoned me over and to my surprise, he started asking me about theatre, and I thought there's a side to this guy we don't know."

Image source, David Cannon/Getty
Image caption,
McLean managed Dundee United for almost 22 years

Smile aims to explore the "complexities and contradictions" of McLean, who managed the club for almost 22 years during the most successful era in its history.

Differ said: "It was the fact that he seemed genuinely interested in the performance thing.

"I've seen him 'throw a maddie', being Jim, and I've seen this sensitive side that's interested in the arts.

"The whole image that he projected was born out of his shyness."

McLean began his coaching career with city rivals Dundee in 1970 after an unremarkable playing career with Hamilton Academical, Clyde, Dundee and Kilmarnock.

McLean was 34 when he took up the manager's role at Dundee United in December 1971. He led the club to its first Scottish Cup final in 1974 before winning the League Cup in 1979.

Image source, David Cannon/Getty Images
Image caption,
Dundee United reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, where they lost to Roma

The club then won the Premier League for the first and only time in 1983, securing the title with a 2-1 win against Dundee.

This secured them a place in the European Cup, resulting in a remarkable run that ended in a controversial semi-final defeat by Roma.

The club came even closer to European victory in 1987, ultimately losing to IFK Gothenburg in the UEFA Cup final, after earlier knocking out Barcelona.

McLean stepped down as manager in July 1993, but remained as chairman until October 2000 when he resigned after punching BBC Scotland reporter John Barnes during a televised interview.

Image caption,
Writer Philip Differ said McLean's public image was "born out of his shyness"

McLean is now aged 82, and ill health means he will be unable to see the new play himself - although the production has the full support of his family, including his wife Doris. They advised the creative team during pre-production.

Differ said the new play would give the audience "the Jim you all know and love" as well as "the man behind the grimace."

He said the McLean family were "beaming" following the show's opening performance.

He said: "That was so important to us all that they were happy with it."

Dundee Rep Ensemble's Barrie Hunter, who plays McLean, said there was a "lot of pressure" stepping into the shoes of such a well-known sporting figure.

Image caption,
Actor Barrie Hunter said there was a "lot of pressure" taking on the role

He said: "Most of his family are coming to see the show for our first preview. I'm really looking forward to what they have to say about it.

"Hopefully we'll serve the story and him well."

Director Sally Reid said: "We've had the full support of Doris McLean and the family.

"It was great to have that, so we could move forward theatrically with it, and also being sensitive to where Jim is at the moment."