First published in The Times, Monday February 24 2020
It is said that all political careers end in failure; the same observation could be made about most football managers. Jim McLean’s final match in charge of Dundee United ended in a 4-1 loss to Aberdeen. Nonetheless, the fans insisted on their club’s longest-serving manager taking a lap of honour.
More than a quarter of a century after that occasion, the affection in which McLean is still held in the city is palpable. At various points during Philip Differ’s biographical comedy, sections of the audience break into spontaneous applause, and there is a standing ovation at the end that seems as much directed at the man himself as at Barrie Hunter, who plays McLean.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
As Differ’s two-hander gently explores, this affection is borne out of more than the fact that McLean presided over a golden age at Dundee United, leading the club to its only league win in 1983 and a UEFA Cup final in 1987. His legendary irascibility and bad-tempered relationship with the press (culminating in a career-ending assault on a reporter) tends to be forgiven as evidence of his extraordinary passion for the game and dedication to the club.
As characterised by the playwright, McLean is not a man given to introspection. “Je ne regrette f*** all,” he says at the outset. Prodded by Chris Alexander’s Jimmy, the other character in the play, who seems a mix of conscience and ghost of players past, the gaffer eventually admits to regrets over his handling of key relationships, not least his failings as a father.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Differ doesn’t dwell long on the man’s demons, though, and, despite the odd poignant moment, the 70-minute play is neither subtly nuanced character study or in-depth investigation into football’s culture of machismo, unspooling instead as an entertaining dash through McLean’s life and career highlights that ironically derives much of its humour from its subject’s essential humourlessness.
Hunter shines under Sally Reid’s deft direction, capturing the insecurity behind the simmering anger. The lavish staging, on Kenny Miller’s lofty, rubble-strewn set, which is beautifully lit by Lizzie Powell, feels inkeeping with the regard with which McLean continues to be held by the show’s audience.