In addition to his Dundee United duties, he was part-time assistant manager to Jock Stein with the Scotland national team for four years, including at the 1982 World Cup.
A member of a prominent footballing family, McLean's brothers Tommy and Willie were also successful as players and managers. His own playing career included spells with Hamilton Academical, Clyde, Dundee and Kilmarnock as an inside forward.
McLean became a Dundee United director in 1984 and served as chairman between 1988 and 2000, when he resigned following an assault on a reporter. His involvement with the club finally ended in 2002 when he sold his majority shareholding.
McLean's achievements saw him win the first ever SFWA Manager of the Year award in 1987. He was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame in 2005.
Jim McLean was born into a working-class family in Larkhall, Lanarkshire on 2 August 1937, the second of three sons of Tom and Annie McLean, and grew up in the nearby village of Ashgill. His maternal grandfather William Yuille had been a professional footballer, playing for Rangers before the First World War. Tom McLean, a baker, had been a promising junior footballer before joining the Plymouth Brethren when he married. The three brothers, Willie, Jim and Tommy, who all went on to become professional football players and managers, had a strict religious upbringing. After leaving school, McLean served an apprenticeship as a joiner, a career he continued to pursue part-time for much of his football career.
McLean, who played as an inside forward, began his football career with the local junior club, Larkhall Thistle. He was the third member of the family to play for Larkhall, after his father – who appeared for them in a Scottish Junior Cup semi-final in 1932 – and his brother Willie.
In 1956, he started his senior career with Hamilton Academical. He made more than 125 league appearances for Hamilton before leaving in 1960 to join Clyde. After playing in over 100 league games for Clyde, McLean was transferred to Dundee in 1965. His debut for Dundee came at Dens Park on 11 September 1965 when Dundee were beaten 5–0 by Dundee United, their heaviest ever defeat in a Dundee derby. After just under 100 league games, McLean moved on to his final club as a player, Kilmarnock, where he played alongside his brother Tommy. After making a total of 474 appearances and scoring 170 goals in his career, McLean retired from playing in 1970 and returned to Dundee as a coach in July of that year.
After he had been coaching at Dundee for 18 months, the club's local rivals Dundee United offered McLean the position of manager to replace the retiring Jerry Kerr in December 1971. He accepted the offer and began his managerial career at the age of 34. McLean immediately started a co-ordinated youth policy which was to produce many fine young players over the two decades which followed. In the short term, he used his knowledge of the Scottish scene to buy experienced players who would allow him to re-shape both the squad and the style of play in line with his approach to coaching.
Initially, the club's league form was average, remaining mostly mid-table for the next few years. McLean's first hint of the success he would later achieve was leading the club to its first Scottish Cup final in 1974 and, despite defeat, it proved an important psychological step in McLean's and the club's development. The success of the Cup run was built upon the following season with a finish of fourth place, the club's best finish in the First Division before league restructuring.
As McLean's youth policy began to bear fruit, the first of a number of talented young players began to emerge. McLean decided that his team should mount a challenge for the League championship in 1978–79, something of which the club, who had long lived in the shadow of McLean's former employers and rivals Dundee, had never previously proved capable of but after a poor finish in the first season of the new Premier Division, United started to prove that they were serious contenders for domestic honours.
In December 1979, McLean guided his team to triumph in the League Cup and retained it a year later. At the same time as the club was enjoying a high standing Scottish football, McLean was gradually building the club's reputation in Europe, with wins over sides like Barcelona, AS Monaco, Borussia Mönchengladbach, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht and Werder Bremen.
Despite the progress he had made, few believed that McLean and United were potential Premier Division champions, Alex Ferguson's Aberdeen at that time were an emerging force in addition to the Old Firm. But in 1983, profiting from a late run which left those clubs in their wake, that is precisely what McLean's largely home-grown side did. At this time he additionally acted as assistant manager to Jock Stein with the Scotland national team.
Rangers, who had seen a decline in their fortunes over the previous few years, offered McLean the job as their manager in 1983. McLean engaged in early negotiations with the club; one of his main problems with the job offer was Rangers' policy of not signing Roman Catholics, a policy McLean found a ridiculous restriction for any employer as well as having signed many talented Catholics with Dundee United. Despite the Rangers chairman assuring him that this policy would be scrapped if he accepted the job, McLean decided that he was happy at Dundee United; his family were happily settled in the Broughty Ferry area of Dundee. McLean also turned down an offer to manage English club Newcastle United in June 1984.
Following his team's League success in 1983, Dundee United made their debut in the European Cup. McLean's counter-attacking tactics paired with a pressuring style brought some memorable results in that year's European campaign. McLean inspired United to the semi-finals of that year's competition, a penalty-kick denying them a place in the final. Three years later McLean took the team to a European final, this time in the UEFA Cup, although they were beaten by IFK Gothenburg of Sweden. For the rest of his managerial career McLean continued to secure United's high standing in domestic football, finishing outside the top four clubs only once, and taking the team to a further five Scottish Cup finals, but without winning the trophy.
The Dundee United board made McLean a director in 1984; four years later he became chairman and managing director, while still remaining the manager. He retained those joint responsibilities until stepping down as manager in July 1993, after a reign of almost 22 years. He remained as chairman after resigning as manager, stepping down from this role in October 2000 following an attack on BBC Scotland reporter John Barnes. McLean returned briefly in January 2002 as a director but departed a month later. Still a majority shareholder, McLean sold his 42% stake to Eddie Thompson in October 2002, severing his Tannadice ties permanently after more than 30 years.
McLean formerly contributed a regular column to the Daily Record newspaper, giving his views on football. In October 2006, McLean criticised Eddie Thompson's running of Dundee United in his column, saying he had been a "disaster for the club". This led to the club withdrawing McLean's access "privileges" at Tannadice.
McLean was awarded an honorary doctor of law degree by the University of Dundee in 2011, in recognition of his achievements with Dundee United.Dundee United
Scottish Premier Division : 1982–83
Scottish League Cup : 1979–80, 1980–81
SFWA Manager of the Year: 1987
Scottish Football Hall of Fame: 2005