Jim MacLean | 12 August 1936 – 19 October 2023

Everyone at Dunfermline Athletic was saddened to hear the death of former Pars captain and a true legend of the 1960s Pars teams Jim Maclean. Club historian Duncan Simpson provides the words as we look back on the career of one of the finest defenders the club has ever seen.

Originally a right back with the juvenile team connected with the Clydeside shipbuilding firm, Stephen’s of Linthouse, Jim then stepped up to the junior ranks to join Baillieston.

The concluding weeks of season 1957-58 saw Ayr United undergo much experimentation in the centre-half position, but the focus of manager Jacky Cox’s attention was Jim MacLean, a centre-half whose reputation was on the rise. An attempt was made to play him as a trialist for an away fixture against Stenhousemuir on 15 March 1958. The response was a refusal, since Baillieston still had commitments in the Scottish Junior Cup. Meantime, along the road another rising centre half by the name of Ian Ure was making a name for himself for Ayr Albion, but he was quickly swept off to senior football with Dundee, and it may have been this that determined Cox to sign MacLean anyway.

Jim MacLean made his Ayr United debut on 16 August 1958, in a 4-0 home win over Forfar Athletic in a League Cup sectional tie. With the firepower they possessed up front and with MacLean proving such a find in defence, Ayr United romped to the Second Division title in 1958/59. As fate would have it, Dunfermline could easily have been going in the opposite direction but for a last gasp and quite incredible 10-1 win over Partick Thistle.

The Second Division championship propelled MacLean to a new level and he faced a stern test relatively early in the new season. The visit of Motherwell, on 12 September 1959, meant that he would be playing in direct opposition to Ian St. John, of whom great things were being said and written. St. John did go on to have a fabulous career with Liverpool but he failed to score in Motherwell’s 5-2 defeat at Ayr and it was noted that he was, “completely outplayed by Jim MacLean”. One week later, at Ibrox, MacLean prevented Rangers’ Jimmy Millar from scoring too. As Ayr comfortably held on to their First Division status, Dunfermline were struggling with theirs and brought in a new manager, Jock Stein, who somehow managed to keep the Pars in the top league.

The following season, Stein had steadied the East End Park ship and was looking for a centre half to move the Pars forward. When Dunfermline drew 2-2 with Ayr United on 8 October 1960, Stein could not help but notice their centre-half Jim MacLean. Match reports described that, “MacLean was superb at centre-half, with a complete mastery of Charlie Dickson”. That would have been no mean feat at a time when Dickson was bullying much bigger and stronger defences than Ayr’s.

Despite Ayr’s struggles in their second season at the top, Jim MacLean consistently put in masterful performances at the heart of the Ayr United defence and he was rewarded with the club captaincy in December 1960. Unfortunately relegation by then was almost inevitable, and so Ayr made the return to Second Division football in 1961. MacLean’s talents were deserving of a better footballing stage, and that duly arrived. His request for a transfer was granted and on 17 February 1962, at Cowdenbeath, he played his last game for Ayr United, moving to Dunfermline Athletic one month later. He had played 144 games for Ayr (110 league, 8 Scottish Cup and 26 League Cup appearances), but had never had the joy of scoring a goal.

Jock Stein had always said that Dunfermline needed a strong defence, so had been on the look-out for a solid, reliable centre-half for some time. When he did make his move it was for MacLean for whom Stein paid a bargain £1,500. Pars supporters were surprised by the news but the player turned out to be one of Stein’s shrewdest acquisitions.

He made his debut on 24 March 1962 in a 2-0 win over Kilmarnock, a team that had consistently been among the top three in Scottish football in recent times. It was also significantly the last match played in front of the old wooden stand at East End Park, and perhaps the sign that a new dawn was beginning.

His first taste of European action was against England’s top side at the time, Everton, and Jim was outstanding in both ties, marking the Scottish internationalist Alex Young right out of the game. It was against Valencia in the next round that MacLean scored the one and only goal of his entire senior career in the famous 6-2 victory over the Spaniards.

A ‘stopper’ in the true sense of the word, he was one of the toughest and most feared defenders in the country, earning the nickname ‘Iron Man’ from the Pars supporters. Although he wasn’t tall, standing only 5’ 10”, he won just about every high ball played down the middle and never shirked a challenge or lost his temper despite coming up against some fierce provocation. With a ‘never-say-die’ attitude, he was the kind of player his teammates could rely on when they had their backs to the wall.

In season 1963/64, Dunfermline consolidated with a fifth place in the league. Only champions Rangers had a better defensive record than the Pars who conceded just 33 goals in their league campaign. Jim took over as captain during 1964/65 and came so close to leading the team to the League and Cup double playing what many believe to be the finest football ever seen at East End. The Pars lost the league title by just a single point, and also lost to Celtic 3-2 in the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden. They reached the League Cup quarter final, and narrowly lost to Athletico Bilbao in the third round of the European Fairs Cup after the teams had won their respective home ties, only for Bilbao to be given the home draw and win the third match decider. In all, Dunfermline played 61 competitive matches that season – and that does not include friendlies and Fife Cup ties! Of those, captain MacLean played in 60. It came as no surprise to anyone that Jim MacLean was awarded the Player of the Year trophy.

He was awarded the Player of the Year Trophy, and the following season, 1965/66, continued where he left off the season before. This time, Dunfermline finished fourth in the league, lost to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final, and were unlucky to go out of Europe at the quarter-final stage to another Spanish side, Real Zaragoza.

In season 1966/67, the number and frequency of high level games that Jim played was beginning to take its toll. Jim was struggling with a persistent groin injury, and after the league match against Dundee on 17 December, the club sought medical advice. On 22 December 1966, Pars fans were shocked to hear that Jim MacLean, after being seen by a specialist, had been advised to stop playing immediately.

It had been a remarkable career for a relatively unknown centre half who had been plucked from obscurity by Jock Stein. He may not have scored many goals but he repaid his transfer fee one hundred times and more during his 213 appearances against the toughest of opponents.

On and off the field Jim MacLean was a credit to his club. He never had a bad word for anyone and his behaviour as captain was exemplary.

In 2004, Jim was inducted into the inaugural Dunfermline Athletic ‘Hall of Fame’. At that event, he was to reacquaint himself again with the man who replaced him as Pars centre half, Roy Barry. For a club like Dunfermline Athletic to have two such outstanding centre halves in one decade is quite remarkable – little wonder then that so many consider the 1960s as the halcyon days of the Pars.

The thoughts and condolences of all at Dunfermline Athletic are with Jim’s family, friends and former team mates at this difficult time.

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