Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dundee United pay for eighteen months of mistakes

Now, I'm not old enough to remember the glory days of the 1980s, the league titles, the UEFA Cup final and all that jazz.  I am, however, old enough to recall the last time Dundee United were relegated from Scotland's top flight in 1995.  In more recent times, they have had their share of relegation battles too - Alex Smith's motley crew from 2000/01, Ian McCall's first half-season in charge, successive nightmare seasons under Gordon Chisholm and Craig Brewster (two members of what is now a three person shortlist for worst Dundee United manager ever).

What I'm basically trying to say is that, to me, Dundee United's relegation from the Scottish Premiership is not quite a seismic event in Scottish football.  Whilst they are one of the better supported clubs in the country, it would be a stretch to say they are one of the behemoths.  Heck, when one considers that the last three seasons have seen Rangers liquidated and Hearts and Hibs relegated, it doesn't seem that big a deal.

But actually, when it comes to August, a top flight without the Terrors is going to seem a bit weird.  And not just because it'll be the first time that Dundee have been in a higher division than their local rivals for a wee while.  Since 1960, in fact.

Eighteen months of mistakes
United's fate has followed a perfect storm of failures, both on and off the field, over the last eighteen months.  It's hard to believe that, as recently as Christmas 2014, they beat Celtic at Tannadice to go second in the league, above Aberdeen and just four points off top.  Only four of their starters that day are still at the club, none of them names that would set pulses racing amongst United fans...except, perhaps, when they are trying to defend.

The squad turnover has made a huge difference.  It was necessary, however, because of United's very risky business model which relies on player sales to offset operating losses.  That's fine as long as you have a neverending conveyor belt of young talent either developed internally or brought in for peanuts, but which is sold on for seven figure fees.

But such wells will always run empty from time to time.  In recent times, there's been Andrew Robertson, Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci.  Now who?  The most exciting youngster at the club this season, John Souttar, moved to Hearts in January for £180,000 because he wouldn't sign a new contract.  The next best is surely the erratic Blair Spittal; he's only 20 and will surely have a decent career, but is a million miles away from the likes of Armstrong and Gauld.

McNamara left a mess
Jackie McNamara hit the jackpot initially with Robertson and Ciftci, but then blew the winnings on a series of duds.  He tried to speculate to accumulate and blew £300,000 on Charlie Telfer and Robbie Muirhead.  The latter was released by the club last week, while Telfer has spent the second half of the season in and out of a struggling Livingston team after joining them on loan.  Jackie Mac's recruitment in his last year or so at Tannadice was a catastrophe: Michal Szromnik, Mark Durnan, Coll Donaldson, Aaron Kuhl, Mario Bilate, Henri Anier, Darko Bodul, Rodney Sneijder, Adam Taggart, Telfer and Muirhead would make up a starting XI from hell.

McNamara never seemed to recover from the furore that followed the leaking of his contract details; the fact he benefited from player sales stuck in the craw of supporters, who worried that it simply encouraged the manager to move on his star men.  Many United fans wondered if he'd mentally jacked it in by the end of last season, and certainly giving him the summer to turn things around was a futile and foolish move.

Pitiful under Paatelainen
I actually praised the appointment of Mixu Paatelainen; he had proven himself capable at Kilmarnock and talked a good game.  And yet his tenure was a complete disaster as well - just five wins in twenty-five league games.  When he arrived in October, the club were bottom of the table but clinging onto the coat-tails of those above them; by Christmas they were cut well adrift.

Of course, Mixu's own signings were rotten.  Left without a decent goalie by his predecessor, the Finn chose to wait nearly two months for Eiji Kawashima to get a work permit, rather than bring in a player with an EU passport (Conrad Logan, anyone?).  The Japanese keeper hasn't justified the faith in him by any stretch.  Riku Riski arrived on loan, started just one game and left after nine weeks.  The less said about Gavin "it's my ball and I'm going home" Gunning, the better.  Florent Sinama Pongolle, Guy Demel...deary me.

Mixu made plenty of other mistakes.  His tactics were dicey at best.  His habit of slagging off his team to the press one week and then praising them the next, even when the performance was no better, won't have done him any favours.  His reputation has been badly tarnished by this saga.

And yet, one wonders, could anyone else have lifted United out of the gutter?  The squad lacked quality, leadership and guts.  So far this season, they've dropped twenty-seven points from winning positions - ten games where they scored first but didn't win.  They haven't come from behind to win a league game since March 2014.  Confidence is so fragile that you imagine some players might have a panic attack if a newborn kitten looked at them funny.

What next?
The comparison that immediately springs to mind is with the Hibs side of two years ago - apt, considering the club were originally called Dundee Hibernian.  Years of poor decision-making in the dugout and in the boardroom came home to roost.  Now the Hibees are in danger of a third straight season in the second tier...and they have greater resources than Dundee United do.  It's going to be a hard summer.  Whereas the job was a tempting proposition last October, I would now expect the likes of John Hughes and Ray McKinnon to run a mile.  It's not as if Stephen Thompson could afford compo for them, anyway.  It's more than half a century since they spent back-to-back seasons outside Scotland's top flight; I'm not confident that record will hold.

Dundee United's fate should serve as a warning to most other Premiership sides, especially in an era where the best players at 'diddy' clubs inevitably move on to a higher level within a year ago.  Appoint the wrong managers, fail to recruit decent players to replace the ones that have moved on, and the slide can be hard to arrest.  Your club makes a few errors - and United's didn't seem like bad decisions at the time - and you too could be heading inexorably for the Championship.

But at least your club didn't try to get away with running an operating loss, and probably doesn't have the third highest wage bill in the league.  How Stephen Thompson deals with those two issues will determine whether United's immediate future is salvageable.

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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