WITH his team currently eighth in the SPL and without a home league win for five months, Peter Houston is not exactly quitting while he is ahead, but if the timing of yesterday’s announcement that he will step down as Dundee United manager at the end of the season appeared curious, he was perhaps simply keen not to delay the inevitable.
Having won the Scottish Cup in his first few months in the post after replacing Craig Levein in December 2009, Houston went on to lead United to three successive top-four SPL finishes.
As he did so, Houston felt he was operating amid ever decreasing circles as a stream of his leading players and highest earners left the club on a regular basis.
The 54-year-old understands the austerity programme being embarked upon by the Tannadice board in increasingly testing financial times, but no longer feels he is the right man to implement it on the pitch.
“The budget is getting cut again in the summer and I want to be part of a successful Dundee United,” said Houston.
“We have some very good young players here, but they are not ready to be first team material every week. I’ve told the board of directors my concerns that if we continue to cut we will not be able to compete on the pitch.
“I understand that the board has to look after the financial side, but, as a football person, I want the best team on the pitch. One mediocre season means a £600,000 hit on the club if we don’t finish in the top six. What happens if we don’t do that? It’s a huge financial gamble for the club.
“I’ve done the best I can in regards to cutbacks, but I want to take the club forward and at this moment in time I can’t see how that will work with young players who are not ready.
“Before I came here the team was finishing ninth and 11th in the league. I don’t want to be the manager who took Dundee United back to that level of performance.
“I want to get the best team on the park that can compete at the top end of the league and I have told the chairman that I think that might be difficult in the next couple of years unless new investment comes in.
“The first remit of the job when I came here with Craig Levein six years ago was to stave off relegation and we did that, and for the next two years after that we finished fifth in the SPL before Craig got the call to a bigger and better job.
“I was delighted to take over and after a few blips at the start the rest is history, finishing third, fourth twice and, of course, winning the Scottish Cup.
“So there have been a lot of things I have been happy with, but in that time we have also sold a lot of players – Barry Robson, Willo Flood, Noel Hunt, David Goodwillie and Scott Allan – so we have brought a lot of money in.
“In the past three years, we have gone from the debt touching £7 million around the time of the cup final to where it now stands at under £4m.
“That gives me great pride that I’ve worked hard to reduce the debt by losing players – but, for a manager, the most important thing is to maintain success on the park. However, that’s getting harder and harder.”
Houston was offered a new contract on reduced terms, which he concedes were still considerable, and knows he is gambling with his future in the game by turning it down.
“I’m taking a huge risk because, come the end of May, I am not going to get paid,” he added. “Look at guys like Jimmy Calderwood and others who have been out the game a long time, but the financial side is not important to me, never has been. The last few years have been my best years of making money because I was always an assistant manager or coach before that.
“I could have signed a very good deal here which I heard about on Tuesday – for the first time I must say, but if I signed that and the team had a really bad start to next season and the crowd started getting on my back and the chairman’s back, then the chairman might have a decision where he has to pay me off.
“I will stay to the summer. A lot of people will question my motivation, but I can tell you my motivation is higher than it’s ever been to finish in that top six yet again. There is no fallout with the chairman. We both understand where each other is coming from and money is not the issue because I was offered an excellent package. If I get half of it to work as a coach somewhere else I’ll take it because I’ll be out of work.
“The issue for me is continuing to develop as a manager and try to get my team playing at as high a level as possible.
“This is a fantastic football club. It has a great bunch of supporters and there will be plenty of managers out there who will be willing to take the challenge on.
“I just feel I have fought hard enough to try and keep the team on a level keel through continuous cuts. There comes a time when you feel that maybe a change of voice will help.
“The club has assets and can move forward, but it concerns me a wee bit that Johnny Russell is going into the last year of his contract. Gavin Gunning is also going into his last year, Jon Daly and Willo Flood are the same.
“If you were to lose those four players then it’s a hell of a rebuilding job. I have constantly rebuilt over the last three years and maybe it’s time for someone else to have a go.”