IT HAD taken Stephen Thompson two weeks to whittle down the candidate list and decide exactly who he wanted to replace Peter Houston.
It then took him a couple of days to mull it over to make sure he was satisfied with his choice, but it was the final few hours which seemed to prove the most problematic, with the assembled media kept waiting for two hours beyond the agreed press conference time as the legal advisers finalised contracts with Jackie McNamara and his assistant Simon Donnelly and a compensation deal was negotiated with their previous employers, Partick Thistle.
But, as he unveiled the new man, revealing he has signed a three-year deal, he was evidently satisfied. McNamara may still be a fledgling manager, having amassed just two years’ experience at Firhill, but having guided Thistle to a cup final and elevated them to First Division title challengers, the former Celtic captain has convinced the United board that he has the potential to help the club realise theirs.
Talking about goals for the future, Thompson underlined the belief he has in his new gaffer, saying he was happy to let McNamara set those. “We chatted earlier on and he knows how important top six is in the SPL, cash flow-wise, but apart from that he’s just to do the best he can and get the team playing. I think this squad is capable of playing further up the league but there’s no pressure to be any position. He is a very ambitious young man. He is like me, if you aim to be the best then you will get somewhere close to being the best and that’s exactly how he thinks. He wants to be the best at everything he does and I don’t need to set targets because he will set his own targets. I’m happy with that and he is under no pressure that way.”
Short-term the Tannadice supremo is less ambiguous. “What, apart from winning on Saturday? Apart from that pressure?”
Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie with Rangers at Tannadice offers McNamara a high-profile start to life as a SPL manager. A grudge match which all but around 350 Rangers fans are set to boycott, all eyes will be on the outcome. It is a mouth-watering prospect for the man but having only met his new charges at training yesterday morning, he knows he doesn’t have much time to galvanise and organise his squad.
“It doesn’t get any better for the first game,” he said. “It’s different, but I’m looking forward to it. It is a great attraction for everybody, it’s live on television, but we don’t have much time to prepare for it. That’s not ideal. If you are asking me if I would rather have a whole week to prepare then I would. But we will focus on the time we have. I’m glad the midweek game was off because it means there were no injuries and the boys are fresh.”
But McNamara is not buying into any of the animosity which has overshadowed the build up to what will be his debut game. “I’ve had lots of messages. One of the first to get in touch was Ally McCoist, who I get on really well with. We have had a good relationship over the years and he is a good guy. Ally is a good person. I have come across him at Old Firm games and the Scotland set-up and we have always got on well. I have a lot of respect for him as a player, a manager and a person and I will be wishing him all the best, but after Saturday.”
The appointment of such a rookie manager seems to be the fashion in football, but Thompson said he spoke to several people and was enthused by the feedback. Originally thought to have been overlooked in favour of Falkirk manager Steven Pressley, 39-year-old McNamara was offered the position on Monday night, having impressed the board.
“First of all it’s about results on the park and what he has done at his last club, building exciting teams, bringing young players through and the sports science side. It’s the modern way, he looks at the game differently. It was a whole host of things that make him quite exciting.”
It was well known that Thompson had a strained relationship with Houston, who had announced that he would be parting company with the club at the end of the season. But with the cup match looming and some key league matches following on, the chairman felt that the club needed an injection of that positivity sooner rather than later.
Stating that most clubs receive a lift when a new boss comes in, he felt the time was right for the switch. “I’ve said enough about Peter. I thanked him earlier this week but this is football and things move on very rapidly,” Thompson said. “Jackie is now the manager and we are very excited going forward.”
Still smarting from Houston’s pessimistic forecasts for the club as it comes to terms with greater cash constraints, Thompson believes McNamara is capable of coping with the more limited budget and still ensuring the club remains top six. “It will be a very open and honest relationship. We have discussed budgets for next season. He knows exactly where we are as a club and he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t think it was the right thing.”
With rumours of a double bid from Crystal Palace for youngsters Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay-Steven dismissed by the chairman, McNamara ruled out making any last-minute attempts to add to the squad and would prefer to hang on to the current personnel, but he remains realistic. “The sooner the window closes the better, but if anything happens, it happens. Every club in Scotland has players with a price on their head. The main thing is that it has to be right for the club and obviously the chairman will decide that. I know that players have left before that the club got nothing for but I would be happier if it was in the summer.”
That would give him time to assess his side as well as the youngsters coming through and work out a way ahead.
“I’m not going to say we’ll do this or that, but hopefully people will see what we are trying to do. I’ll start with the players in training and it will take a bit of time. It’s a big risk for United to take a young manager in only his second year and it’s a big risk for myself as well leaving Thistle behind while challenging for the league and in a cup final, but since I spoke to Stephen I know the infrastructure here, the players we’ve got, the youth set-up, the training facilities, the players and the squad they’ve got. I just felt it was the right thing to do.”