AFTER confirmation that he had been appointed full-time manager at Dundee United in May 2010, Peter Houston expressed a desire to “emulate” some of his predecessors.
He had already taken a few steps towards doing that with a Scottish Cup win, a feat achieved just a few days earlier against Ross County. Only three managers have won trophies with United. Houston is one of them, along with Ivan Golac and Jim McLean, whose achievements are, of course, beyond compare.
The end, now it has come, will not have been Houston’s preferred way of making an exit from Tannadice, but it seems the most sensible option for all concerned. The manager has been shunted out of the door just a couple of days after an underwhelming 1-1 draw against Ross County, one met with boos by the United faithful.
This has become an increasingly common occurrence since the 3-0 win over Dundee in August. Remarkably, that high-octane performance – United were three up by half-time – stands as their last league success at home. From top of the league, they have now slipped to seventh. The arrangement where Houston was set to linger on for a further few months seemed to be a ‘staying together for the sake of the kids’-type scenario. No-one was gaining anything from the situation.
It’s not even as if the manager and his chairman had a particularly strong bond. Some were surprised when Houston saw out last season at United, following some poor form prior to Christmas and mounting speculation that Thompson was preparing to dispense with his services. The team recovered and finished fourth in the league. Prior to that, Houston can point to a third place finish in 2009-10 and then fourth in the following season. It is a thoroughly decent record.
There have been some notably strong chairman-manager relationships in recent years at Tannadice. Eddie Thompson thought the world of Ian McCall and when results became so poor he had to sack him, the late chairman clasped him at the top of the stairs at Tannadice. Then there was the powerful bond between Thompson and Craig Levein, who he promoted to director of football at Tannadice before his death. This sad and untimely event was followed by Levein’s departure to become Scotland manager; it meant Houston, Levein’s assistant, and Stephen Thompson were almost thrust together. There was some brief interest shown in Pat Fenlon, then manager at Bohemians in Ireland. Houston, meanwhile, had some early reservations about being his own man.
Nevertheless, what was viewed as an accidental partnership had an almost immediate reward in the Scottish Cup triumph. It was, however, fanciful to simply presume that these two men would get along as well as Levein and Eddie Thompson, for example. The dynamic was entirely different; both Houston and Thompson junior had been pushed into roles unexpectedly. Both are also strong-willed. However, despite early reports of a “strained” relationship, the club prospered on the field. It is a United supporter with a short memory who can lightly dismiss Houston’s contribution at Tannadice. After the reigns of Houston and Levein, his predecessor, United are now no longer considered perennial relegation candidates, as had become the case in the early 2000s.
It is rare for managers to be handed the luxury of leaving in the manner they might desire. Even Jim McLean’s farewell was conducted after a 4-1 home defeat against Aberdeen on the final day of the 1992/3 season. In time-honoured style, his farewell message was couched in a complaint: “I can’t spoil the habit of a lifetime, the attitude of the players was very disappointing indeed,” he said.
Golac, despite winning the Scottish Cup in the season after McLean’s departure, left during the following campaign as United moved ever nearer relegation. Now it is Houston’s turn to go in slightly unsatisfactory fashion; less than two weeks after a press conference where he promised to remain in situ until the end of the season and do his utmost to get United as high up the league table as possible. Of course, no-one expected for a moment that he would stick around until then. As so often happens, the announcement of a manager’s intention to leave at the end of the season simply signalled the beginning of a very quick end. “It is not our plan to bring someone in before the end of the season,” said Thompson earlier this month, with Houston seated by his side. Almost immediately, however, the speculation mounted. Given United’s wish to trim their wage-bill a manager with a track record of working with young players seemed the ideal profile for the eventual successor. Steven Pressley certainly fits this description.
Despite fears brought on by belt-tightening, United have not declined to the extent where they are again beset by relegation worries. They remain only seven points away from second place and with an intriguing Scottish Cup fifth-round tie against Rangers to come this weekend. If Pressley is to be named manager before then, he will have a partisan stadium to look forward to as he makes his bow. United have appealed to fans to turn out in their numbers and make-up for the absence of away fans, with the Ibrox club having asked supporters to boycott the fixture. Surreal, intense and a hazardous assignment as far as the home team are concerned; it is likely to prove quite a baptism.
Houston, meanwhile, has been denied the chance to create some history by becoming the first United manager to win the Scottish Cup twice. Winning it once is enough to be considered something out-of-the-ordinary at Tannadice.
Considering his tenure started shortly before a 7-1 thrashing at Ibrox, an experience that almost put him off management for life, Houston is entitled to expect a generous assessment of his worth to United over the years, as an assistant as well as a cup-winning manager.
PETER HOUSTON FACTFILE
1958: Born in Baillieston, near Glasgow.
1976: Begins his playing career at Airdrie before moving to Livingston United.
1979: Joins Albion Rovers and goes on to make more than 100 appearances.
1983: Signs for Falkirk, and helps win promotion to the Premier Division in 1986.
1986: Signs for Dumbarton.
1988: Returns to Falkirk and helps the club to the 1991 First Division title.
1991: Signs for East Stirlingshire.
1993: Begins coaching career by taking Falkirk youth team under Jim Jefferies; becomes SFA community coach.
1995: Joins Hearts under Jefferies as coach of the reserve and youth teams.
2000: Caretaker manager when Jefferies leaves; becomes assistant manager following appointment of Craig Levein.
2004: Moves to Leicester to continue as Levein’s right-hand man.
2006: Rejoins Levein at Dundee United
2009: December 23 – appointed caretaker manager of United after Levein takes the Scotland job but begins by taking one point from three SPL games, including a 7-1 defeat by Rangers.
2010: January 28 – appointed manager until the end of the season after four consecutive victories; February 16 – unveiled as Levein’s Scotland assistant; April 18 – leads United into Europe for the first time in five years as a 3-2 victory at Motherwell secures third spot in the SPL; May 15 – wins the Scottish Cup following a 3-0 victory over Ross County; May 25 – Appointed permanent United manager on a three-year contract.
2011: May – leads United into Europe with a fourth-place SPL finish; October 30 – United board declare “unequivocal support” for Houston. Two days earlier United won 4-1 at Dunfermline, their third SPL victory of the season, in the wake of reports that Houston was about to be sacked.
2012: May – United finish fourth and qualify for Europe again despite a major turnaround in players for the second consecutive season; September 27 – Houston reveals he has not been offered a contract extension. Talks begin over a new deal on reduced terms.
2013: January 14 - United announce they have given Blackpool permission to speak to Houston but no talks are forthcoming; January 17 – United announce Houston will leave at end of season.Manager says he was concerned about competitiveness of the team amid further budget cuts; January 26 – a 1-1 draw with Ross County stretches United’s run without a home win to 11 games; January 28 – United announce Houston has left by mutual consent, with the club sitting seventh in the league.