STEPHEN Thompson was asked the other day what Scottish Cup final day will mean to him. The Dundee United owner and chairman didn’t struggle for a response. “A sleepless night,” he said.
Thompson envisaged himself walking along the beach near his home at first light this morning “knocking on the coffee shop to get in at half past seven”. He added: “My mind works overtime, but it’s outwith my control. I’ve done everything I can do.”
As he turned over in his head what could lie in wait for the Tannadice club against St Johnstone this afternoon while trudging in the sands, the United kingmaker was entitled to crown his thoughts with just how much he has done for his club since their last such silverware success, the 2010 final flattening of Ross County.
Thompson has previously spoken about his inability to enjoy that triumph because all anyone wanted to speak to him about was how it belonged to the legacy of his father Eddie, who had died after a long, public struggle with cancer a year and a half earlier. Then, Stephen was portrayed as the son who had the Tannadice reins thrust into his hands through tragedy. Now, he is at last being recognised for having taken those reins and driven the club on to a new, potentially thrilling, era.
United in the present day may be Stephen Thompson’s construction, but it is one he is entitled to think would delight his father. “Hopefully, my dad would be proud of what we’ve achieved since I took over,” he said. “I think he would be over the moon. I don’t think about it that often, but two cup finals and getting rid of the bank debt is hugely important for the club. We are in our best financial position in 18 years. One of the reasons he supported Dundee United was the type of football they played. You can see the football we play now. I know we have our ups and downs at times, but the style of football is what he’d love to see.”
A deal struck this season to remove £4 million of liabilities completed the full set of changes that Thompson had effected since he took the helm in 2008.
The 2010 United team was packed with players financed by Eddie Thompson’s largesse, guided by a manager, Peter Houston, that he had brought on to the coaching staff, with the club groaning under £6m of borrowing that required to be serviced. Now, the Tayside club are 16 months into the Jackie McNamara era, have a side that has delighted neutrals by placing the accent on youth and attacking vigour, and freed from any cashflow issues.
Thompson talks of his manager as having “bought in to what we are trying to do”, while the club has bought in to what he has brought to the very same United that Houston said could only go downwards when he declined to extend his contract last season.
And, when it comes to buying, Thompson dares to suggest the club’s financial stability will even allow McNamara to earmark players he can pay money for in the summer – almost unheard of in the Scottish environment outside of Celtic.
“Jackie and I are already planning for next season and have already spoken about five players in the recent weeks. We’re quite far down the line with one or two players. There’s no money to go around in Scottish football but we’ve put aside some in the budget for transfer fees. It’s not a huge amount – certainly not as big as Mr Lawwell’s [Celtic chief executive] budget – but it’s good to be in a position that we can do that because we haven’t been there for donkey’s years. We certainly won’t go back to the days of spending £750,000 on Alex Mathie, though.”
Any huge sums paid for players around Tannadice will instead require to be found by suitors of the club’s lauded talents such as Stuart Armstrong, Andrew Robertson, Ryan Gauld and John Souttar. “Every player, except one, has at least two years left on their contract,” Thompson said. “Unless the offer is right in the summer then we won’t be selling. We’re trying to keep the team together. We don’t have to sell in the summer, the first time we’ve been there for a long, long time.
“I just keep wondering what Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong, Andy Robertson will be like in four or five years if they keep developing and mature. There’s no doubt they won’t be with us, but they’re great players with great futures. For us? Who knows what the future holds. We were disappointed to finish fourth in the league. Jackie was genuinely disappointed but we’re in a cup final and it’s all about winning things. It would be great to get another year out of the squad. A lot of our kids are in no rush to go anywhere. They realise they’ve got another year of first-team football under Jackie which could be the best for their development.”
Thompson appears comfortable that McNamara will see United as the place to continue his coaching development beyond this summer, after an approach from Blackpool was rejected last week. “If Jackie moves on then it means we’ve been successful by winning something or finishing high up the league. I don’t think he’s got any plans to go anywhere in the near future and we get on well,” Thompson said. “He’s looking at buying a house in St Andrews so that doesn’t suggest to me he’s about to go to England. He said he was flattered by the Blackpool approach, but I was the first person he spoke to afterwards and he said he was happy where he is. I’ve looked after him and his team and we’ve got a young, exciting squad.
“He’s only turned 40 so he’s quite a young manager. He’s a clever guy and we talk three or four times a day. We talk about family – he’s got a 16-year-old daughter and I’ve got an 18-year-old and four-year-old – football and business. I let him understand the finance of the club because I think that’s a huge benefit to any manager. I don’t think every manager wants to know the bigger picture but if you can then you can do your job in a different way.
“I’m sure he’s made money so it’s about making the right career choice now. Sometimes people jump at the first opportunity to go to England and when it doesn’t work out it’s not so easy getting back into the game. We just extended his contract three months ago, put an extra year on it and dealt with his salary. One or people said I was a bit quick but, when you’re working with someone every day, you learn about their qualities.” Over the past five years, the United fraternity have learned that Thompson’s qualities should not be underestimated, either.