It is not unusual for the person in charge of a football club to meet the press in the immediate aftermath of silverware success. Rarely can one in such a position have appeared as embattled as Dundee United chairman and owner Stephen Thompson did yesterday as he sat barely a foot from the Challenge Cup positioned on the Tannadice boardroom table.
It was telling that Thompson could offer little cheer about the success over St Mirren last Saturday. He admitted it was a cup the club didn’t want to be in because participation is a reflection of their exiled status from the Premiership, and talked of “only 3,000 supporters” making the trip to Fir Park to see the 2-1 success first hand.
Thompson knows the trophy that a growing number of the United faithful want is his head on a platter. The £500,000 in loans secured this week – more than half from American-based Dundee United supporter Alastair Borthwick – is seen by detractors as one more sign of the club’s struggles. As Ray McKinnon’s side has slipped to fourth in the Championship confidence has eroded that they could secure an instant return to the top flight through the play-offs. On the back of a £1.5 million loss in their relegation season, Thompson is being presented as the roadblock to progress.
He understands those frustrations, understands that he has become an emotional punchbag for the supporters, but wants them to understand that the notion of some silver lining were he to be removed from the United picture is to cloud all manner of issues.
“I know [the people giving the club loans] are not interested [in buying United]. One of them is 80 years old, for a start. We have had conversations. Their circumstances are different. I’m under confidentiality, and whatever is in the agreements is in the agreements. They are not the ones to take the club on, no.
“The last 12 months have been hard on all levels. I would use the word ‘noise’ about what has been around the club, things have gone on. If someone wants to come forward with a credible, properly funded proposal for the club then the door’s open. It’s not just about shares; it’s about running the club. They need to prove they can actually run the place going foward [and have liquidity].
“I know the fans are not happy with me but it is about supporting the club we all love. And if they don’t stick together… I wouldn’t want to talk about it, but nobody wants the club to be in a certain place, put it that way. Not just season tickets, it’s everyone getting together to move the club forward.
“We had a spectacular fall. I sell the players but I don’t pick them. I can understand the disgruntlement. We were used to going to cup finals, Scottish Cup and League Cup finals, only a couple of years ago. But we can’t keep going on about the past. Quite a few want to go on about sales of players two, two and a half years ago. We can’t change that. It is recruitment that is everything.
“I won’t be here forever. Of course I won’t be. Someone else will be sitting here in years to come. Whenever that may be, I’m not putting a time on it. Someone else will. Just like it was with my father here before me, Jim McLean before him, and there was George Fox before him and so on. The face will eventually change. There have probably been a lot more changes up the road than there has been down here. So it will change. But we are where we are. We want to finish up the league as high as we can and get promoted through the play-offs. We still want to try and get it. It is about supporting Dundee United, not me.”
Thompson dismisses any threat of insolvency were United to remain in the Championship for next season. The football budget has been cut by £1.5m and he maintains there will not be any requirement for any more loan notes – “chunks” of which have been repaid to allow for new loans from the same source as a result of banks backing away from football – as long as season book sales remain stable.
The United chairman, indeed, finds a certain irony in supporters becoming more exercised over debts than they were when he took on his current post eight-and-a-half years ago.
“We were under incredible pressure from the bank back then. No-one knew just how much.
“The bank didn’t want our debt. They didn’t want to be in football clubs and we all know they are out of them now. Back at that point we got an offer of £1.2m for Goodwillie and I turned it down and eventually got £2m and they said ‘if you don’t get that money we’ll pull the plug on you’.
“Why was nobody worried when we had that £7.3m of debt? Nobody bothered. Perhaps the problem is we have talked so openly about finances the past few years it is now getting used against us. It is a challenge for us.
“The ‘going concern warning’ in the accounts has been in there for years. Of course it is a challenge. I am up for the challenge but we need the fans.
“Their loyalty is so important because we are not the biggest but we aspire to be a top-six club.
“We have 5,000 season ticket holders. Next will maybe be Hibs or Aberdeen with 11,000 or 12,000 season tickets.
“That is a big difference but we aspire to be [top six]. Not just me, but the fans. So it’s difficult, particularly being in the Championship.”