THIS time last year it was Peter Houston’s neck on the proverbial block. This season Pat Fenlon and Steve Lomas have already had to weather calls for their dismissal and the country is still waiting to learn the fate of Scotland boss Craig Levein.
Football management is a world of short-termism where favour cannot be counted on. Houston blames the problem on the multi-media platforms afforded to naysayers and says that the game is suffering as a result, with players and managers being put under unnecessary pressure week in, week out.
“I think it’s become popular to jump on a manager’s back,” says the Dundee United boss. “After their [Hibs’] first game of the season Pat Fenlon was getting it and now look at them. Pat is in the middle of a rebuilding process with a team that hasn’t done too well in a number of years and he is challenging at the top of the league. After Pat, it was Steve Lomas, but they [St Johnstone] got the win against Celtic and things have kicked on and they have been on a run of wins. The people calling for their jobs look pretty silly now.
“But I think it’s too easy for a lot more people to express their opinions now. Every club has a forum and then there are the phone-ins and, although people are entitled to their opinion, the problem comes when we give them too much credence. Unfortunately it’s often the same few people and some of them don’t even go to the games, they just see a scoreline and make a judgment on that. Even those who have been at the game and are screaming about so and so not starting don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, they don’t know personal issues, what someone’s form is like in training, who is carrying wee niggles, they don’t have all the information but they still have a platform to call for someone’s job.”
It was Houston’s turn last term, when an indifferent start to the season by Dundee United saw him 24 hours and one result away from the sack. This year there have been grumblings, albeit more muted.
“You always feel pressure but the good thing this year – and this is different from last year – I don’t feel huge pressure from the board. Last year I was reading about getting the sack and that puts you under real pressure and you definitely do feel it. But this year, me and the board members met before the Aberdeen game and this time it was all very open and they asked ‘what’s the script, is there anything we can do to help you?’ and that wee bit of backing was nice. Every manager and board should do that and I would rather be open to them asking me difficult questions, because I can give them answers, than have people talking behind my back or leaking things to papers.”
Results, though, remain the currency of the game and Houston recognises that they are his responsibility. “I accept the pressure of trying to deliver those because the fans and the board do demand them but last year, because of what was going on behind the scenes, it was a totally different kind of pressure. Thankfully I haven’t felt that this year. If they have any questions they can ask me them and to be fair to them we have sat and discussed things and they took on board my reasonings for why we are not yet consistent. But I always say judge me at the end of a season. I told them last year we would be all right and I proved that when we got into Europe and were just two points off a Champions League place.”
He is confident that the current squad is just as capable of elevated performances and league standings, despite currently occupying a berth in the bottom half of the table. He is aiming higher but after more budget cuts in the summer and the loss of influential personnel, he maintains that a top-six place should still count as a huge achievement.
“Look at Hibs and Aberdeen, they are both having a go again and have higher budgets, Motherwell and Hearts’ budgets are still bigger than ours, so it’s going to take a bit of time but with games coming thick and fast over the next six weeks or so, last year that was a good thing for us and I’m just hoping it’s the same this year.”
Losing the likes of Gary Mackay-Steven to injury has compounded the difficulty of getting the best supply for Jon Daly, gaps at the back have had to be plugged, while the absence of someone able to time runs from midfield has also dogged United. But Houston points out that they already have five clean sheets in the league, where they had none at the same stage last season. United are also two points better off than they were after the first quarter of the last campaign and, with two games in hand, could rise to third place should they take all six points. They take on Motherwell midweek but first face Celtic this afternoon, in the hope of a perfect pick-me-up following their League Cup exit at the hands of Hearts on Wednesday.
It’s a big ask to claw points from today’s game but there are glimmers of light. The new signings and youngsters promoted through the ranks are beginning to settle in. Mackay-Steven also returned to the side last week and made it through an hour of play unscathed, while Barry Douglas has got his head straight after some personal family issues made it hard for him to focus on football, so there is the prospect of better balls in from the flanks for Daly. There is also the threat posed by new signing Rudi Skacel.
“Those are the things you want people to look a bit deeper and see before they start ranting on hotlines,” says Houston, “because things are rarely black and white. The media can also drive an agenda if they decide they don’t rate or don’t like a manager. Fans and the media have to be more realistic and give managers more time. It’s too easy to change a manager nowadays but there’s no quick fix because every manager is having to cut his cloth accordingly now.
“Me? I feel for anyone on the receiving end of that and at the moment it’s the Big Yin [Levein]. But I just try not to read those kind of papers, the ones who make it personal by making jibes about glasses or stubble or put his face on a Brussels sprout. Every manager should have to answer to results but what I would say when it comes to the Scotland situation is if would things be any different if a new manager came in? It’s not like the Big Yin has ‘lost the dressing room’, so, who else is out there player-wise? Who should be in the squad who isn’t?
“The players are all 100 per cent behind Craig but his job isn’t easy. It’s hard enough at club level but he doesn’t have much time to coach, that’s down to the clubs, and he has to work with what he has.
“It was Shaun Maloney who said look at the squads, and, yes, Belgium have players in the Premier League and we have players in the Premier League but the difference is their players are stars at Chelsea and we have players fighting at the bottom of the table for teams like Wigan. Don’t get me wrong, we have good players, good guys, players who give everything as part of a team, but we don’t have world-class players who can win games single handedly. In that past we had guys like [James] McFadden who produced something which won the game in France but I was at that game and we could have lost handsomely that night. So a wee bit of luck and a wee moment of something special can mask a multitude of sins. Craig hasn’t really had that. But he just needs time.”
It’s the managers’ lament. By Monday, Levein, and his Scotland assistant Houston, will find out if that plea has been heeded.