It is an optimistic sort who would wager on both Dundee United and York City avoiding relegation this season. The former are eight points adrift of a play-off place, the latter, meanwhile, are nine points from the safety of third bottom place in League Two in England.
On the face of it, little connects their situations. But of course something, or at least someone, does: Jackie McNamara, sacked by United in late September, hired by York City in early November. His bid to avoid managing two relegated clubs in the same season looks odds on to end in failure, sadly.
If such a fate does befall him, he won’t be the first. Billy McNeill was manager of Manchester City at the start of the 1986/87 season before jumping ship for Aston Villa in September. Both clubs were relegated at the end of the campaign, Villa in bottom place.
Others too have racked up this ignominious feat, including Ron Saunders at Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. He was in charge of both clubs, duly relegated, in the season before McNeill’s unwanted ‘double’.
But McNamara’s struggle this season really does come as a surprise. At the start of the campaign he was still considered Scottish football’s outstanding young manager.
Now he is set to begin next season in the fifth tier of England football, while his reputation at United is tarnished in the eyes of some supporters. He has responded to criticism from time to time from his new base in Yorkshire, once claiming his record at Tannadice is second only to Jim McLean.
But there is a limit to what he can say due to a confidentiality clause imposed at the time of his departure. In any case, what good would it do now?
McNamara is also not even certain United’s perilous position at the bottom is a lost cause. He believes there’s a chance successor Mixu Paatelainen can inspire a late rally, something that might be sparked by reaching a William Hill Scottish Cup final with victory over Hibs this weekend.
“A cup final can change everything,” he said. “It might give them the shot in the arm to go and win five league games. I know they have not done it this year but they have the players there when everybody is fit.
“There is no reason why they can’t.”
United were second bottom, two points above Partick Thistle, when McNamara was sacked, via a pre-written letter, at McDiarmid Park after a defeat v St Johnstone. They have now sunk to eight points adrift of 11th placed Kilmarnock, with five games left to play. McNamara admitted he did not expect United to still be toiling so badly, but wonders what might have happened had midfielder Paul Paton been available more this season.
“I am surprised but they had a good little spell there, and I am not surprised that coincided with Paton coming back in, [Callum] Morris and [Ryan] Dow as well. I’d love to have had Paton at the start of the season. I thought that was a key area.”
But McNamara can’t afford to think too much about United’s plight; he must concentrate on what would amount to an equally great escape with York City. When United play Hibs at Hampden on Saturday, he will be in the less rarefied surroundings of Victoria Park, Hartlepool.
McNamara has pledged his future to York City, where he is has recently received a vote of confidence from chairman Jason McGill. “Whether or not it happens and we are successful or not this season we’ll stay there the next couple of years and build it,” McNamara said.
“There are a lot of things to sort out behind the scenes. But we have a great infrastructure and great training facilities.
“We have a fantastic chairman who puts in a lot of his own time and money into the club and deserves a lot of what he gets from it.
“So I would like to oversee that and get the whole thing up and running properly. We have a new stadium to move into in two years.
“And by then I want to make sure we are not just in the Football League but moving up the way and the whole thing is set in place for the next couple of years for them.”
The phrase ‘set in place’ could be used to describe what he felt United were 18 months ago, prior to the departure of key players and before the clearly failed attempt to replace them. It was not so very long ago that United were considered as well placed as Aberdeen to rival Celtic in the absence of Rangers, while McNamara was being touted as a potential next manager at Parkhead.
“I don’t think back too bitterly on it,” he said, with reference to being sacked.
“It’s football. You have spells when you have good spells and you get the rub of the green and you have luck, you get to finals. It’s the same as when you are a player. It’s easy to point the finger and blame everyone else. You make decisions as a manager and do your best and hopefully it is good enough.”
He still feels a lot of pride in what he achieved at United. He speaks of “helping change people’s lives” in the case of Ryan Gauld, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, as well as Nadir Ciftci and Andy Robertson.
“Even the ones who have not made it to the top, we tried to help them,” he said. “And as a manager and ex-player that’s the philosophy rather than trying to help yourself. It’s trying to help players see things and make them better.”
l Jackie McNamara was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.