HAVING joined Dundee United as a player following a spell of national service for the Finnish army and then served under Jim McLean, it is unsurprising Mixu Paatelainen’s first aim as Tannadice head coach is to instil steeliness in the team.
He has identified softness at the core, something spelled out to him when he attended their recent League Cup clash with Dunfermline. Jackie McNamara, Paatelainen’s sacked predecessor, was still hanging on in there – indeed, the win that night, when United recovered to win 3-1 after losing an early goal, was described as keeping him in a job.
It did, but only for a few more days. A dreadful collapse against ten-man St Johnstone the following weekend saw McNamara relieved of his duties before he’d even left McDiarmid Park.
This meek defeat simply confirmed what Paatelainen had observed earlier in the week. He was appalled by the lack of fight, in the first-half at least. The former striker intends to put that right first of all. Only then will he seek to put the Finn into finesse.
“I do realise that possibly there are quite a few players in the squad who are great footballers but don’t maybe relish the hard work and the battle out there,” he said yesterday.
“With any successful side, though, you realise they win the battles and have the desire to win one against ones, 50-50s and loose balls. They have a hunger to be there and have the upper hand.
“That has to be there first – after that comes the finesse. I am critical of the players, not Jackie. You looked at that first-half and it was the Dunfermline players who were hungry. It was they who wanted to win the battles.
“They anticipated things before the United players. In the end the quality came through which was great but I want to see the hunger straight away.”
It is notable that Mixu Paaelainen was unveiled as the new Dundee United head coach 15 years to the day since Jim McLean made such a sharp and painful exit from Tannadice – for the BBC Scotland reporter he hit at any rate.
McLean was chairman by then and struggling to cope with the slipping standards on the field. Then, as now, United were bottom of the league, a situation not improved by the 4-0 home defeat to Hearts – who return to Tannadice in Paatelainen’s first game on Sunday - earlier that afternoon.
No-one could fail to condemn McLean’s actions that day. It was proof his methods had become unsound, that he was now overstepping the line in public – the interview was being televised – in the way he did so many times in the privacy of a dressing-room, in an era when managers could get away with such severe treatment of players.
Paatelainen was only 19 when he arrived at Tannadice and experienced McLean’s robust style of management. On top of this he faced the challenge of adapting to a new country as well as coping with the burden of expectation. It was less unusual to see a transfer fee paid then but £100,000 for a teenage striker from Finland still raised eyebrows. Paatelainen made his debut 28 years ago this month.
He made an instant impression by scoring against St Mirren although United slipped to a 3-2 home defeat. But supporters were just as impressed by this new signing’s determination to succeed and his appetite for tangling with centre-halves.
“I relished battles as a player,” agreed Paatelainen. “I loved them. I remember how I psyched myself up before matches to make sure the centre-half knew he was in a game from that first challenge.
“It’s the first thing in football. Successful teams work so hard. Barcelona and Real Madrid are known for wonderful football but look at how hard they work when they lose the ball.
“They don’t just jockey opponents. They go right in to win the call. That hard work and aggression has to be there. Then the finesse comes on top. All of us who played under Jim McLean were so lucky. I don’t think we realised it at the time because he was a very tough taskmaster.”
Indeed, few admitted to appreciating the workhouse environment at Tannadice but it reaped results. McLean’s approach - he was enlightened in a tactical sense, just not in the way he treated players – has perhaps been vindicated by the number of former players who have followed him into management.
Paatelainen is only the fifth to succeed McLean at Tannadice, however, after Billy Kirkwood, Paul Sturrock, Paul Hegarty and Craig Brewster. While they have experienced success elsewhere, each found it difficult to live in the master’s shadow at Tannadice. Paatelainen will need to buck a trend.
But he has only positive things to say about McLean’s influence on him as a player, unsurprisingly since he did most to set the Finn on the way in a career studded by distinguished clubs on both sides of the Border. And as the international hall of fame board above the Tannadice stairs reminded those visiting yesterday, Paatelainen also played 70 times for Finland.
“The way he drilled us was wonderful,” he added, of McLean. “Everyone’s role and job was so clear. He really took us by the hand and made sure we did it. If someone didn’t listen first time, they would after a lesson. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of his ex-players have become coaches and managers. It was a great education and I will always be thankful to have played under him.”
But that was then. Paatelainen has already spoken to the current group of under-performing players about how he wants things to be at Tannadice going forward. “They realise what I want,” he said. “The desire is there and I just have to make sure it comes out in competitive matches.”
No-one is expecting him to replicate the days when McLean ruled the roost, when United were a team to fear, at home and abroad. But one thing is guaranteed – commitment. “I will do my best,” said Paatelainen. As if this was ever in doubt.