Ray McKinnon ‘buzzing’ at chance to turn Dundee United around

Ray McKinnon at Tannadice where he was unveiled as Dundee United's new manager. Picture: Paul Devlin
Ray McKinnon at Tannadice where he was unveiled as Dundee United's new manager. Picture: Paul Devlin
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The photographs on the wall of the Hegarty Suite contain the faces of numerous Dundee United legends, including the player whose name adorns the room.

Paul Hegarty is joined by Paul Sturrock, David Narey, Hamish McAlpine and Maurice Malpas in the gallery, club stalwarts each and every one. But only Hegarty and Sturrock can identify with the feeling Ray McKinnon felt rush through his body a few days ago, when he was named the new manager of Dundee United.

And, underlining how it is not always helpful being saddled with the extra baggage of coming home, it did not end happily for either of them.

McKinnon, once cast as a wayward but talented tearaway, is the latest United old boy to accept the challenge. It seems reasonable to identify him as the most left field of Jim McLean’s prodigies to succeed in the legendary manager’s footsteps.

But McKinnon’s relatively swift promotion from manager of Lochee United to manager of Dundee’s other United speaks volumes of his grit and desire.

The 45-year-old admits it was a gamble to step sway from a secure technical development officer role at the Scottish Football Association to learn more about management in the raw with Brechin City, having cut his teeth at Lochee.

Like Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, he learned that Glebe Park is not only conducive for growing a famous hedge. It is also fertile ground for beginning managerial careers.

“I got hungry for it when I went working with the SFA and doing all the courses,” he said yesterday, on day one proper of his three-year contract.

“I got hungry to do it and that’s why I left the SFA, to be honest, because I wanted to show that I could do the job.

“Working at that level, realising I could do it, that only added to the hunger and desire to keep moving forward.”

Hunger and desire. These are not qualities that first came to mind when he was reckoned to be among the most talented of the new breed of United stars who emerged at the end of the 1980s.

Wilful and mercurial, yes, committed, no. He was condemned for being among those too fond of a night out. Indeed, he was suspected as being leader of said gang.

But McKinnon had already pulled himself up by his bootstraps, emerging from a tough Dundee housing scheme to catch the eye of not only Jim McLean, but also Brian Clough.

As he himself has since stated, if he was as flawed as many deemed him to be, why did McLean, by then chairman, sanction his return to Tannadice in 1995? He explains that their 
relationship is often misconstrued as one based on mutual antipathy.

“Did Jim ever see me as a future United manager? 
Absolutely. We had lots of talks on the phone. People don’t know that.

“When I went down to Nottingham Forest, Jim was on the phone to me every night. I used to come up and have dinner with him. People had this perception that we hated each other. That wasn’t the case.”

McLean valued McKinnon’s input, even if it wasn’t always obvious at the time.

“I always had an opinion and I would tell Jim it,” said McKinnon. “He would throw me out the door and then use my opinion in a team talk. I’d be sitting there thinking, ‘that’s what I said’.

“I have a great relationship with Jim,” added McKinnon. “I have seen him a lot over the years and we got on great. 
I think he liked people like 
me.”

It doesn’t necessarily follow that being one of McLean’s colts guarantees success, particularly at Tannadice. His pupils have tended to blossom elsewhere. But when planted back in the environment where they were whipped into shape, it hasn’t happened.

One only needs to review the Tannadice managerial records of Hegarty, Sturrock, Craig Brewster and, most recently, Mixu Paatelainen.

Perhaps because he once seemed such an unlikely candidate, McKinnon could be set to buck this trend.

Not that you are advised to mention to McKinnon that of all the young guns back in the day, he seemed least likely to return as manager, behind even Duncan Ferguson. Because he simply doesn’t agree.

“The perception is so untrue,” he said. “In my head, anyway. You don’t have the sort of career I had unless you know what you are doing.

“Perception is key. Did I think I’d be back as United manager when I was a player, probably not. But nobody does at that age. Did I think I could do it when I was 40, yep. 42? Yep? Before Mixu got the job? Yep. But the chance is here now. It’s up to me to take it.”

He is pragmatic, questioning why you would want to relocate United’s training from St Andrews to Dundee, a switch some believe would help 
re-root a club perceived to be drifting, when nothing better is available in the city?

But as much as he claims he made the decision to accept United’s advances with his head, he cannot deny there was some romance involved. This struck him last week when he took a solitary walk back out on to the turf at Tannadice to clear his head.

“It was a long process until everything fell into place,” he said, with reference to the negotiations securing his release from Raith Rovers. “But I went out on to the park a few days ago and had a walk round.

“I was just by myself, the place was empty – and I got that feeling again.

“That’s when I realised I’d made the right decision. It was great to go out there on the pitch.

“I don’t get excited much these days, I’m boring, but this excites me.

“What an opportunity this is to turn Dundee United around. 
Come on! I’m 
buzzing.”