Despite enjoying one of their finer, if not finest campaigns of the last 20 years or so, Raith Rovers fans didn’t have too long to bask in the sunshine of its success. Indeed, there wasn’t even enough time for them to stagger on to the hell-on-tracks that is the last train back to Fife after their play-off defeat at Easter Road before news spread of Dundee United’s official approach for their talismanic manager, Ray McKinnon.
The Stark’s Park board may have done all they could to entice him to stay, but with McKinnon’s affinity to the Tannadice club well known, as soon as the Tangerine Terrors gave him their come-to-bed-eyes, there was only ever going to be one destination for the 45-year-old.
McKinnon began his career with United in the mid-eighties before leaving to join Brian Clough at the fag-end of his managerial reign at Nottingham Forrest in 1992, though he’d return to Tannadice in 1995, with a season at Pittodrie shoehorned in-between. He’d spend three more seasons at United, helping the club to promotion from the First Division in 1996, and a third place finish in the top-tier the following season. With a playing career that could probably be described as nomadic, Tannadice is the closest thing McKinnon had to a footballing home.
His return there has continued McKinnon’s upward trajectory in the management game, and he’s yet to experience a poor tenure, with his spells at Lochee United, Brechin City and now Raith Rovers all highly regarded. In short, he appears to have a happy knack of leaving clubs in finer fettle than how he found them, something United are currently screaming out for. Replicating it once again is no sure thing, however.
The unusual part of Dundee United’s situation is that although they’ll clearly be the biggest side he’s managed, he’s never inherited a club so down on its uppers.
Brechin City may have been just outside the relegation spots of League One when he took over, while Raith were on a seemingly perpetual cycle of mid-table mediocrity, but neither were involved in the kind of maelstrom of disaster which his new side find themselves embroiled. In targeting McKinnon though, under-fire chairman Stephen Thompson has hopefully chosen the right man to lead the club out of its turbulent doldrums.
The first thing the United support will probably notice is how well McKinnon comes across in the media. He’s open, forthright and honest, and thankfully doesn’t sound like he’s swallowed a bumper-book-of-clichés.
If his team’s played poorly he’ll say so, and generally without resorting to excuses and official bashing, even to the extent where he lambasted the Raith players after losing a pre-season friendly to East Fife last summer. This is a man who sets standards and expects them to be met, no matter the situation.
Whilst being personable may not be an attribute that guarantees success as a manager, it does suggest he can gain buy-in from his players about how he wants them to go about their business, and it seems obvious that McKinnon was popular in the Raith dressing room, something his United predecessor, Mixu Paatelainen, apparently struggled with. Despite that, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that he isn’t a man to be trifled with.
Rumours of discord between the manager and midfielder Ryan McCord are just that, rumours, but McCord rarely featured for McKinnon after they surfaced. Perhaps it’s his way or the highway, or in McCord’s case, the road to Dick Campbell’s Arbroath.
McKinnon has garnered a reputation as being a bold manager, and while that’s true, it is somewhat overplayed. His Raith team rarely went for the jugular from the off, and while they weren’t exactly tentative, there did seem to be a fair amount of sizing the opposition up in a game’s opening period.
Where he isn’t shy about coming forward is his use of substitutions. He certainly isn’t someone who wishes to hold on for a point, and if a game is all square with 20 minutes to go, then as sure as eggs are eggs, he’ll chuck more attacking players into the fray.
That certainly added to Rovers impressive stockpiling of points from the second-half of games, with the club taking 23 additional points from fixtures where they were drawing or losing at the interval. He’s certainly not just chopping up oranges during the half-time break.
Tactically, he isn’t exactly breaking new ground, generally sticking to a 4-4-2 or one up front depending on the opposition. His midfield tends to be narrow, with the width coming from the full-backs, which partially explains away Rovers poor form over the winter months, a period which saw attacking right-back Jason Thomson absent through injury.
Stylistically, Rovers weren’t always great to watch, although that varied depending on who was available. Jon Daly’s cranium seemed to be the main destination of the football in the embryonic part of the campaign, but his departure, coupled with more talented additions, led to the team becoming more pleasing on the eye in the season’s latter stages.
With Dundee United’s abject gang about to be decimated, McKinnon’s ability to assemble a squad will be vital in the coming weeks, and if there is one question mark hanging over his time at Stark’s Park, then it may be in how he went about just that last summer. When you’re angling for players in lower-league waters, you’ll inevitably need to throw some back, but there did seem to be a disconcertingly high number of players who failed to make the grade.
The aforementioned McCord aside, the signings of Darren Petrie, Mitch Megginson, Jon Daly and perhaps more surprisingly, Scott Robertson and Craig Wighton, all toiled to make too much of a positive impact.
The make-up of the squad was lopsided too, with too few forwards, albeit that was hampered by an injury to Lewis Vaughan, while the season began with just one recognised wide player in Grant Anderson. The team was top-heavy with central midfielders, with seven on the books at one stage, an unusually high number considering the team’s reasonably meagre budget.
There were some excellent signings too, though. Kyle Benedictus and Lewis Toshney were a formidable duo in the centre of defence, with Toshney also looking astute in the middle of the park as the season progressed, but it was the January transfer window where things really came together.
Free agent Aidan Connolly and on-loan Ryan Hardie provided the creativity and cutting edge which the club had sorely lacked until that point, while Harry Panayiotou and Louis Longridge both made their marks after arriving on-loan from Leicester and Hamilton Academical respectively. All of them contributed to a greater or lesser extent, as Rovers put together a sequence of just one defeat in fifteen as the team powered into the play-offs. With stories circulating of stringent cuts to the budget at United, a manager who can make the most of the loan-market would be an added bonus.
Considering how poorly Dundee United performed last season, the blank canvas which McKinnon will be working with may be no bad thing, although Hibernian’s dramatic failure to get promoted makes his task to take the club up at the first attempt that much harder.
Without knowing who’ll be taking their positions in Dundee United’s squad photo next term, any prediction for how they’ll do is all just bluster and conjecture, but taking on board Ray McKinnon’s track record to date, it would be a surprise if United weren’t at least in the equation for one of the Championship’s top-spots next term.
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