It doesn’t rain but it pours for Mixu Paatelainen. As well as dealing with the update to the bizarre Gunning situation he had also to face up to being without a second first-team player for this weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibernian.
While Gunning is now free to come back and train at the club, he won’t be picked again this season. More damaging to the club’s hopes of reaching a Scottish Cup final and avoiding relegation is the news Paul Paton is a major doubt for this weekend’s clash with Hibs, after a recurrence of a knee injury. There are also fears he could miss the rest of the season and, perhaps, Northern Ireland’s Euro 2016 finals campaign in France this summer.
But while Paton’s misfortune is a potential personal disaster for the player and a significant blow for his club, it is Gunning’s circumstances that dominated the agenda at the Tannadice club’s training base in St Andrews yesterday.
Paatelainen even chose to host an unscheduled press conference to deal with the latest developments in a situation that began to unfold in the second half of United’s home league clash with Inverness Caledonian Thistle on Saturday. Having received a pass from Paton, Gunning bent down and picked up the ball to the bafflement of everyone in the stadium, including his own team-mates. He then strode off the park with the ball in his hands before returning to the pitch, and collapsing to the turf, where he received treatment for what Paatelainen described as a knock to his knee.
But while the manager admitted the incident was “one of the strangest” he had seen on a football pitch, this was not, he claimed, why Gunning has been told he won’t feature again this season. “I understand why Gavin did that,” said Paatelainen. “He was injured, he wanted the game to be stopped. He could not kick the ball because he got a knock on his leg. He wanted the game to be stopped instead of just going down and possibly Caley Thistle having an attack, he decided to pick the ball up and stop the game by doing that.”
While Paatelainen would not go into the reasons for making his decision to exile Gunning, it seems the player’s sarcastic applauding of the furious home fans as he left the field to go to the dressing room after being substituted sealed his fate. “It is a very unfortunate situation,” said the Finn. “Things went on and obviously it is something we could not tolerate so I took the decision and told Gavin he would not play for us again. I also said to him if he wished he does not need to stay here. That’s where we are.
“I will not go into the reason,” he added. “I understand it is not good for you guys, but we have decided to keep it in-house and private. So I won’t go into any details.”
Amid reports that Gunning is refusing to leave quietly Paatelainen did confirm that the defender is free to return to train, if he so desires. Otherwise he is free to enjoy “an early summer holiday”.
“It is up to Gavin obviously,” said the manager.“The way we spoke yesterday he will probably stay away. But if he doesn’t he is still our player and if he comes in he can keep his fitness up, I have no problem with that. But I also put it across to him that he will not play and therefore he does not need to come in if he doesn’t want to. He can have an early summer holiday and train elsewhere and try and find another club.”
The club will continue to pay the player’s wages for the remainder of his contract, which expires this summer. The 25 year-old has made 20 appearances in his second spell at United, since re-signing in November.
Paatelainen admitted he had to think carefully about the situation before deciding to exclude Gunning, who would have been in line to play on Saturday against Hibs at Hampden. “Gavin has been a starting player for us,” he said. “Of course he has had his dips as well and mistakes but he has played well for us, and has been a starting player.”
The manager also stressed Gunning was a “good teammate”, which again suggested it was pressure from outside the dressing room rather than inside that forced the manager’s hand. “There has not been any fight or any problem in the dressing room,” he confirmed. “He has been a good team-mate to all the players. I know there is a real mystery now about this but unfortunately I am not in a position to go into any more details.”