Liam Fox: Dundee United's new 'top coach', big job, risky yet fascinating 'in-house' appointment

“A top man and brilliant coach”. The view of the new Dundee United boss Liam Fox by former Tannadice colleague Adam Asghar.

It is an opinion shared amongst many within Scottish football. The 38-year-old was rated highly by Craig Levein during his time coaching at Hearts, to the point he was loaned to Cowdenbeath for what turned out to be a difficult period as manager.

He was brought into Livingston to play a key role in David Martindale’s backroom staff before taking up a role on Tayside last season. Even former United boss Jack Ross had been keen to bring him to Easter Road when in charge at Hibs.

Now, having been handed a two-year deal with Stevie Crawford as his assistant, is the time to for Fox to prove himself as his own man. The head coach who is required to make the big, difficult decisions, to put himself in the firing line and take on that responsibility and pressure which comes with being the focus of fans’ grumbles and criticism while communicating strongly in the media.

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Going ‘in-house’

United spoke of Fox being “the preferred candidate after a stringent selection process” involving interviews with chairman Mark Ogren, sporting director Tony Asghar and the rest of the board. Taking the temperature of fans, it is an appointment that was expected but also one which has underwhelmed, as is often the case when club's go ‘in-house’.

He will be viewed as the ‘cheap option’, with United having to pay off Ross for his ill-fated short spell, while the club invested heavily in the transfer window despite the most recent accounts for the year ending June 2021 revealing the club’s wages-to-turnover ratio had risen to 132 per cent. Ogren has said there is a long-term plan to make the club self-sufficient.

Theee are always the suspicious views held by those on the outside looking in when a coach is promoted to managerial role. Yet United are not the only club to tread this path. In an ideal world that’s how club's should perhaps operate, a conveyor belt of coaching talent who understand the club.

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Liam Fox is the new permanent Dundee United boss. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

It doesn’t take long to unearth positive examples. United fans only have to remember Tam Courts. Stevie Hammell has, in a short space of time, made Motherwell an attractive team to watch. Go back to 2014 and then reserve coach Robbie Neilson took over at Hearts following relegation.

Supporters will look to Fox’s ill-fated spell at Cowdenbeath and query the appointment. With the Blue Brazil tumbling down the leagues it was perhaps too early for him and, more than anything, that experience should stand him in good stead.

The Big Job

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What is clear is Fox has a big job on his hands, starting with a home clash with St Johnstone a week on Saturday, both on the field and off of it. You only need to look at the Premiership table to work that out. They sit rock bottom.

Fox takes over from Jack Ross, who he assisted before his departure last month.

Scratch below the surface and it actually makes for really grim reading. Two measly points. No team has scored fewer goals. United have the lowest xG figure of 4.5 from their seven games and second worst conversion rate (3.4 per cent). They have conceded eight goals more than any other team with Mark Birighitti and Carljohan Eriksson averaging 4.3 saves per match, more than any other team. As for winning the ball back in the final third, no one does it less.

When the club were signing Steven Fletcher, Dylan Levitt and Jamie McGrath, plus two Australian internationals, there were plenty of approving nods. Looking at Dundee United so far, however, and it is a squad made up of good – some very – players but not a good team.

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There are or have been problems in each area of the pitch, starting from the inconsistency of goalkeeping, although Eriksson is proving himself to be worthy of the No 1 spot. The defence has issues in a back three and four. With the former, all of Charlie Mulgrew, Ryan Edwards and Ross Graham are best suited to the central position. None are at their most comfortable as RCB and LCB because it requires becoming a full-back, moving into wide areas to support the wing-back. However, a glaring lack of defensive midfielder means there is no one capable of protecting a back four.

The back four was the preference of Ross but the balance was never quite right. That can be seen in midfield. At his disposal, Fox has a number of very good options. Dylan Levitt, McGrath, Ian Harkes and Craig Sibbald all share similarities, whether in possession or out of it. There is no creative attacking midfielder, nor is there that midfield destroyer in the mould of Calum Butcher, who left United last month.

Dundee United recruited heavily in the summer but are bottom of the cinch Premiership with just two points.

As for the final third. Fletcher is a brilliant focal point but Tony Watt hasn't found the form of last season and there is no one who offers pace and a threat in behind. Someone to stretch the opposition.

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Improvements

It is no surprise that in the short term, Fox has gone back to the tired and trusted back five which got success under Courts last season. Although not perfect, it is one arguably best suited to the squad and there have been improvements in both results and performances.

Fox’s task in the medium term is to evolve that. To cultivate a balanced line-up which is more progressive and entertaining than it was under Micky Mellon and Courts.

The new manager should have little issue getting buy-in from the playing squad having played that conduit role between players and management. Which prompts another intriguing element. How he handles that relationship when those big and difficult decisions emerge, whether it is with team selection or in the transfer window.

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United handing such a big job to such an inexperienced manager with the club bottom of the league is a risk, which makes the appointment of such a well-regarded coach all the more fascinating.

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