Despite fears of supporter abuse, Stephen Thompson will take his usual seat in the directors’ box at Tannadice today following one of the most turbulent weeks of his reign at Dundee United – and in the club’s recent history.
A chairman hasn’t packed such a punch at Tannadice since Jim McLean tried to floor a reporter midway through a television interview just over 15 years ago. Hearts were the visitors that day, just as they are this afternoon as United seek to find a response to a hard-hitting statement that described many of their on-field performances this season as “abysmal” and “miserable”.
Thompson challenged the players to “redeem their professional reputations” in the 13 league games they have left, starting today. While Mixu Paatelainen was not mentioned by name, the manager interpreted the statement as being implied criticisms of his own short reign.
“Absolutely,” he said yesterday. United have won only twice in the league since the Finn replaced Jackie McNamara in October. They have taken just nine points from a possible 45. Paatelainen admitted it has taken longer than expected to “turn the ship”. The reasons for that, he added perhaps pointedly, will be kept “in house”.
But he gamely dealt with the expected barrage of questions dealing with such a strong statement from Thompson. It was the first time anyone from the club has spoken in public since the players were so publicly lambasted.
“As far as I’m concerned we [the coaching staff] are in the same boat as the players,” said Paatelainen. “We work together. The coaching staff, the players, myself, we are together.”
It is understood Thompson has no regrets about his statement, issued the day after Tuesday’s 3-0 home defeat to Motherwell. The result left United 13 points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership.
Judging by the comments from experienced midfielder John Rankin yesterday, it seems one player at least agrees with Thompson. With startling candour, Rankin admitted players need to stop “downing tools” when things go against them. He also said none of the playing staff “could argue” with the chairman’s assessment.
“There will be players in there that will wholly admit that things are not going their way and, when it is that way, they will down tools,” said Rankin. “That’s just human nature.
“We need strength of character, people that are going to stand up and fight. We need every player giving 100 per cent. Letting your head drop is not acceptable. When we go a goal down or two goals down, we need to keep fighting until the final whistle.
“You try and grab players by the scruff of the neck, of course you notice that happens in football. Heads do go down. In our mindset we are giving 100 per cent but more often than not we are suffering from a set-piece, and somebody’s head goes down and you are maybe not 100 per cent focused because you are trying to drag someone else with you.
“Our minds are going elsewhere and maybe our performances are not 100 per cent because boys are worried about things that are going on,” he added. “Because it’s affecting us all, this will affect livelihoods.”
On the subject of whether the players felt let down by such strong criticism from within the club, Rankin added: “The chairman’s entitled to his opinion, he owns the club. I don’t have a problem with one man’s opinion. I don’t think anyone could argue with what he said.”
Paatelainen also backed the chairman’s right to issue such a statement, though it has clearly stung him. “Obviously the chairman is the head of the club and is totally entitled to say whatever he wants, make a statement whenever he wants,” he said. “He mentioned to me that he was going to put out a statement. I didn’t know exactly the wording of the statement.”
Scrutiny will continue to fall on Tannadice in the coming days, whatever the result against Robbie Neilson’s side. The club’s annual accounts are due to be released at the beginning of next week.