Judging all 35 of Jackie McNamara’s Dundee United signings

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Today brought with it news of potential legal action from Jackie McNamara against Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson.

Today brought with it news of potential legal action from Jackie McNamara against Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson.

Feeling the pressure from the club’s supporters, Thompson made some remarks in the press criticising the former manager’s signing policy in the last close season.

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Before we get any further, any legal action would not simply revolve around McNamara suing Thompson for claiming he made poor signings, that would be ridiculous. The basis is that Thompson broke a confidentiality clause put in place when McNamara left. And since I know nothing of the details of said clause, there’s nothing more to say on that matter at this moment in time.

However, while it may come to light that Thompson shouldn’t have passed judgement on United’s summer recruitment, there’s nothing in the law to say that I can’t.

In McNamara’s final months at Tannadice, there existed a narrative that he was faced with a thankless task. After the sale of Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong and then Nadir Ciftci, it was impossible to keep Dundee United competitive.

It was an argument I even supported from February to the summer (after the sale of GMS and Armstrong), since he was left with little time to replenish the squad, but the excuse started to wear thin when this campaign started.

Every team in Scotland has to restock most summers. Remember three years ago when Motherwell lost Michael Higdon, Nicky Law, Darren Randolph and Henrik Ojamaa all in a single transfer window? Those were four of the five best players Motherwell had at the time. What happened the following season? Motherwell finished second.

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To give a more recent example. Compare Inverness CT and Dundee United from a year ago to where they are now. Both sides were battling for a top three finish at the time and since that time Inverness have actually lost just as many important first-team players as United. Graeme Shinnie, Marley Watkins, Billy Mckay (now at United, ironically enough) and now Ryan Christie.

There’s been a drop off from Inverness. That was to be expected, but they are not automatic relegation candidates. They are barely even relegation candidates at all having gotten over a slow start to the season to push themselves into the top six.

That’s because John Hughes, while having few stinkers himself, has replaced quality with quality. Not to the same talent level, mind, but good enough to compete in the Scottish top flight.

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United didn’t do that in the summer and, baring a couple of notable exceptions, they didn’t do it well enough throughout his reign. Here are the full 35 signings, separated in handy sections.


Nadir Çiftçi, Andrew Robertson

McNamara made his name through these two deals. Fair play, they are both excellent. Ciftci was a former squad player with Portsmouth and Robertson came straight from part-time football. And yet they were both absolute stand-outs, both earning the club a heathy profit at the end.


Chris Erskine, Jarosław Fojut, Billy Mckay, Paul Paton

Billy Mckay has undoubtedly improved the team this season, even if he hasn’t managed to improve results.

Erskine and Paton arrived from Partick Thistle together. One had a strong first season, the other had a strong second season. In fact, I’ll admit it’s generous to include both of them in this section.

Fojut may have only stuck around one year before deciding he’d rather be anywhere but Dundee, though he was a solid acquisition across that stretch.


Mark Wilson, Rory Boulding

Wilson was brought in to fill back up roles at both full back positions and add experience to a young side. He didn’t do all that much on the park, but then they may not have been expected to.

Boulding only scored once in a short-term spell. However, McNamara only brought him in as emergency cover following an injury to Johnny Russell, and that one goal ended up being the strike which catapulted the side into the top six at the expense of opponents Aberdeen and his former club Kilmarnock, where Boulding started the season before his release. He was allowed to leave the following summer with no fuss and therefore could be qualified a success, mainly for that story alone.


Aidan Connolly, Charlie Telfer, Blair Spittal, Justin Johnson, Coll Donaldson, Simon Murray

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All young boys, all still at the club and have all showed flashes of promise. If United can get some standout experienced players around them, we may see these boys start to flourish, especially Connolly and Spittal.

But this was a huge part of the problem with McNamara’s recruitment. Spittal and Connolly, especially, clearly have ability. The trouble was they relied on these younger players to carry the burden and their play suffered as a result. There needs to be a healthy mix of talents older players in any squad.


Paul Dixon, Ryan McGowan, Callum Morris

This threesome haven’t lived up to expectations thus far but there is still time.

McGowan looked good after initially signing but has been dragged down by the paucity of talent in the side, while Dixon has started to find his feet after a rough initial six months.

Morris could be a hit if he stays fit.


Brian Graham, David Goodwillie, Calum Butcher, Marcus Törnstrand, Kudus Oyenuga, Morgaro Gomis, Farid El Alagui, Mario Bilate, Conor Townsend, Michał Szromnik, Rodney Sneijder, Adam Taggart, Mark Durnan, Luis Zwick

Townsend showed promise but spent a bit of time out through injury. The same goes for Butcher who was a bit of a horror show at centre back but proved himself to be a capable holding midfielder.

Bilate took injury-proneness to new and disturbing levels. Graham and El Alagui each took turns underachieving up front before leaving and looking much better at other clubs. While the David Goodwillie loan deal looked a sure-fire hit until it was discovered he’d forgotten how to score.

The less said about the recent signings the better. Durnan is starting to turn things around, but if the defender offered to return from whence he came there would have been a queue as big as Tannadice street of United fans offering to drive him to Palmerston.

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Sneijder is a bit of a hard luck story since he was, supposedly, a good player before illness struck him down and he returned to the Netherlands.


Henri Anier, Robbie Muirhead, Darko Bodul, Aaron Kuhl

Muirhead could, and probably will, go onto be a good signing for Dundee United, but for McNamara he proved to be a disaster mainly due to manager’s own actions. He pays money for the young attacker, barely plays him and then sends him out on loan to a team who (at this moment in time) are 11 points clear of United in the relegation battle.

Anier recently shook off a long injury and looked sharp in a couple of cameo appearances off the Easter Road bench. It would be typical of United’s fortunes if he went onto star at Hibs after being such a disaster at Tannadice. It was a signing that never made much sense. Anier, from his Motherwell days, always looked stronger in a two-man strike-force, and yet McNamara signed him to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1.


Things were difficult for McNamara at United, there’s no doubt about that. He helped construct and develop one of the most entertaining young squads that I think I’ll ever lay my eyes on, and that team was dismantled as the offers flooded in. That’s got to be disheartening for any manager, regardless of any compensation you’re getting from the sale of these players.

But there are so many other stories like this in Scottish football over the last 20 years, some of which have seen even greater hardships as players have been allowed to leave for nothing.

It even happened at United previously when the Scottish Cup winning team, including Craig Conway, Scott Robertson, Morgaro Gomis, Danny Swanson, Prince Buaben, David Goodwillie and Johnny Russell. Most of them all left the club in 2011, while Goodwillie went the following summer and Russell a year after that. The difference was that the replacements were of a higher standard than those signed across the last three summer transfer windows.

That’s the heart of the problem. You can have a bad summer in the transfer department and save your job, but you need to get it right more than you get it wrong the rest of the time.