Making a third managerial appointment in three years is never a good sign at any football club. It is rarely down to managers moving on because of doing well. Rather, it is most commonly the result of modern football’s impatience, poor results and often, off-field issues.
In the case of Dundee United and the now confirmed departure of Ray McKinnon, it sends signals of a club that has suffered decline in the past three years and needs to find that magic bullet to halt the decline, reverse it and bring some positivity back. Easier said than done.
The sale of star players Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven to Celtic in the January window of 2015 are held up as a watershed moment in this decline. A schism in the relationship between supporters and the hierarchy at Tannadice. Most notably in the relationship between supporters and chairman and majority shareholder Stephen Thompson.
A poor start to the 2015/16 season saw manager Jackie McNamara dismissed after his efforts to replace the talent he had lost were failing. Former player Mixu Paatelainen took the hot-seat two years ago this month in October 2015. However, the former Finland national team coach could not address the slide despite recruiting a number of players. The protracted work permit saga involving Japanese international Eiji Kawashima proving something of a totem for Dundee United’s doomed efforts to keep Premiership status.
In the end it failed and Paatelainen left months into a three-year contract.
The appointment of another former player in Ray McKinnon was supposed to “take on the task of rebuilding the club”. However, it will now no longer be McKinnon that will undertake that rebuild. And it would appear to be a rebuild that perhaps never really scratched the surface of what the Tannadice club require to address their on and off the field issues.
Dundee United is still a big club in terms of size, turnover, budget, support and any of the usual measuring sticks used in football. However, only one thing truly matters in football and it is how you do on the park. It is results.
However, putting results on the park is not as simple a process as simply hiring the right manager and players. Although they are by far the biggest factors. And they are factors that are easier said than done.
For Dundee United there still remains a disconnect between club and fans. A mistrust in club management. A concern at the club’s direction and the plans for progress. These have been, and continue to be, raised regularly among the support. While these issue rumble on the pure joy of football diminishes further. Not that two years in the Championship do much to give Dundee United fans joy.
The disconnect between the club in a ‘heart of the community’ sense and even between the fans and the players on the park must also be of concern.
There seems a lack of the talismanic or even cult figures among the players. That is not a criticism of them per se. Rather a sign that with stuttering results and performances there has not been the opportunity or ability to build rapport with supporters in a way that a Nadir Ciftci was able to do with his personality and combative style.
In the modern game a footballing generation seems to disappear in the blink of an eye.
So long ago now it must feel (now three managers ago) since Dundee United were competing for top domestic cup silverware. However, not long enough ago for fans to have forgotten and not compare. And rightly so. It merely amplifies the decline.
For Dundee United, this next appointment could prove to be the managerial appointment that will decide the club’s path for years to come. Perhaps even into the next decade and beyond.
Get it right with not just promotion but crucial survival in the top flight and the club will be in a less financially uncomfortable place. An opportunity to reinvigorate the club and bring the fans closer.
Get it wrong and the blip of a one or two season stay in the second tier at most could drag on with no recourse but to slim the club in size and ambition as the finances dictate. Project Brave ambitions may have to wait. Potentially surrendering ground on the best of the local youth talent to rivals Dundee.
It feels that this managerial appointment could prove one of the most important for Dundee United since they appointed a 34-year-old coach from rivals Dundee in 1971.
For Dundee United, the stakes are incredibly high and the margins for error are slim.