It is an easy one to answer isn’t it? Everything. I sat for some of last Sunday afternoon wanting to do a post like this but decided against it because it might take forever to write. After giving up I happened to put a post up on Twitter that night explaining that I had been told that the club are trying to re-negotiate their lease on the St.Andrews training complex. I mentioned in the tweet that for me, personally, the facility over in Fife is “part of the problem”. I got quite a strong response to that suggestion and much of it negative. Looking back I probably didn’t word the tweet very well but what I was trying to put across was the idea that our training complex has taken the entire footballing operation over to Fife and that it may have impacted on the identity that the club has maybe lost over the last few seasons. I don’t think it is THE problem at the club and it isn’t even in the top five or six but I do feel as though it hasn’t been the fantastic success that the club would have hoped it to be.
This gets me on to the main reason for writing this piece. I am motivated to write it because although my training ground view went down like a lead balloon I am keen to look at questions like – What are the main problems at United as things stand? What are the issues that have contributed to the club reaching this point? What happens next? It is the lowest I have felt as a fan in my time supporting the club (ironically that was in 1995 when we were in the first Division). We are at a tipping point in terms of the future of Dundee United. If we remain in the Championship for another year, and it is looking likely, then what happens next? With mounting debt and no sense of direction the club is like a rudderless ship at the moment and one that is in real danger. There is no divine right for United to be a top force in Scottish football despite our recent history. Realistically we cannot compete financially with at least five other clubs in Scotland, but we do expect a well-run, strongly-led and stable club to support.
It would be easy to rant about almost everything at Tannadice so I think it best to split the issues in to four or five sections to make them more manageable. So, here goes nothing…
Amongst the negativity Csaba Laszlo, in my view, is probably one of the few who at the moment gets a bit of a ‘free pass’. His brief stint as manager hasn’t exactly been successful but the core problems at Dundee United don’t really relate to the manager. The results since Christmas have been really poor but to be fair to Laszlo he has inherited an unbalanced team that has been badly hampered by injuries. Poor recruitment along with a threadbare squad means that Laszlo has little to work with. All of this is also not helped when you have a group of players that seem to have no mental toughness and fold easily under any sort of pressure. Csaba is clearly a passionate and dedicated manager but do his players have the determination to respond to his demands? At the moment it doesn’t look like it. Laszlo isn’t totally blameless, he has recently made some very poor judgments and his team selections recently have been a bit odd. Overall though, when you look at the bigger picture he is not the root of any real problem that lies within Tannadice. Is he the man to guide us back to the Premiership? At the moment it looks highly unlikely but his current contract lasts for another year (and he is apparently committed to the job) so it is more than likely we will see him at the helm for the foreseeable future.
A great deal was made of Darren Taylor’s appointment last year as ‘Head of Football Operations’. It is a big part of his job to identify and seek out new players for the squad. He spends a huge amount of time out on the road, on phone calls and working with agents to try to secure players for Dundee United. A club that operates at a full-time level needs to have someone like this at the club but for me the player recruitment since he arrived has been pretty abysmal overall. This is no more evident than during key transfer windows in each of the Januarys in which Taylor has been in post. Last year’s full list of incoming transfers looked like this – Stewart Murdoch, Cammy Bell, Brett Long, Lewis Toshney, Tope Obadeyi, Cammy Smith, Willo Flood, Nick van der Velden, Tony Andreu, William Edjenguele, Frank van der Struijk, Thomas Mikkelsen and Alex Nicholls. It doesn’t make for great reading. As for this year? James Keatings, Billy King, Tam Scobbie, Paul McMullan, Patrick N’Koyi, Deniz Mehmet, Sam Stanton, Harry Lewis, Scott McDonald, Fraser Fyvie, Paul Quinn, Craig Slater, Brandon Mason, Emil Lyng, Idris Kaddid and Logan Martin. Now to be fair there are names on these lists that on paper look like decent enough signings but those names are also the names of people who are on loan, on short-term deals or, in some cases, they are players edging towards the end of their career.
These types of signings have shown that they are not what is needed to win a title and for the most part they are all short-sighted (only a very few have two-year deals). The recruitment at Dundee United has to be questioned. When you see other teams do a lot more with a lot less you have to wonder why it is that we have managed to get things so wrong. There is no expectation that every signing a club makes must turn out to be a quality addition but our ‘hit rate’ is incredibly low and gives off the impression of desperation rather than proper planning and attention.
This is a big one so make yourself comfortable. First of all I think it is important to acknowledge some of the good, yes, good that the board achieved many moons ago. It may seem like a distant memory but there once was a period of time where things were bubbling along quite nicely at Tannadice. To go back to that time it is important to acknowledge that Stephen Thompson’s dad Eddie was rightly seen as a bit of a hero amongst fans. He brought much-needed passion and commitment to the role of Chairman and he invested huge sums of money into the plan for bringing success to United. He wore his heart on his sleeve, adored the club and brought fans together in way that we all loved. As we know not all of his decisions worked and as a result the club built up huge levels of debt. The big turning point under Eddie’s reign was the appointment of Craig Levein. In my opinion Craig Levein is one of the best things to have happened to United in the last 20 years and it was under his guidance that the club became stable and had a vision for the future. When Stephen took control after his father’s passing he worked with Levein in coming up with a plan to reduce the club’s debt and make United a functioning and sustainable business. It is during this 2008-2014 period that we all thought that things were progressing reasonably well. We had a few years of great success on the pitch and it also helped that we had a seemingly never-ending supply chain of sellable assets.
Despite much of this positivity there is a significant date for when things started to fall apart for Thompson and the board. On the 1st of February 2015 both Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven joined Celtic. These transfers came after Stephen Thompson quite publicly talked about United not having to sell and came a year after United had announced that all bank debt had been cleared due to transfer income and the taking of loans from private individuals. The club had made noises about the clearing of debt removing the need for player sales and the fans bought into the idea of this now being a new dawn for the club and one full of hope. In 2015 Thompson said – ”It is a big deal for the club. It puts us in a strong position when it comes to keeping players in transfer windows. We won’t need to sell at any price and I just think we are in control of our own destiny now. I said from the outset that I wanted to leave this club debt-free. That was my ambition. It looks like it could be happening a lot quicker than even I thought.” It was here when Thompson began to alienate the club’s fans.
It was also at this time when things became incredibly complicated at board level. I am not a financial expert but money started to leave the club and the destination of it was less than clear. Dundee United had accumulated a vast sum from transfer income and yet much of it was being used to service things like Director’s loans (there is much more detail on this here). Whilst money and football will always be complicated the overall picture has been incredibly unclear for some time now and it is getting to the stage where things are in serious danger of total collapse. At the moment Stephen Thompson is the absolute majority shareholder and the club have no assets having secured loans against every piece of property in and around Tannadice. These loans are to individuals who the board consider to be ‘fans’ and they are loans that have a degree of flexibility but they do need to be paid back. Now that all the player assets have been sold there is nothing left of any real value at the club and it is safe to say that Stephen Thompson and the board are failing at their jobs.
It is unrealistic to expect Directors to continuously bankroll a football club but they should be able to have a functioning business model and make good footballing decisions. Cashflow is at an all time low and will continue to be reduced if, and when, the club remains in the Championship next season (the shortfall is around £1.5million per year in revenue). This also does not take into account the fact that fans are now beginning to turn their back on the one big pile of money that all clubs rely on; season tickets. Things cannot continue like this. Our once media friendly Chairman is now very rarely heard from and although there have been some efforts to communicate with fans by other board members (most recently with newly appointed Jimmy Fyffe) it all seems like too little too late. There must be a change at Tannadice and it must come soon. Unfortunately there does not seem to be an easy solution. There is no money out there and there are no individuals to pin hopes on (but more on that later).
I will fully admit that, up until a few months before we were relegated in 2016, I thought Stephen Thompson’s biggest fault was his inability to employ a good manager. Now, looking back, that was a mistake. There are dozens, upon dozens of accusations and questions aimed at the Chairman (for example, the unknown purpose of ‘United FC Group Ltd’ formed by Thompson fellow Director Mike Martin in 2015) but he is not willing to answer to anyone. Having an unresponsive and uncommunicative chairman is a terrible thing for a football club as it leaves fans in the dark over what happens next. It has also been made public this week that Mike Martin has purchased all of Justine Mitchell’s shares, taking the Thompson/Martin shareholdings up to 85%. This kind of ‘ownership’ is completely wrong in my opinion and that is where the fans come in…
The most important element in all of this is us, the fans. We are the victims. Many of us spend our time and money following Dundee United and for most this club is a significant part of our lives. We have seen the decline in Dundee United over the past three years but it has not happened naturally. Most level-headed fans expect their side to go through good times and bad times but this current situation has been brought on through bad leadership, terrible managerial appointments and poor recruitment. It has also led us to financial uncertainty. At the moment the collective view of the United support is difficult to judge because many of the fan groups seems to be pulling in different directions. This has to stop. Two of the bigger players in recent months have been ‘Fans United’ and the Dundee United Supporters Foundation. We also have the ‘Fed’ (Federation of Dundee United Supporters’ Clubs), ArabTrust and the newly formed Supporters Liaison Group (organised via the club itself). On the face of things all of these groups want the same thing, they all want what is best for Dundee United. Unfortunately at times it seems as though they all disagree about the way to bring about change and this is where we are running into problems. By now you would assume that a substantial percentage of fans want some kind of change. Bringing about that change is the hard part.
Personally I fully support the idea of part-fan ownership. I pay my monthly fee to the DUSF and I truly believe a model like this can work. When you look at other clubs who have managed to successfully run this type of investment you have a reliable and consistent revenue stream and fans get a bigger voice. Unfortunately the DUSF have not had the uptake they were looking for and the numbers are very low. This means, at present, they do not have enough cash to make any significant move. We also have no figurehead to pin our hopes on. There are no individuals, that we know of, who may be keen on buying Dundee United. This is where many fans are fearful as a step into the unknown is daunting. Back in the pre-Thompson era we at least had a diehard United fan and local businessman who fans could rally around and press froward with. I remember being in the stand at a Scottish Cup tie away in Ayr and Eddie Thompson, who was not in control at the time, was standing in front of me and it was quite exciting to see the person who wanted to buy my club and give us all a bit of hope. We don’t have that right now.
This leaves us in a difficult position. What do we, as fans, actually do in the current situation? The options discussed by Fans United are much more proactive and would potentially result in protests and boycotts. The DUSF are much more passive and would prefer a cash based plan but this needs time and a huge effort from fans. The reality is we are now stuck in limbo and maybe a mixture of these two ideals might be the best way forward. Nothing of note seems to be on the horizon and in terms of the club it will be May before our immediate future is decided given we will know what league we will be in next season. Until then it looks like being an incredibly difficult and awkward few months. Things need to change and we need to be able to have faith in the board again. That will not happen as long as Stephen Thompson and Mike Martin are here. The atmosphere is not good at Tannadice and the fans are suffering. What does Dundee United look like as a club a year from now? In all my time as a fan this is the first time I can honestly say that nobody has the faintest idea.
I have spent much of the last year preparing for the birth of my first child. Our 13 week old son already has multiple United tops, teddies and decorations in his room. What worries me about the next few years is that as my son becomes aware of football and aware of Dundee United I don’t really know what I will tell him about this period in the club’s history. I also don’t really know for certain what kind of club he will grow up to support. So, what happens next?