When Peter Houston announced he was to step down as manager of Dundee United with immediate effect on Monday, it was inevitable that Partick Thistle’s Jackie McNamara would be amongst the favourites to succeed him. The whole affair was conducted briskly and without fuss – United approached McNamara and his assistant Simon Donnelly the next day; the pair resigned from Thistle on the Wednesday; and they were announced as United’s new management team within the hour. The speed of the appointment blindsided many (despite a delayed press conference seemingly due to the need to formally submit letters of resignation).
It was a sensible move by the Dundee United board and, from the shortlist, McNamara was the only credible candidate for the position. Beyond the bluster and braggadocio, Steven Pressley is not a very good football manager; Ray McKinnon will certainly move onto bigger things than Brechin City but is too inexperienced for the SPL at the moment; and Billy Dodds has never truly recovered after being mercilessly lampooned as a gurning man-child in The Real Leigh Griffiths Blog.
McNamara has been questioned in some quarters over his decision to defect from Partick Thistle at this juncture. The Jags are locked in a fascinating contest for the First Division championship and he has assembled their most talented squad in recent years – some may wonder why he hasn’t finished what he started. In truth, no one should begrudge McNamara’s move to Dundee United. Relatively speaking, they are one of the biggest clubs in Scotland, perennial fixtures in the top half of the table in recent years, who enjoy the occasional piece of major silverware and the odd foray into Europe. People like Craig Levein have benefitted from the rewards a successful spell at Tannadice can yield. Indeed, for McNamara to further his career, it is a good move – had he waited until the summer to reassess his stock, the same opportunities might not have been available to him.
This is the nature of the food chain, particularly at its lower end. Supporters of SFL clubs often complain their teams are never given the recognition they feel they deserve, yet as soon as a player or manager begins to attract the attention of the mainstream media, they are usually gobbled up by a bigger club. Such is life.
But what of Partick Thistle? What now? On Wednesday evening, the sense of abandonment was palpable. Not only had McNamara and Donnelly absconded but David Rowson announced the termination of his contract. The 36-year-old midfielder – a hugely popular player amongst the Firhill support – was frustrated by a lack of game time, saying he was “not a great spectator” (he has since joined Stenhousemuir on a permanent basis). A quick glance through Twitter suggested the majority of the support were troubled by the upheaval.
For the immediate future at least, the club have been placed in the care of Alan Archibald and his assistant Scott Paterson (both of whom, in an ironic twist, left Thistle for Dundee United themselves earlier in their careers). Archibald certainly ticks all the right boxes. A well-regarded player by both his teammates and the support, his promotion is in keeping with the current trend of appointing young managers for relative inexpense.
Perhaps more importantly, Archibald will ensure a continuation of Thistle’s nuanced style of play and avoid any disruption to the first team squad. Having spent the last two years coaching the club’s youth players, he has also bought into McNamara’s philosophy (all managers must have a philosophy these days) and will surely continue with the often difficult to notate 4-2-3-1 hybrid used to good effect thus far. Archibald’s promotion is a case of evolution, not revolution.
His appointment is not without risks, however, and one cannot help but feel that Archibald is being parachuted into a role he is ill-equipped for, even on an interim basis. Greenock Morton, Thistle’s main rivals for the title, are managed by a coach who has won promotion from the Third and Second Division with Stirling Albion. In players like Martin Hardie and Colin McMenamin, Allan Moore can rely on hardened, experienced professionals to drag the club through matches. Other than Hugh Murray and Steven Craig, Archibald is taking charge of a relatively callow group of players.
Over the last couple of seasons, novice managers have generally been low-risk appointments and have only taken charge of clubs where there is little to lose. For example, Ian Murray was appointed at Dumbarton where preparations were already being made for a return to the Second Division – that he has managed to keep the club competitive has been nothing short of a small miracle. Other managerial appointments in a similar mould – Paul Sheerin at Arbroth and Paul Hartley at Alloa Athletic – were given their roles in the aftermath of relegation. Archibald finds himself in a unique position, and it is perhaps little surprise that Gus Macpherson has been linked with the role.
Regardless of what division Thistle are competing in next season, there is also a worry that their talented squad will be picked apart in the summer. A number of players are out of contract in June including the mercurial Chris Erskine and Stephen O’Donnell (who was recently called up to the Scotland U-21 squad) and with SPL clubs having taken note of their performances over the season, they are likely to move on.
Thistle’s next three matches could shape the rest of the campaign. The club have struggled to perform away from home all season (they have failed to win any of their last seven league matches on the road) and Archibald must correct his side’s recent travails. He now leads his team into games against Cowdenbeath and Raith Rovers before a seismic encounter with Morton. Should Partick Thistle prevail in these tests and secure the First Division title, these concerns will be briefly forgotten.
However, with the recent turmoil at the club – and the inevitable upheaval in the summer – there is a definite sea change at Partick Thistle. A brief but bright era is drawing to a close.