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Houston, we have no problem

He was once the quiet man of Dundee United, but with European football secured for next season, caretaker boss Peter Houston now finally seems comfortable in the Tannadice limelight.

Houston has in recent weeks adopted a more liberated approach after convincing club chiefs and maybe himself that he is the ideal candidate to succeed Craig Levein.

The 51-year-old was at first quick to rule himself out of the race to take charge of the Arabs back in December. That was after Levein couldn't resist the opportunity to manage the Scotland national team and was officially named George Burley's successor two days before Christmas.

A humiliating 7-1 defeat away to Rangers at Ibrox in Houston's second match in the firing line did little to bolster his credentials. In the wake of that result he again stated he wasn't interested in taking on the job on a full-time basis.

United sparked into action and even launched an unsuccessful bid to lure Bohemians boss Pat Fenlon across the Irish Sea in the aftermath of Levein's departure.

Many pundits believed the loss of Levein and a failure to appoint a quick replacement would have a hugely detrimental effect on the club. But fast forward five fantastic months for United and things look totally different in the Tangerine half of the City of Discovery.

Their remarkable recent rise includes a return to European football following a five-year exile, with their last appearance coming when they crashed out at the hands of Finnish side MyPa-47 in 2005.

United sealed their welcome return to the big time, in the Europa League, thanks to last weekend's dramatic 3-2 victory away to Motherwell, a result that also further strengthens their grip on third spot in the SPL. That significant victory, which extended their run to 11 games unbeaten, even prompted Houston to joke he would punch chairman Stephen Thomson if he wasn't offered the post on a permanent basis.

And who could argue with him, especially as the club have a Scottish Cup final to look forward to against Highland heroes Ross County at Hampden on May 15?

Maybe it has just taken Houston a little bit of time after stepping out of Levein's considerable shadow to adjust to life in the fast lane, although he does have highly-experienced coach and United legend Paul Hegarty as his right-hand man.

However, despite the undoubted success, United powerbroker Thomson is refusing to discuss the managerial situation in any great detail until after the cup final.

"I honestly didn't expect things to go as well as they have," Thompson said. "We all felt Craig Levein leaving was a big blow but we've moved on from that. Peter has taken things on and I'm delighted with how things have worked out. We've both agreed we'll sit down after the cup final and talk about things then.

"We get on well. The most crucial relationship at any football club is between the chairman and the manager and Peter and I have got to know each other. He knows I don't interfere and I like to think he knows all I want is what is the best for the club."

Thomson might be playing his cards close to his chest, but you would be mad to bet against Houston securing the job on a permanent basis.

If Houston still feels he needs to prove himself there is still plenty left for United to play for in the league. They trail second-placed Celtic by seven points and if they could split the Old Firm it would certainly herald Houston's arrival as full-time manager.

They could cut the gap to just four points when they play host to the Bhoys on Sunday in what is going to be a crucial fixture for Hoops interim boss Neil Lennon.

United fans might not accept it, but success can come at a price, and a heavy one at that, with some of their star players already attracting attention from so called bigger clubs. Craig Conway, who scored against Motherwell last weekend, has impressed with his displays on the flanks and his value has risen in similar terms to that of his temporary boss.

Houston, if he is handed the job on a full-time basis, will be keen to retain Conway and his other star acts, although there is no way he will be allowed to keep captain Andy Webster who has been on loan from Rangers.

It seems the time is right in Houston's career to stand on his own two feet after serving his apprenticeship as a coach at Falkirk, Hearts, Leicester City and of course at United.

Houston will be looking to the future with real optimism now that he has started to prove himself in his own right at Tannadice, and he can be proud of his achievements when you consider United were rock bottom of the SPL when Levein asked Houston to join him at the club three-and-a-half years ago.

Furthermore, with the club's finances set to be boosted by the successful cup run, not to mention the cash they will generate from their European adventure, Houston could well be armed with a decent transfer kitty if he does get the job.

Maybe in the future, United's biggest problem won't just be fending off clubs chasing their players, but also holding on to Houston.


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