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Aug 26, 2010

Houston, we have a problem

Peter Houston could almost have been forgiven for thinking some bosses overcomplicate the management game. Granted he suffered a few early blips when he originally succeeded Craig Levein as interim manager at Dundee United but he recovered quickly to shine at Tannadice.

Unforgettably, for him, he suffered a morale crushing 7-1 defeat away to Rangers in just his second match at the helm. But he displayed a real resilient streak to hit back in style and immediately set about making the job look simple.

Houston's will to win was eventually rewarded with the permanent United post. He guided the Tangerines to an impressive third place finish in the Scottish Premier League and a Scottish Cup final victory over Ross County. Even new Scotland manager Levein must have been casting a jealous glance back at his former charges as they ended their 16 year wait for silverware.

However, praise has been replaced by more pressure after an indifferent start to a new season which has already been full of surprises north of the border.

The Arabs had been tipped to make the early running in challenging the Old Firm at the summit of the Scottish game. However, United have taken just one point from a possible six and that was only thanks to a last gasp equaliser from captain Jon Daly in their opening away fixture to St Mirren.

Worse was to follow in their second league fixture as they lost heavily at home to Inverness Caley just days after a first leg Europa League qualifying defeat to AEK Athens at Tannadice.

While it's far too early to even comprehend Houston's future being under threat given all he achieved last term, he'll quickly want to stop the rot especially ahead of the away trip to AEK. Maybe now that the honeymoon period is over, the real test of his managerial abilities will begin.

That AEK clash will also prove to be more troublesome than expected with the match moved from the proposed Olympic Stadium venue after the pitch was deemed unplayable. Wherever the game goes ahead Houston will demand an instant reaction particularly after criticising his men following the 4-0 reverse at the hands of the Highlanders.

"It was a disgraceful performance against Inverness. Last season is well and truly done as far as I'm concerned," he said. "I felt Inverness worked harder than us they got a break with the first goal, but they were sharper and quicker to the ball and I've got to ask questions why.

"It's something we need to get to the bottom of because I don't think we had many leaders out there.

"I felt more hunger and desire came from the Inverness team. They played well, but it is an embarrassing defeat for us to lose 4-0 on our own turf. We've got a big game coming up against AEK on Thursday and another big one away to Hearts on Sunday."

Houston's verbal volley at his players will certainly test the strength of character within the ranks of the Tannadice squad. There was little in the way of major changes during the close season at United in terms of personnel other than Andy Webster's significant departure as he returned to Rangers following a successful loan spell.

Perhaps Houston is now guilty of tinkering too much with his team as he looks for a way of injecting a fresh approach into his side to cope with the loss of the influential Webster. The 52-year-old has surprised many by opting to go with a diamond formation in midfield leaving just Daly in attack with David Goodwillie charged with the task of supporting the lone front man from the right flank.

"How do you go from a team minus one player who did so well for us last season to throwing in a performance like that against Inverness?'' Houston added. "I would say that, on the balance of that game, we need to strengthen in more places than centre half. "We were second to every ball in the middle of the park, but tell me where there are better players in the middle of the park than Prince Buaben, Morgaro Gomis, Scott Robertson and Craig Conway. Up front, we looked static with no ability."

Houston could soon be handed a further selection headache as Middlesbrough continue their dogged pursuit of Conway. His departure could further limit his attacking options. Boro boss Gordon Strachan is a huge fan of the winger, who has risen to prominence in the City of Discovery since his move from Ayr United four years ago, and is refusing to admit defeat.

Strachan has already plundered the SPL ranks for several other signings since taking over at Riverside and seems set to continue with his policy of signing players from north of the border but, regardless of Conway's future, Houston will be most concerned with getting his United team back on track to recover from a disappointing domestic start.

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