In conversation with Peter Houston

    Peter Houston has led a varied career in Scottish football spanning over four decades. A striker in his playing days, he was known best for leading the line for Falkirk where he won over the fans with his tenacious style of play. His first real role in coaching was at Hearts, working with the youths and reserve team. Houston then spent the best part of a decade working as Craig Levein’s assistant at Hearts, Leicester City and Dundee United, before becoming the manager of Dundee United in late 2009. The reason that the job was vacant was that Levein was given the Scotland job, with Houston working as his assistant here whilst continuing his work with Dundee United.

    After a rocky start with Dundee United which saw the Arabs lose 7-1 away to Rangers, he went on to win the Scottish Cup less than six months later. He guided United to European football every year that he was in charge before his departure in 2013. He took a break from management briefly to work as a scout for Celtic, before taking over the managerial vacancy at Falkirk, the club with whom he had a lot of affection for.

    Peter Houston is currently the assistant manager with Greenock Morton in the Scottish Championship, yet despite his busy schedule he has kindly taken time out of his day to discuss his career with me:

    You’ve been involved in football for over half your life, as a player, a scout, an assistant manager, a youth team manager and of course, a first team manager. Which of these roles did you enjoy most?

    “I have enjoyed every one of the roles and found each one challenging in different ways. My first real role was youth coach at Hearts whilst Dundee United legend Heggie (Paul Hegarty) was the reserve team coach. The challenge was to develop and coach the youth players and trying to get them opportunities in the first team and try teaching them good habits which will serve them well in the future. Current Dundee United manager Robbie Neilson, along with Gary Naysmith and Scott Severin were three of my youth players who went on to play for Scotland. Finally, being a manager is awesome the first time and the responsibility is huge but rewarding when results come to fruition. Overall, I have no favourite and have won youth cups with the youths, reserve leagues with the reserves and the Scottish Cup as manager, all three have made me as pleased as the other.”

    One question in and already I am impressed. Peter evidently loves working in football and is quite rightly proud of the work that he does. Given that he has spent such a large part of his life as an assistant manager, I opted to probe a little more on this aspect.

    Can you tell me a little more about the role of the assistant manager? Were you always happy to be in this role or did you find you wanted to make the jump to first team manager?

    “The assistant’s role is to help take some pressure off the manager and go along and back his decisions. You also need to have a great trust between you and the assistant MUST understand who the main man is. You discuss decisions but the final one MUST be the managers decision. The importance of the assistant manager is knowing and understanding your role. The manager is the main man and gets the praise, quite rightly, when you win and gets the stick when you lose. As soon as you think you know better then that’s the end.”

    Houston was the assistant to Craig Levein for years, so naturally, I felt inclined to ask more about their relationship.

    You spent many years as the assistant to Craig Levein, at Hearts, Leicester and Dundee United. What is it like working with Levein?

    “Craig Levein, in my opinion, was, and still is, a top boss. Very good tactically and knew the type of players who could win you matches. He received stick after his time with Scotland which I found over the top but has proved people wrong and is again showing what a good manager he is. The funny thing is, lots of teams don’t play with a main number 9 nowadays – they said it would never catch on!”

    When Levein left Dundee United to take up the Scotland role he asked you to be his assistant manager. How much did it mean to you to be able to work with your country? What were your big takeaways from this experience? Any regrets from this period?

    “I was proud to be asked by Craig Levein to assist him with the full national team and enjoyed it immensely. Football is results driven now and our results weren’t good enough and we were replaced, I totally get that. I have no regrets; just disappointment. We would have loved to have taken the team back to the Euro or World Cup competitions. We never qualified so no real highlights.”

    This is refreshingly honest from Houston. He acknowledges that results weren’t good enough for the Tartan Army during his time and is open about this. His time with Scotland certainly wasn’t the most successful period in Scotland’s history, and his spell with Dundee United also got off to a dismal start. As a Dundee United fan myself, this brought back some bitter memories, but I felt obliged to ask.

    Craig Levein was liked a lot by the Tangerine Army, how did it feel taking over from him? It was a very rough start with results going against you early on, including a very painful 7-1 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox. How did you turn this around?

    “I declared that I didn’t want the job after losing at Ibrox and in a way that actually helped me settle down and relax whilst the search for a manager took place. It helped the players as well and together we started working hard on the training ground and got the team up and running again. So much that we started playing some great football and beating loads of teams around us. The result in the Scottish Cup at Partick Thistle was the start of a wonderful time for me, the team and the supporters; ending in finishing 3rd in the league and winning the Scottish Cup at Hampden.”

    Ah, the Scottish Cup win. As a Dundee United fan, I was happy to leave the Ibrox defeat as a painful memory and move on to the cup run. As context to those who aren’t savvy with the 2010 Scottish Cup run, Dundee United secured their first win in of the competition when Argentine striker Damian Casalinouvo used his hand to put the ball in the back of the net!

    The road to the final was certainly bumpy. When you think of “The Hand of God”, honestly, who do you think of first? Diego Maradona or Damian Casalinuovo?

    “Damian’s goal was a slice of luck; however, we then went on to win away at St Johnstone, then to Ibrox then our first game in the cup at Tannadice was a replay against the ‘then’ champions before avoiding Celtic in the semi final and beating Raith Rovers. Our luck continued when Ross County knocked out Celtic and gave us an easier route to winning the cup.”

    The cup match game against Rangers at Ibrox: there were some contentious refereeing decisions that day. What were your memories of that day? How pleased were you with the fight back from United that day?

    “We looked down and out when we went 3 1 down to Gers at Ibrox, conceding two penalties. Shocker! However, the team had no fear and kept plugging away to get the replay late on with a Kovacevic header.”

    The replay at Tannadice under the lights – one of my favourite games at Tannadice, though it was a tight and hard-fought game. What went through your head when David Robertson put the ball in the net with his backside?

    “The best time to score against the champions at Tannadice that night was in the 90th minute when ‘treble buster’ (David) Robertson scored the goal with his arse! A magical night for everyone and great scenes at the end for all people United.”

    The big one – the final itself. What are your memories of the game?

    “The final was the last game of a terrific season where the team grew after Craig Levein leaving. It would have been easy for the players to down tools, but we worked hard together and they got a lot of confidence in themselves by playing, scoring and winning games. Some players like Conway, Goodwillie and Swanson really hit top form aided by the rest of the boys.”

    Danny Swanson and David Goodwillie. Terrific players who certainly seemed to enjoy the celebrations. What were they like to manage?

    “Swanson and Goodwillie were brilliant for me and frankly a joy to manage. Yes, I had to have some quiet words with them on occasions but on the whole they were fine.”

    The cup win was incredible for the team. While it was fantastic to watch as a fan, it meant that players were scalped by English teams. I was curious to know how Peter dealt with this during the following few seasons.

    The next few years saw you maintain United as a solid Europe chasing side How hard was it to maintain this given that the team lost so many players?

    “The only disappointment for me after winning the cup was losing our best players or most of them to clubs who could give them more cash. I couldn’t fault those players and I wished them every success wherever they were going. When you lose players of that quality then it was never easy to replace them. One of the things I felt Dundee United lacked was a scouting department to help the manager. We had to rely on our own knowledge of players or trust the agent trying to give us players or it was listening to trusted football people and follow it up by watching the recommendations.”

    It was frustrating to see a string of stars move on, success saw so many of the 2010 cup side move on. Fans were largely unaware of the tight budget management that had to be carried out. How did you handle this? Was it an interesting challenge or a real hardship to have to deal with such restrictions?

    “Selling our best players disappointed me, however, I understood the players for making the move as they were handsomely rewarded. The club had brought some of them through and they also deserved some money back. With no recruitment team is was always going to be difficult to replace these players. It’s a fact of life that provincial clubs have to sell their best players simply to balance the books. I never liked it but understood why it had to be done.”

    How fun were the European nights? Or rather how nervy were they? You got close to qualifying on several occasions – how do you look back on those games?

    “Europe was a disappointment for me as we never did as well as I think we should have. We were given tough ties, but I think we should have beaten AEK Athens one year and Slask Wroclaw the following year. Frankly, we didn’t do ourselves justice and I take the responsibility for that.”

    As a Dundee United fan, I grew to loathe Stephen Thompson. In my opinion, he is the reason that they are languishing in the Scottish Championship. I was keen to discover how Peter Houston felt about the then-chairman of Dundee United.

    What was your relationship like with Stephen Thompson throughout your time at Tannadice?

    “My relationship with Stephen was never that strong, to be honest. Stephen had a job to do balancing the books and I had a job to try and replace players that were sold, with free agents. In my time at Dundee United as manager I never once bought a player because we had no money to do so. Months after we won the Scottish Cup, I attended a meeting with some board members. They said that the budget had to be sliced because money was tight, with several players being moved on to help the situation.”

    Houston did a marvellous job in keeping United in Europe during his time at Tannadice, particularly given the severe budget cuts that he had to oversee. I was unaware that he never actually bought a player. I was also unaware that the club did not have a scouting department, which I find truly embarrassing for a then top-flight club. Given all the hardship that he had to endure with the hierarchy, his dismissal seemed inordinately harsh.

    How harsh did you feel your departure from Tannadice was? From the outset, you seemed to be very open and honest with the club about your intentions and it felt like you were forced out – some thanks for how much you had done for the club given such tight financial restrictions.

    “I announced that I was going to leave upon the expiry of my contract because I didn’t like the future I saw ahead, with some of the best players having to be moved on. Although I understood that players would have to be sold, I felt things at the club would get worse unless the young players hit the ground running. John Souttar, Ryan Gauld, Ryan Dow and one or two of the other young players had been given their debuts but if I’m honest, I didn’t think they were ready to come in and play with the high pressure every single game. When I did go the lads were used the following season and they proved that they were now ready and United played some great football for a spell with those kids.”

    The being shown the door by Dundee United chairman Stephen Thompson, the next stage in Peter Houston’s career saw him join Celtic. Not as a manager, but as a scout. I have always been fascinated with the role of a scout, so I was curious to know if it was as interesting as I had imagined.

    Your next role saw you take up a scouting role with Celtic – how did this come about? Scouting for a money-laden title challenger: was it as simple as getting paid to watch football? How much fun was the job?

    “John Park called me from Celtic and asked if I’d like a role looking at players both in Great Britain and Europe. I went and met both him and Peter Lawwell and joined the club. I loved the role and travelled Europe quite a bit in the eight months I was there and would quite happily have stayed there working for Celtic if I hadn’t got the call from the club I spent my playing career with, Falkirk.”

    It sounds like the role of a top club scout really was fun. It sounds as if Falkirk were the only club who could have tempted Houston away. I was interested to know how much he enjoyed his time managing “his team”, particularly given that he joined them at a time where they were in the Scottish Championship with a relegated Hibs and Hearts, as well as a Rangers team on the rise following their liquidation and reformation.

    You have a real affinity with Falkirk, having played for them in two stints, only to be offered the managerial position with them in 2014. What did it feel like to become their manager?

    “I had some great experiences there; getting to a Scottish Cup final, losing stupidly late on. We finished 2nd two seasons running without being able to get the club back to where I think they belong. Hearts were the main team in my first season and hadn’t lost a game until Falkirk went to Tynecastle and beat them. Rangers in the second season were stronger under Mark Warburton but we beat them a few times as well and obviously we broke Hibs a few times!”

    Was it bad timing to take over them when you did? You had a very strong squad, but found yourself in a league with Hibs, Hearts and Rangers. You surely would have gone up had it been a “normal year” free of such large sides. Or did you feel your team benefited from such competition?

    “When Falkirk asked me to take over, the buzz that Rangers, Hearts and Hibs were in the league was too much of a challenge to refuse. Perhaps stupid but Falkirk were a club I had loads of affection for, having spent most of my playing career there.”

    Falkirk seemed to develop quite the rivalry with Hibernian during your time with Falkirk, with yourself and Alan Stubbs playing out a war-of-words throughout the year. Did you enjoy these clashes or was it an unnecessary distraction? What did you make of Alan Stubbs?

    “We had a good record against Hibs and seemed to build up quite the rivalry with the banter or stick flying between me a Stubbsy. It wasn’t personal between me and Alan on my part, but I always stood up for the club I was manager for and would nip back if I thought we were being disrespected.”

    The Scottish Championship culminates with a ludicrously long and gruelling playoff system. 3rd play 4th in a two-legged affair, with the winner of this facing the team placed 2nd in the league in the same format. The winner of this tie plays the second to bottom team in the Scottish Premiership, again over two legs. It is a monumental strain on the players and saw Falkirk fall agonisingly close to returning to the top division.

    What are your views on the playoff system in the Championship? It certainly makes it difficult for the lower league side to get promoted.

    “It is highly unfair for the Championship teams having to play maybe six games but definitely four to try get up in a short space of time.”

    What are your memories of the playoffs? I seem to remember a last-minute Bob McHugh goal which sent the Falkirk fans into raptures!

    “Winning versus Hibs was a massive high and then we beat Killie by a goal in the first leg of the final. The second game we just ran out of legs after losing two goals in the first ten minutes. The semi against Dundee United the next year was a good result at Tannadice with a goal chopped off as well. Then in the return, we were comfortable at 1-0 until United equalised due to a defensive mistake from us. A killer goal in the last few minutes put us out. All in all, there was disappointment in losing out in our quest to get into Premier League but proud of the players for finishing 2nd two years in a row with big clubs with better resources than Falkirk. That made me proud but disappointed in what could have been. This, on top of a cup final for Falkirk, only to lose it late on as well. So close yet so far!”

    Unfortunately for Houston, things did not end well at Falkirk. After a fantastic couple of years, the 2017/18 season saw him leave his position as manager of the club he had spent so much of his time with. I decided to broach the subject head on and ask what went wrong towards the end.

    What went wrong at Falkirk? Everything seemed to be going really well for a couple of years but appeared to unravel really quite fast.

    “What went wrong? I feel that we had done so well over the first three years that we needed to invest more going into my 4th season, however we didn’t, and we had lost some big players like Will Vaulks and Luke Leahy without replacing them. How do you replace a £200,000 player? The only way is by spending the same, though that was never going to happen. I think it was eight games in and no wins in the league and I was gone after a Betfred campaign where we finished top having won every game. The players who had been magnificent for me had perhaps ‘ran their race’ and needed help. The club believed that the route to the Premiership was going down the road of bringing young players from down south in and hoping the fact that they would be hungry and good enough to play Scottish Championship. It is a tough league and unfortunately for Falkirk it hasn’t worked.”

    This was a very honest assessment by Peter Houston and is a really sad realisation in football. You can oversee numerous very successful campaigns, yet a lack of investment or a change of business strategy can culminate in a man losing his job and a group of very passionate supporters seeing their team go from challenging for top flight football to flirting with relegation. I was curious to know how stark the comparison was between managing in the top two flights of Scottish football.

    How drastic was the difference between Falkirk and Dundee United in terms of training, facilities etc? Going from a European chasing top-flight team to the Scottish Championship must have been quite a change of pace.

    “The training ground that Dundee United have at St Andrews is superb and they are lucky to have such great facilities. At Falkirk, we trained on the pitch as its astroturf and the club built a gym within one of the stands at the Falkirk Stadium. Both clubs are lucky to have such decent facilities.”

    You have coached some very talented players over the years for club and country. Who is the best player that you coached?

    “I had some great players who were hungry and honest in doing their best every single day. I couldn’t single them out, but they know who they are. You only get out of football what you put into it and if a manager gets hard work from his players then their quality will shine through.”

    A very diplomatic answer. Peter is now working with Greenock Morton in the Scottish Championship with the side in midtable. It wouldn’t be right to not ask how his current campaign is going.

    You’re currently working with Morton, who sit midtable at the time of writing. How are you enjoying the challenge this year?

    “Morton are a good provincial club that needs to get a good infrastructure behind them and look more long term. Jonatan Johansson is a bright young manager who is very hard working and keen to do well. I have gone down to help him and mentor him to hopefully a good career in management. We need some fresh players and a balance to the squad and it’s something we are trying to do as we speak. Hopefully, we can progress and maybe make the play offs this season.”

    I am a Dundee United fan, so to get the chance to interview Peter Houston, the man who delivered the Scottish Cup to Tannadice, was a huge honour to me. I would like to thank Peter for his time and his openness in giving myself and the readers a clearer picture on the nitty-gritty of Scottish football.