IT was one of those press conferences where the reporters' eyes worked as hard as their ears.
Body language experts would have loved it. Peter Houston and Stephen Thompson sat side-by-side at Tannadice and did a decent job of singing from the same hymn sheet about why the manager will leave in the summer. They hadn't fallen out, it was amicable, no hard feelings, respect from both parties. But there was no getting away from it: it was like a couple explaining why they had to get divorced while trying not to exchange dirty looks. The media folk watched their every move.
Houston praised "the Thompson family, the great Eddie and his wife Cath", forgetting to mention their son at his side. That could be put down to an oversight. Otherwise they came across as two parties who would go their separate ways without rancour. The only impression of friction was in their interpretation of Dundee United's financial health. Houston painted it pretty darkly, saying imminent budget cuts had persuaded him he should leave rather than risk his managerial reputation at a club which would find it increasingly difficult to compete. Thompson couldn't let that go without giving his own, contrasting version of events. United were being prudent, sensible and living within their means, he said, and their budget was better than a few of those clubs currently above them in the top six.
"The picture is not bleak," he said. "We haven't set a budget for next season and most of the players are under contract. I don't want anyone to take the message that we're going to be the next club to go under. That's so far from the truth it's incredible. Our debt has come down enormously and we've got a good relationship with the bank, although they put us under pressure occasionally. My family will have to put a six-figure sum in this season but we're committed to the club. We can't spend millions but what clubs do?"
Houston's future has been the subject of prolonged speculation, of course. United wanted to keep him but on a salary much lower than his current £200,000, the second-highest in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League. Houston wanted to stay but not after a wage cut of nearly 40%. No middle ground could be found and the writing was on the wall about a Houston departure long before Blackpool asked for permission to speak to him on Monday (oddly, having been granted permission they never acted on it).
Thompson offered no opinion on whether Houston was being unwise by rejecting a still highly lucrative offer to stay. He was more interested in the fact those same terms would be attractive to plenty of others. "Are there SPL managers out there who would kill for a budget like ours? Absolutely. Plenty of people will be interested in the job; I'm sure I'll have a few messages on my phone already. Even on Monday, when he was linked with Blackpool, I was getting calls. It is a great opportunity.
"Wages are probably a wee bit too high but it's still more than a lot of clubs in this league are paying. The budget won't be a million miles away from where it is this season. We're the sixth biggest club in the league in terms of turnover and I think you'll find our budget reflects that. We have good kids coming through for a new manager to inherit. I don't think things here should be painted as bleak.
"Peter wants to make his cv the best it can be between now and the end of the season. I don't question his professionalism from that point of view. Peter is taking a risk, it's his choice and we respect that. Peter and I are still working together."
The timescale for replacing him could change. Yesterday, Thompson felt Houston would get the season, although that isn't likely to be the case if results or attendances deteriorate. The board will meet to discuss the options today. "It's not in the plan to bring someone in before the end of the season," said Thompson. "Peter might attract interest and could move. His profile will have been raised in the last week.
"It's quite common in Germany to announce that a manager is going. It gives the board the chance to sit down and assess what they're looking for. When you sack someone, you do it too quickly and you don't think things through properly. This gives us a chance to think. This is a good club, we have great facilities, a good youth policy and a good support. We still want success and I believe we can get it, but not at any cost. Companies are going to the wall left, right and centre in the real world and football is not insulated from that. We offered Peter a good salary but he decided he wants to leave. That's his choice and we respect that."
There were questions on one other matter: the Scottish Cup tie against Rangers. The Ibrox club has endorsed their fans' boycott of the match and in a statement yesterday it said that other than players and support staff it would have "minimal presence" at the tie on February 2. Some Rangers fans will be there, though, as United director Derek Robertson confirmed. "We have sold about two hundred [away] tickets," he said. "Any supporters who want to attend will be made welcome. We have sold about 5500 tickets to United fans and sold out the top tier of the stand. The lower tier is starting to fill up and we expect to sell a lot more in the run-up to the game. It's going to be a great game."