Houston insisted imminent budget cuts at United – rather than the fact he was being offered a new contract worth much less than his existing deal, which ends in May – had convinced him he should leave in the summer rather than risk damaging his managerial record at a club where he felt it would be hard to remain competitive.
However, during a media conference at Tannadice in which Houston and chairman Stephen Thompson sat side-by-side, the latter said that there would be no material difference in the budget for next season. Houston intends to stay in charge for the rest of this campaign, although it remains to be seen whether Thompson and the United board will move to replace him before then.
"I have decided that it is probably best for me and for the club if I move on," said Houston yesterday. The 54-year-old assumed charge after the departure of Craig Levein in December 2009 and led United to victory in the 2010 Scottish Cup and league finishes of third, fourth and fourth again. "The club are going to face some financial hard times and I have decided it's best for both parties that I move on while my cv is good. I'm taking a huge risk because come the end of May I am not going to get paid.
"There is no fallout. We both understand where each other is coming from and money is not the issue because I was offered an excellent package. If I get half of it to work as a coach somewhere else I'll take it, because I'll be out of work."
Houston is understood to be on around £200,000-per-year, second only to Neil Lennon in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, and United's revised offer was around £120,000. "I was happy to take a wage cut; this week the chairman offered me a very handsome package to stay on as manager. It would be a big wage in terms of quite a few of the SPL managers, so let's be clear that a wage cut is not the reason why I'm moving on. So I'm taking a huge risk but, at this moment in time, the cv is good.
"When I first came in to take over from Craig, our budget was high but there has been a huge drop in it from then to now, simply because there has to be a Dundee United here rather than no football club being here. Unfortunately the budget will get cut, but one thing that doesn't change is the expectation of the supporters. They've had five years in a row of finishing top six. They have had a couple of cup finals and they have won a cup. So that will be expected every single year, but since I was asked to look at the staff costs and trying to reduce those I have begun to seriously think about my role here at Dundee United.
"Most clubs are in the same position but some clubs aren't yet down to the level we're at, if I'm being honest. If I look at some SPL clubs they can bat bigger than us, maybe because they are bigger clubs or maybe because they get bigger crowds, you talk about Celtic, Rangers in a usual season, Aberdeen, Hibernian, Hearts they are all bigger clubs and bigger cities. This season we sold 5000 season books, more than at any time in my career here. And we still can't compete with Hibs' budget or Aberdeen's budget. I understand that."
Thompson refused to view the finances as pessimistically as Houston did, though. "The budget the new manager gets will be enough to sustain where we are," he said. "That's probably the area Peter and I don't agree on. Are there SPL managers out there who would kill for a budget like ours? Absolutely. Plenty of people will be interested in the job here."
Derek McInnes, Steven Pressley, Jimmy Calderwood, Jackie McNamara, Ray McKinnon and Paul Hartley were among those linked with the post yesterday. Thompson said that the club would take its time, but poor results or attendances could accelerate the new manager's arrival.
Houston explained his decision to the players at a meeting yesterday morning and said he hoped fans would not doubt his commitment over the final four months of the season. United are eighth in the top flight and face Rangers in the William Hill Scottish Cup next month. "The fans' possible reaction concerns me slightly if they think I am ready to down tools. A lot of people will question my motivation but I can tell you my motivation is higher than it's ever been to finish in that top six yet again."