It would be easy to frame Micky Mellon as the arch underdog, given the regularity with which he has faced the challenge awaiting Forfar Athletic on Friday night.
A glance at the Dundee United boss’ CV shows he was the first man to ever guide Fleetwood Town to the second round of the FA Cup, eventually losing out to the comparative heavyweights of Hartlepool United.
Further up the food chain, he dumped Leicester City out of the League Cup with Shrewsbury Town before narrowly succumbing to a Chelsea side containing Didier Drogba – a scorer in the 2-1 defeat – Mo Salah and Oscar.
Mellon’s Shrews also went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the 2015/16 edition of the FA Cup after sweeping aside the not inconsequential challenges of Cardiff City and Sheffield Wednesday in previous rounds.
Fourth Round #StatAttack:
➡️ This will be the first competitive meeting of @ForfarAthletic and @dundeeunitedfc since March 1987, when United beat the Loons 2-0 at Station Park in a Scottish Cup quarter-final, following a 2-2 draw at Tannadice.#ScottishCup pic.twitter.com/LpujKhUOVV
— Scottish Cup (@ScottishCup) April 14, 2021
That is all before you consider the victory over Watford – in the English Premier League at the time – while in charge of Tranmere, just six months prior to taking the reins at Tannadice.
The subsequent 6-1 defeat in the reunion with the Red Devils was a chastening lesson but another valuable experience.
But while he may have cultivated a reputation as a giant-killer extraordinaire, Mellon is adamant he is comfortable with the tag of favourites that will weigh heavily around the necks of his United stars at Station Park on Friday night.
“I do understand that us going up to Forfar, we’ll be expected to put on a good show,” said Mellon. “The Scottish Cup is massive for the club and we’re all very aware of how well Dundee United have done in the past.
“We’re on a rebuild, getting back – hopefully – to bringing those times back again. That’s what we’re all working very hard to do here.
“We want a fanatical fanbase and are delighted to have it. We just ask sometimes for a wee bit of fairness.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do to even get close but we’ve got the appetite to try and add our own bit of history to this club. We have to take that step-by-step and try to deliver.”
While evidently ambitious – the pairing of Rangers and Celtic together has left every club eyeing the latter stages hungrily – Mellon seeks to temper expectation, partly out of respect to Forfar, but also in a bid to acknowledge the realities of where United are on their journey.
“It’s a heavy expectation,” notes Mellon. “We’ve just come out the Championship and sometimes, yeah, that can be easily forgotten.
“On Saturday, eight or nine of the players were in the Championship last year, the three subs that all came on all played in the Championship.
“When you compare it to the great years at a massive club like Dundee United, sometimes you have to ask for a bit of fairness and time to build towards being that again.
“We want a fanatical fanbase and are delighted to have it. We just ask sometimes for a wee bit of fairness. But expectation levels are high and that can only make you want to keep getting better.
“That’s something me and the players will continually have to try and do, to try and satisfy the expectations.”
Baptism of fire for Gary Irvine
As United plot their own journey towards top-flight progress and eventual silverware, the prospect of facing former Dundee hero Gary Irvine, a rookie in the dugout, prompted Mellon to consider his own career path.
Mellon, now 49 years of age, was 36 when he was appointed Fleetwood manager and still recalls the dilemmas, challenges and growing pains that Irvine, also 36, must tackle should his interim position at Forfar become a permanent one.
“It can be daunting,” continued Mellon. “Suddenly you are the guy making all the decisions and it is a very new experience from the one you had as a player or a coach. There’s a level of responsibility to your players, the fans and the owners.
“As the years go by you learn to know what is important and what’s not so important as you go through your journey, and then you decide how you go through the process of getting your team to score goals, keep clean sheets and win games.
“One of the things that I’ve learned as I go along is little signs; things I see which show that my principles are sinking in and we’re becoming a team. One of those is that I need to shout less.
“You get better at that as you go along. I am sure Gary is very excited to get the opportunity to manage a team and that’s another obstacle for us to try and overcome. I am sure he will be fighting for his life to try and get that opportunity.”
However, Mellon, who again reaffirmed his commitment to United amid links to Doncaster Rovers, is quietly confident that his side can extend its fine run of form – five games unbeaten and counting – and allow him to again rest his vocal cords.
He smiled: “One of the things that I’ve learned as I go along is little signs; things I see which show that my principles are sinking in and we’re becoming a team. One of those is that I need to shout less.
“So, I’m finding that I’m having to shout less and can pretty much tell what the players are trying to achieve when they get the ball. Over the course of nine, 10 months you manage to cover these things and I’m starting to see the right things happen.”