Following Saturday’s win at Hamilton you get the feeling Micky Mellon’s rough diamonds are just a good polish away from shining.
It’s not been a glistening campaign for Dundee United by the club’s historically high standards – a guaranteed bottom-six finish is evident of that given their lofty ambitions of European qualification and challenging for major honours.
No one in the Tannadice hierarchy has been shy in expressing their desire for a return of the glory days of Jim McLean’s heroes of the late 1970s and 1980s.
However, marking their first campaign back in the Premiership since 2016 safe from relegation and sitting in seventh with four games remaining is credit to what the current Terrors boss is building.
It’s hardly been sexy soccer; at times it’s been rather dull.
Sneaking games by the odd goal, like the 1-0 win over Accies courtesy of Marc McNulty’s early strike, battling to 12 draws – six of them scoreless – and engaging in multiple wars of attrition are testament to that.
That said, there’s no doubt now over what a fine job Mellon has done in the manager’s office.
It speaks volumes of his work thus far that it’s been hard to pin down whether Mellon’s been a lucky Terrors boss or a good one.
The consensus is starting to settle on the latter – and the outcome in Lanarkshire at the weekend is a huge part of why.
United had no right to walk away from New Douglas Park with three points, Brian Rice’s basement boys battered them at times, yet return to Dundee with all the spoils they did.
Accies peppered their goal, firing in 27 shots with the six on target forcing Swiss stopper Benjamin Siegrist into his usual repertoire of stunning save after stunning save.
‘We’re finding ways of winning now even when we don’t believe we’re playing the style we want’
The bottom line, though, is the Tangerines kept the hosts at bay to pick up another clean sheet and a crucial three points that secured their top-flight status.
That final point is something that wasn’t lost on Mellon, a manager evidently obsessed with winning at all costs but also monitoring steady, quiet progress.
“It’s a great win and another clean sheet – it feels like the first time we’ve won on 4G for a long time,” he said.
“I’m pleased about that and that we now know we’re going to play in the Scottish Premiership next season after just coming up.
“In terms of us developing, I’d like to have seen us be better with the football and build a little bit better but that’s me just being a manager who wants to keep developing my players.
“We’re better than what we showed at times, technically, but we created a lot of chances that would’ve made the afternoon a bit more comfortable for ourselves.
“But, at the end of the day, we’ve got those valuable three points on the road and we’re finding ways of winning now even when we don’t believe we’re playing the style we want.”
Dundee United’s diamond has the potential to cut open Premiership defences
Their performance wasn’t the prettiest on the eye at times, as most of a tangerine persuasion have come to both expect and accept, but there were glimmers of hope for a swashbuckling style of play Mellon wants to achieve.
The diamond midfield he employed was a clear indicator of that.
With Calum Butcher sitting, Adrian Sporle behind the front line and Jeando Fuchs and Ian Harkes floating somewhere in between, their play in the middle of the park showed much promise.
The tangerine quartet kept the ball well, allowing United to dominate possession in the contest, with Butcher, Sporle and Harkes all registering passing accuracies over 80%.
That settling on the right formation and personnel all over the pitch has been a season-long conundrum but one that looks closer to being solved than it ever has.
With more time and a transfer window under his belt this summer, you’d bet on Mellon refining his useful diamond into a team full of sparkling gems.
The United boss continued: “They’re all key. I want them all to get on the ball and play.
“I’m not here to tell the world what I want to do with my players, I’ve already told them that.
“I want us to pass the ball better but that’s just me driving on the group.
“We won 1-0 and we’re on a good run so we’ll train this week to keep pushing on.”
Mellon happy to carry the weight of expectation
Nodding towards this writer to signify the pressure put on the club to be successful; Mellon seems comfortable in an environment of high expectation.
Dundee United must win and win in some style. He’s starting to get the former nailed down, with the latter, seemingly, only a matter of time.
“Anybody who knows Dundee United, knows the press, knows the fanbase, knows we’ll be expected to keep winning,” he explained.
“Even when we win, we’ll be asked to play better and do more.
“I don’t mind the expectations as long as they’re fair. We’ll just keep going and trying to improve the group.
“I’ll keep putting the demands on us like being better with the ball, being smarter and getting it into the frontmen a wee bit slicker to finish chances.
“We’ll just keep pushing it on.”
With one post-split fixture down and four to go, a strong end to the season beckons if Mellon & Co keep it up.
It’s too late for this season to buff up into a glisten but, with the right tools, 2021/22 could see United shimmering.