Their story won’t get the Hollywood treatment of the Oakland A’s Moneyball anytime soon but Dundee United boss Micky Mellon deserves credit for quietly and effectively forming a competitive team at Tannadice.
Baseball boss Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt in the 2011 hit film named after his inventive scouting and signing system, transformed the Oakland Athletics from unfancied misfits to championship contenders back in 2002.
That this United season ends up on the big screen one day seems unlikely – mainly because I don’t think Pitt would be able to pull off Mellon’s Paisley brogue – but the Tangerines boss is certainly succeeding on the pitch with his men.
His own brand of Mellonball is, albeit not easy on the eye, reaping rewards for a Terrors team probably not expected to be sitting in the top six at this stage of the season.
Their climb to fifth in the Premiership has been overlooked according to Mellon and, given what they showed in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Motherwell at Tannadice, I’m inclined to agree.
Mellon is always keen to point out his team don’t have much top-flight experience, with the core of the squad Championship title winners from last season.
He’s right but, with a few shrewd signings and tactical tweaks, Mellon is getting the best out of them – the excellent Jeando Fuchs, Paul McMullan and Luke Bolton are evidence of that.
Despite some slack defending for Tony Watt’s opener for the Steelmen on nine minutes, the Tangerines later showed the defensive resilience we have become accustomed to throughout the campaign.
It was backs against the wall at times but, just like at Hibs the weekend previous, United’s fitness paid off and they kept themselves in the game long enough to grab a last-gasp equaliser through Nicky Clark.
Indeed, with smart substitutions off the bench like Clark, Peter Pawlett and Adrian Sporle the Tangerines looked the most likely side to go on and win it in the second half.
Sporle almost did so but for a terrific save from ’Well stopper Trevor Carson in the dying moments.
Those points were what Mellon honed in on at full-time as he reflected on earning a share of the spoils to stretch their unbeaten run to three games in what is a tough bunch of festive fixtures.
“I think it was thoroughly deserved,” he said.
“We lost a sloppy goal from a set-play early on and played some good football up until we equalised.
“You need a squad over the course of a season and the boys that have come on have helped us to keep things moving forward again and that’s what it’s all about.
“The group is relentless and they’ll keep going and going. Their fitness will make you bend in the end.
🗣 "I'm really pleased for them that they kept fighting and showed those qualities that we always say are going to be needed over the course of the season."
— Dundee United FC (@dundeeunitedfc) December 26, 2020
“I was delighted to see that go in and we nearly nicked it right at the very end with a brilliant counter-attack.
“Full credit to the boys – we’ve had two tough games where we wanted six points but came away with four and we were pleased to get that equaliser with five minutes to go.
“I don’t want to do a disservice to the young boys because we trust them as well but certainly, in terms experience and know-how, it’s a bit clearer what you might get when you bring on those guys.
“I thought Sporle had won it to give us a grandstand finish but it was a good save from their keeper after the run and break from us.
“So we’ll take what we got in the end.”
Clark substitution was a masterstroke from Mellon
Starting with Clark on the bench for the second game running, after the 2-0 win over Kilmarnock in midweek, would raise eyebrows for some given he’s United’s top scorer with 10 in all competitions.
However, for Mellon, you get the feeling he’s prepared for a marathon this term and happy to use the squad at his disposal as he sees fit and will not bow to pressure from any external sources.
He continued: “Nicky always gives me a headache. They all do to be honest.
“I have to try and pick the best team which I think will get us results.
“You want people to be coming on and giving you performances like that in order to get you results – you need quality right throughout the group.
“I’m delighted for Nicky. He’s a smashing lad who has come up trumps for us.”
Luck has got nothing to do with United’s success
With trips to champions Celtic in midweek and third-force Aberdeen at the weekend, you wouldn’t bet against Mellon’s men pulling off a shock or two.
The United boss, who always staunchly defends his team, bemoaned referee Bobby Madden for not giving his side a penalty late on against Motherwell on Saturday after first Marc McNulty and then Lawrence Shankland were brought down in the box.
Mellon bemoaned lady luck not being on their side with the decisions, although, with the way he sets his side up, it doesn’t look like chance has anything to do with it.
If United are to have success this season it will be through continued application of Micky’s own Mellonball.
He commented: “We’re not getting our rub of the green with them at the minute, are we?
“I believe it was a stonewaller and I think, as well, Lawrence Shankland got his head wrestled off right at the end and if that’s anywhere else on the pitch you get a free-kick.
“Listen, we have to crack on with that and hope they go for us at some stage.”