Fortune favoured the brave at Pittodrie.
When Micky Mellon fielded a vastly altered, youthful side for Dundee United’s Premiership fixture at Kilmarnock on Wednesday evening, he was opening himself up to the slings and arrows of criticism.
The Dundee United boss maintains he picked a team which he believed could win at Rugby Park, yet it would be churlish to suggest that selecting several raw kids — however talented they may be — and fringe players did not lessen their chances of emerging with three points.
Only four outfield players who started that 3-0 reverse at Killie kept their place in Aberdeen: Liam Smith, Jamie Robson, Ian Harkes and Jeando Fuchs.
It was a gamble; a high-stakes bet that come Sunday afternoon in the Granite City, his decision would be vindicated.
Well, it was. And then some.
United were immeasurably more intense, energetic and proactive than their Aberdeen counter-parts — who had endured gruelling games against Livingston and Celtic in the previous week — and made their dominance count.
“It’s nice to be able to deal in hindsight because you don’t always get that opportunity.”
Mellon’s courage was not limited to his choice of XI in Ayrshire. His team selection for the Dons clash was also more attacking than anyone would have imagined.
Lawrence Shankland, Marc McNulty and Nicky Clark all started while Ian Harkes — hardly a destructive, defensive force — was also in the side.
McNulty went on to turn in his finest showing since arriving on loan, scoring either side of Ryan Edwards’ fourth goal of the season.
“I had a team in mind I that I wanted to play,” said Mellon. “And I believed that team would have a good chance to progress.
“You can never be sure — people can get injured in training and stuff — but this was the team I wanted to pick and I wanted to give us the best possible chance of getting it on the park.
“At this stage of the season you worry about the mental fatigue a bit, and when I came here part of the job was also to get young boys on the park. So, Wednesday at Kilmarnock was part of that process of playing young players — and it also helped us for this [Aberdeen] game.
“It’s nice to be able to deal in hindsight because you don’t always get that opportunity!”
Defeated Dons boss Stephen Glass was even more forthright regarding the importance of Dundee United’s fresh legs.
Glass added: “I think you saw that the group looked dead on its feet. It didn’t look like they had anything left to do the things we needed them to do against a United team that came full of energy and quality.”
Following a bright start from the hosts, during which United keeper Deniz Mehmet made a super double-save to deny Matty Kennedy and Callum Hendry, the visitors grasped control of the contest and never let go.
A sloppy attempt attempt at hold-up play in his own third by Flo Kamberi allowed Clark to steal possession and find Lawrence Shankland. He drew two Dons defenders towards him at the edge of the box before feeding McNulty, whose low finish was utterly unerring.
That was the nadir of a dreadful opening 45 minutes from Kamberi, who, despite playing on the right flank, offered absolutely no support to 17 year-old Dons right-back Calvin Ramsey. Consequentially, Clark made hay while the sun shined.
Harkes was a studs’ length away from converting a McNulty cross at the back-post; Woods denied Fuchs from point-blank range; Clark hit the post with a curling effort from distance.
The visitors looked like scoring with every venture forward and McNulty, in particular, was purring.
“Marc [McNulty] is tough on himself with regards to his goals,” added Mellon. “He always puts a shift in for us all the time, and the same goes for Lawrence Shankland.
“I know they get judged on goals as strikers but, as a manager, I look at what they do for the team and how much they’re putting into it. The work-rate and the GPS stats of what they put in is incredible.”
The rocking chair
A richly-merited second goal came courtesy of an emphatic Edwards header, with the big centre-half towering above a woeful Dons’ resistance to convert a Clark free-kick.
The second period commenced with howls for an Aberdeen penalty — Hendry appeared to be cleaned out by Mehmet as he headed a corner-kick wide — but referee Kevin Clancy gave short shrift to the howls for a spot-kick.
Within minutes, United had made it three with a silky-smooth counter-attack culminating in Harkes sending McNulty haring through on goal. The twice-capped Scotland international made no mistake with a clinical finish under the body of Woods.
Aberdeen 0-3 Dundee United
ICYMI here's number two of the day for Marc McNulty in the @ScottishCup ⤵️
— BBC Sport Scotland (@BBCSportScot) April 25, 2021
With that, United’s first Scottish Cup semi-final place since 2016 was assured. But Mellon isn’t done there.
“I am not one for sitting in the rocking chair looking back,” he added. “I look forward and you have to keep pushing it.
“It’s fantastic that Dundee United are back in a semi-final; that we have come to Aberdeen and won like that. You celebrate it at the right time — say well done and enjoy a day or two — but you then want more.”