GARY MacKenzie falls silent as the names are dropped around him; Loic Remy, Shaun Wright-Phillips, Adel Taarabt, Esteban Granero.

It is tempting to assume that the MK Dons defender is quietly doing the sums, adding up the cumulative value of those members of the Queens Park Rangers first team, players he will have the chance to appraise more extensively when they meet in the fourth round of the FA Cup tomorrow. Yet his response only takes into account their value to him: "Everybody wants to show they can play with guys who are renowned at the top level."

It is a calculated comment from a defender who is not inclined to shirk a challenge. Pressure has informed his career but has yet to tell on him, compelling MacKenzie first through the mantle of the Rangers youth system and out into the first team at Dundee. It was there that he was exposed to the raised temperature of competitive action and he became hardened enough to attract an offer from MK Dons three years ago. Now 27, that time has been spent being buffeted and refined in npower League One, with MacKenzie now considered a valuable member of a side which reached the promotion play-offs last season.

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A cup tie with a Barclays Premier League side now offers a chance to prove his worth to a wider audience, but MacKenzie is aware that there is a glass ceiling on his ambition at the moment. A series of assured performances last year allowed him a route into the Scotland squad in September but not to his first cap, Craig Levein proving reluctant to field a player whose experience was limited to the third tier of the English game. Collaring the likes of Remy – who joined QPR from Olympique Marseille for £8m this month – will go some way towards redressing that, while promotion to the npower Championship this season does not seem beyond a side that has prepared for the trip to Loftus Road with a run of four matches without defeat.

"I'm not playing at as high a level as I'd like to be but I don't think we are far away," says MacKenzie, whose side are just three points outside the play-off places with at least two games in hand on their promotion rivals. "My aim is to get in to the Championship where you are playing on a bigger stage and that naturally draws more attention to yourself if you are playing well. But games like this let you show how you cope against bigger teams.

"That was something that Craig Levein said to me when I was up in the camp, that I hadn't really tested myself at the top level by playing in the Premiership, or even the top end of the Championship. So it was hard for him to take a risk and throw me into a game, but this lets people see you can play against top players."

It is a strong incentive and one which has been infused with MacKenzie's competitive spirit. The unexpected cup success this season of clubs thought to be inhibited by their modest reputations – npower League Two Bradford City will contest the final of the Capital One Cup against Swansea City next month – has awoken the English game to the prospect of further shock results and QPR might seem particularly vulnerable given their paltry league form.

Yet if MacKenzie can smell blood in the water he turns his nose up at the suggestion that his team will seek to upset the Premier League side by strong-arming them into a physical contest. Under the tutelage of Karl Robinson, MK Dons have favoured a more considered approach and one designed to bridge the gap between his side and those in the leagues above.

"We play differently to maybe 90% of the teams in our league; we try and pass the ball," MacKenzie says. "When you play like that then I think it helps you to understand the game more rather than when a team just lumps the ball forward. I know that can get results in certain teams but it isn't really going to improve you as a player. That was one of the reasons I came down, and I spoke to the assistant manager at the time about how they were going to play and how it could improve me as a player."

Helping his side into the next round of the FA Cup tomorrow would suggest that MacKenzie has made good progress.