THE stresses of a long season inflict damage that is not restricted to footballers.

A sense of sober reality sometimes suffers a career-ending injury. So it was at Tannadice on Saturday when the affable and engaging Sean Dillon, the Dundee United defender, offered apologies for his tardiness in attending a news conference after his side's 2-0 defeat to Celtic.

"Sorry I was late. I was with Timmy Mallett. He hit me over the head with his mallet," said Dillon. Sensing, perhaps, an atmosphere of incredulity, the 30-year-old Dubliner immediately produced his phone and offered photographic evidence.

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The former children's television presenter has an exhibition of his paintings in Dundee this week and it is somehow comforting to know that his artistic excellence does not preclude him having a brush with the surreal.

It was, though, illuminating to discover that United are filled with talent so young that they do not have a clue who Mallett is. Or was.

Dillon, at 30 a football veteran, must march with such callow troops on an Ibrox that will have 30,000-plus hostile fans and a Rangers team searching for a evidence that they can compete at the top of Scottish football, just one home victory from the final of the William Hill Scottish Cup.

The Dubliner denied with undoubted sincerity that the prospect of a visit to Ibrox on Saturday contributed to a generally lacklustre display against Celtic at Tannadice. United were regularly outplayed and outwitted by the champions, only offering a taste of their genuine quality after a first half where they lost two goals and, in effect, the match.

"We like to press teams and we like to pass the ball and keep it well," said Dillon. "And we didn't do that in the first half and Celtic did. That's probably why we were 2-0 down at half time. But we did it in the second half and enjoyed the game a lot more than what we did before. I thought we were far better second half."

The introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven at the break was both a catalyst for a United reinvigoration and a hint to Jackie McNamara's thinking about the visit to Ibrox. United will seek to impose their pressing game on a Rangers side who have faced similar urgency from opponents in league football but Mackay-Steven is almost the personification of the elements that Ally McCoist's side have not encountered.

Quick and inventive, he initially caused problems to Celtic's makeshift full-back Scott Brown before the champions regrouped.

Any United success at Ibrox would surely be marked with pace, precision of passing and the sheer elan that marks United as a young and exciting team.

Dillon, who has won two Football Association of Ireland Cups with Longford Town and a Scottish Cup with Dundee United, believes that such as Mackay-Steven, Andrew Robertson, Nadir Cifti and Ryan Gauld - who was also a playing substitute on Saturday - will not be disturbed by a visit to Ibrox.

"I don't see why they wouldn't," said Dillon when asked if his younger team mates would rise to the occasion. "It will certainly be different from my point of view. Any time we have run out at Ibrox you are looking over at a little triangle of people in the corner. It will be a little bit different this time which is a nice thought. I have no doubt it will be hostile but if we have 11,000 filling a stand and a little bit more then that will give you a nice little kick."

He added: "It doesn't matter whether you are young or old. It is a big game and everybody is desperate to do well and hopefully, please God, everybody will pull through on the day and do the business."

Dillon, who lives besides Jon Daly near Longforgan, Dundee, appreciates the strengths of his former team-mate but accepts a cup semi-final against a Rangers team playing in League 1 "is going to be a bit of a step into the unknown".

He added: "They are such a big club and still have big players playing for them, even though they are not playing in the top flight any more. We know this is going to be a really tough game. I don't want to sound all cliched, but it's the semi-final and they are at home. It's going to be tough. But what the public are going to see, who knows?"

Personally, this observer is anticipating a moment of excruciating controversy when a valid goal is disallowed by an assistant referee with a pair of over-sized specs brandishing not a flag but a large rubber mallet. It has, after all, been that sort of season.