Although better known as a successful manager these days, winning promotion has long been a familiar experience for Paisley-born Micky Mellon. Not many players can claim to have won promotion in his first season as a professional footballer, but it set a pattern that continues to this day.
Starting his career with Third Division Bristol City in December 1989, that promotion came almost immediately with a second-place finish behind neighbours Bristol Rovers. Despite being popular with the fans, midfielder Mellon made only sporadic appearances at Ashton Gate and totalled only 48 games for the Robins in his four seasons, scoring one goal. In October 1991 he was loaned to Cork City for two months where he won a regular place in the side. Cork wanted to sign Mellon but could not afford the £8,000 asking price. He returned to Bristol after making 11 appearances (scoring three goals) and continued to exist on the fringe of the first team as City settled into mid-table comfort in the Second Division.
On 11 February 1993 he was sold to West Bromwich Albion, then managed by World Cup winner Ossie Ardiles, for a fee of £75,000. Albion were challenging at the top of the Second Division (then tier 3) and had a squad including Imps Stuart Naylor, Ian Hamilton and Gary Strodder. After sitting in the top four for most of the season, Albion secured a place in the playoffs after a great run of one defeat from their last thirteen games. A 3-2 aggregate win over Swansea took Albion to Wembley but Mellon was not to appear. A red card against Swansea meant he missed the 3-0 win over Port Vale in the final. Promotion in his first season at Bristol City, and now in his first season at West Brom was not a bad record.
Albion got off to a reasonable start in the First Division, but a run of three wins from fifteen games left them hovering around the relegation zone. A great run of four wins and two draws by neighbours Birmingham City led to a dramatic final day of the season. Level on points, Albion’s superior goal difference meant that a win would keep them up and send Birmingham down. Oxford were a further two points behind with the worst goal difference of the three. The results elsewhere did not go Albion’s way, as Oxford beat Notts County 2-1 and Birmingham won 2-1 at promotion-chasing Tranmere. But Lee Ashcroft’s 39th-minute header at Portsmouth proved enough to keep Albion up on a fraught afternoon of tension and pitch invasions. It had been a tough season, but Mellon did have the novel experience of appearing in the short-lived Anglo-Italian Cup, scoring against Italian giants Peterborough. The 1994-95 season got off to a poor start, with one win from the first eleven games. Then a Micky Mellon goal gave Albion a 1-0 win over Sheffield United in October, and kick-started a better run of form. It was to prove his final goal for the Baggies, as Sam Allardyce took him to Second Division Blackpool for £50,000 on 23 November 1994. Mellon scored seven goals in 57 appearances for Albion.
The rest of the 1994-95 season was uneventful as Blackpool finished mid-table. The 1995-96 season, however, was to be much better as Blackpool were to achieve their highest league placing for nineteen years. Blackpool looked dead certs for automatic promotion until a terrible run of five points from seven games saw them go into the final game at York in third place, one point behind Oxford but with a better goal difference. Blackpool won 2-0, but Oxford had been on a great run and beat Peterborough 4-0 to take the final promotion place. Blackpool won the first leg of their play-off semi-final 2-0 at Bradford and seemed certain to go to Wembley; however, a dreadful 3-0 home defeat in the second leg not only cost Blackpool a place in the final, but also cost Allardyce his job. The consolation for Mellon was the Player of the Season award. Blackpool were not to hit the same heights again, and missed the playoffs by four points in 1996-97 under new manager Gary Megson. Megson was replaced by Nigel Worthington after one season, and Mellon was soon on his way, sold to John Aldridge’s Tranmere on 31 October 1997 for a hefty £300,000 fee. He made 145 appearances in total for Blackpool, scoring seventeen goals.
It was to be the start of a relationship with Tranmere that would continue on and off to the present day. Tranmere were in the middle of a golden age, challenging for promotion to the top flight and undertaking regular cup runs, but Mellon’s fourteen-month stay was to prove uneventful with the club in mid-table. Rovers reached the fifth round of the FA Cup in his first season of 1997-98 before the run was ended by an Alan Shearer header at St James’ Park. After three goals from 65 appearances, Mellon was surprisingly sold to Second Division strugglers Burnley for £350,000 on 8 January 1999.
Mellon quickly endeared himself to the Burnley faithful, and his arrival kick-started a revival that would carry them to a comfortable mid-table finish. Burnley got off to a great start in 1999-2000 and kept pace with the leaders for most of the season. A 3-0 home defeat to promotion rivals Gillingham with five games to go appeared to have scuppered their challenge, and they went into the final game at Scunthorpe level on points with Gillingham but with an inferior goal difference. Burnley had a relatively easy game at relegated Scunthorpe, while the Gills had a tougher game at mid-table Wrexham. Gillingham went down 1-0, and Burnley trailed 1-0 at Glanford Park. However, a Micky Mellon equaliser just before half-time set Burnley on their way to a 2-1 win, and Mellon had his third promotion. At no time during the season had Burnley been in the top two.
Burnley quickly acclimatised to life in the First Division and remained in the top half for most of the season. Then came another surprise, as Mellon returned to former club Tranmere on loan on 5 March 2001. He made 94 appearances for Burnley, scoring five goals. Despite a dramatic run to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, Rovers were struggling at the foot of the First Division. Mellon’s loan was made permanent just three days later on a free transfer, but Aldridge resigned on 17 March as Rovers headed inexorably towards relegation. They picked up just eight points from their last fourteen games to finish in bottom place, the first relegation of Mellon’s career.
Tranmere never looked likely to make a return to the First Division in 2001-02, although there was another run in the FA Cup. Wins over Brigg, Carlisle, Southend and Cardiff took them to the fifth round where they were beaten 4-0 at Tottenham. Tranmere maintained their mid-table position well into the 2002-03 season when a magnificent run of ten wins and five draws from their last fifteen games carried them to within a point of the playoffs. A 3-2 win at Stockport on the final day was not enough, as a 1-1 draw for Cardiff at Crewe meant Tranmere had finished seventh. Form was inconsistent at the start of 2003-04 until an excellent run from October created another play-off challenge. The FA Cup was to prove a distraction yet again as wins over Chesterfield, Hornchurch, Bolton, Luton and Swansea carried the third tier club to a quarter-final against First Division Millwall. A 0-0 draw at The New Den earned Tranmere a replay at Prenton Park, but two goals in the first fifteen minutes by Tim Cahill and Neil Harris saw Rovers go down 2-1. Disappointment was to follow in the league: despite winning eight of their remaining eleven games, the playoffs were missed by six points.