James McPake insists Paul McMullan deserves applause not abuse from the Dundee United fans at Tannadice tomorrow.

The mercurial winger will return to his old stomping ground for the first time since making the short journey up the road to Dens to join Dundee on loan last January.

The 25-year-old, who started his career at Celtic, had been frozen out at United after signing a pre-contract with the Dark Blues.

However, McMullan quickly hit the ground running for Dundee, becoming a key player in the second half of last season as they gained promotion through the play-offs.

The step up guaranteed a return of the Dundee derbies with the first mouth-watering clash of this season at high noon tomorrow in front of a sell-out capacity crowd and the Sky TV cameras.

McMullan is assured of a warm welcome from the home boo boys but Dens boss McPake believes those fans owe him a big debt of gratitude for helping the Tangerines win promotion two seasons ago.

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McPake said: “In terms of signings, for the overall impact, Paul is the best one I’ve made.

“In the first season Conor Hazard and Christophe Berra came in and did really well, they shored us up a bit.

“But Paul came in and made us an attacking threat.

“He made goals and he brought a fear factor back to the club I don’t think we’ve had since Greg Stewart.

“I see it in training – players are scared to face him up because they know he’ll hit the byline and cross it.

“Paul is a throwback winger. These days they all like to come in the pitch but Paul wants to go down the side and cross it.

“Just look at the goals since he’s come into the team but we’ve also made him better defensively.

“He’s told us he’s fitter now, we have got him right and we are looking forward to seeing him play at Tannadice.

“If anything they should be applauding him for getting them out of the Championship.

“Paul McMullan was a massive part of where they are now. That’s why I was amazed we got him – I still am.”

McPake also dismissed suggestions that McMullan will have a point or two to prove tomorrow.

The manager said: “He has nothing to prove to Dundee United. He got them out of the Championship.

“People will say Lawrence Shankland’s goals got them out of the Championship but I’d like to see how many of those were assisted by Paul McMullan.

“He has proved in spades what he is all about here.”

Dundee have an added incentive to do well tomorrow as they are still searching for their first Premiership win of the season.

McPake admits securing a much-needed victory will be difficult as United possess several potent threats of their own but he believes McMullan could prove key in who will come out on top with derby bragging rights.

He said: “Trust me, I would be worried about him if he was playing for them this weekend.

“I still have worries about them, don’t get me wrong, because they have threats all over the park.

“I tried to sign Nicky Clark, for example, because I like him as a player.

“So I am not naive enough to think they don’t have threats.

“But the Dundee United players will be wary and their fans will be wary.

“I’m sure because it’s derby week they will be saying Paul wasn’t that good for them and all that stuff. But he’s a massive reason they are in this league.”

There was a relaxed mood in the Dundee camp this week with Paul McGowan the victim of a practical joke that saw him drenched by a bucket of water tipped from the Dens stands by Jason Cummings and Cammy Kerr as he waited to complete media duties.

However, McPake insists that come game time, his players’ full focus will be on the derby and securing three points.

He said: “There is a time to be serious and a time to have fun.

“The players have trained brilliantly this week and we have some real characters here.

“You wouldn’t want to be monitoring them all the time!

“Jason is a big character, he’s always up to something and Gowser took it well – although he’ll probably get his own back.

“We have a good group here, they get on well. They work hard and they enjoy themselves when the time is right.”

Dundee skipper Charlie Adam faces a late fitness test after suffering a groin injury against Motherwell three weeks ago.

The midfielder has made a quicker-than-expected recovery but it remains to be seen whether he will be risked against United tomorrow lunchtime.