Macclesfield Town do not relish their role as non-league FA Cup underdogs. While they have nothing against the idea of a spot of giant-killing, it is the non-league bit that grates.

This time last season Cardiff City would have been travelling to Cheshire to face League Two opponents at the Moss Rose on Saturday but last April Macclesfield lost their cherished Football League status after 15 years, dropping into the Conference.

Nine months on the club is almost unrecognisable. With Brian Horton, the manager who proved powerless to prevent relegation, gone, Steve King arrived at a time of rapid change. "The chairman and the directors also left after relegation while 21 players moved on," says King. "It was a complete clear-out and we started again."

Despite a tight budget, significantly smaller than that of many Conference clubs, Macclesfield stand six points off a play-off place having played a game more and have lost only one of their past seven matches. "Everyone's been playing for their places in the Cardiff tie," says the manager.

Like Cardiff, promotion is the overriding aim but unlike Malky Mackay, King will not be resting his entire first team. Mackay's decision to make 11 changes as he offers those players who have carried his team to the top of the Championship means the Moss Rose will be deprived of watching Craig Bellamy in action, but it does enhance the chances of an upset.

Much may depend on the performance of Joe Ralls, a 19-year-old Cardiff midfielder expected to be promoted to a key central-midfield role on Saturday. By coincidence, King played a key part in Ralls' development when they were both at Farnborough Town and believes the England Under-19 international has the potential to become "a new Gareth Barry".

In John Paul Kissock, though, Macclesfield – aka the Silkmen – possess a winger known as "the non-league's Lionel Messi", no matter that the man himself seems mildly embarrassed. "It's a label that seems to have stuck," says Kissock, a former Everton reserve on loan from Luton. "But I think I look like Messi more than I play like him."

Football's less attractive face blemished Macclesfield's second-round duel with Barrow, an acrimonious affair eventually settled by a replay King's team won 4-1, with Kissock volleying the opener. While the original tie featured accusations of racial abuse directed at Macclesfield's captain Nat Brown from Barrow supporters who allegedly called him a "monkey", the replay was overshadowed by an accusation that a Barrow player had allegedly racially abused the Macc defender Ryan Jackson. The FA is investigating both matters.

As if that was not bad enough, the second game concluded with police being called to the tunnel and the dressing rooms after the final whistle to sort out an altercation between the two sets of players. "Emotions ran a bit high," says King.

John Harris, Macclesfield's chief executive, hopes they are heightened once again on Saturday, albeit in a slightly more sportsmanlike manner. "The FA Cup always throws up a shock somewhere," said Harris. "The Moss Rose is a tight ground, our fans will be screaming and it will be a tough atmosphere for Cardiff. It's our 15 minutes of fame and if they're below par and we're very good, then there might well be an upset." Reluctant non-leaguers they may be, but Macclesfield would not say no to a fourth-round adventure.