Kenny Miller smiles as he considers the delicate question of whether Malky Mackay will turn out to be a better manager than he was a player, realising a diplomatic answer may be required. "I think he will be just the same," the Cardiff striker says of his fellow Scot. "Malky was a big, aggressive centre-half and now he's a big, aggressive manager."

Several of Cardiff's younger players will testify that the hairdryer technique Sir Alex Ferguson has apparently dispensed with is alive and functioning in Mackay's half-time team talks, complete with authentic Glaswegian intonation, though it is already clear that the man behind the Welsh club's march to a first Carling Cup final is far more than the bruiser he sometimes appeared on the pitch.

Miller, who played against MacKay often enough to collect a few bruises, was planning a return to Scotland after failing to settle in Turkey last year but credits the Cardiff manager with selling him a new challenge in another unexpected country. Kenny Dalglish, who texted his congratulations to Mackay before he knew Liverpool would face Cardiff at Wembley, has had his eye on the latest Scottish managerial success for a while.

"Malky was impressive at Watford before he moved to Cardiff," the Liverpool manager says. "He's done a fantastic job already because Cardiff have had their share of financial and ownership problems, but they seem to have come through that. I suppose you could say there are similarities between what Cardiff and Liverpool have been through in the last 18 months or so but Malky has taken them forward and got his reward."

Praise does probably not come much higher for a manager who grew up idolising Dalglish and can still remember seeing him being presented with a ceremonial final Scotland cap by a nattily attired Franz Beckenbauer. "He was my hero and everyone else's," Mackay says. "Liverpool were the best club in Europe at the time and he was their best player." Yet moving sharply to the present rather than dwelling on the past, what speaks loudest of all about Mackay's impact at Cardiff is that after less than a season with the club he has just been offered, and gladly accepted, a new contract to run until 2016.

By that time he hopes Cardiff will be in the Premier League. "This is a club in a capital city, with a catchment area of over a million potential supporters, playing in a terrific new stadium," he points out. "There is no reason why we shouldn't aim high."

The former Norwich defender is keen to stress the support he has received from the club's chairman and new owners and says his long-term plans for infrastructure and further improvement can be achieved only through investment and community backing, though it is what has been achieved in the short term that has raised eyebrows. Cardiff may have gone close to promotion a couple of times under Dave Jones but they survived a couple of threats from winding-up orders, too, and the sight that greeted Mackay on his arrival at the club last summer was not a promising one.

"On the first day there were just 10 players at the training ground, some of them kids," he recalls. "There was an awful lot of work to do because in six weeks' time we were due to start the season against West Ham at Upton Park, live on television."

Scary as that prospect must have seemed, Cardiff began attracting attention as soon as the season began, with the new arrival Miller pinching the points from Sam Allardyce's side with a last-minute away winner. With Craig Bellamy now back in the Premier League after his season in Wales – "It would have been nice and romantic to keep him but Liverpool are the sort of club that can blow everything else out of the water," Mackay admits – Miller is the closest to a star name Cardiff have. As the striker readily accepts, that is not all that close.

"We are not a team of stars, that's not Malky's style," Miller says. "There may be stronger squads around and other clubs might have better individuals, but this is a good team. We play for each other. We have one of the best managers in the Championship and we are not going be daunted by playing Liverpool because next season we want to be playing Premier League teams every week."

Mackay is not sure promotion can be achieved quite that quickly, though he is confident his players can compete with anyone over 90 minutes. "Obviously we are underdogs but we have a chance in the final," he says. "Maybe only a one in 10 chance but that's still a chance if you turn up motivated, fit and organised and I think I can promise that. This is a group of players who are all willing to work for the jersey and of course we will have the backing of 35,000 to 40,000 mad, mental Welshmen at Wembley. If I am honest, we are probably exceeding expectations in the league, given the size and inexperience of our squad, but a cup final is a day out. I want to be greedy, so I'll settle for winning the Carling Cup and finishing as high up the league as possible."

As ever with underdogs, all the pressure is on the other team to perform, though a curiosity of this final is that Cardiff have been to the new Wembley twice before, whereas Liverpool are making their debut. Perhaps more relevant still, when you have been in the all-or-nothing Premier League play-off situation and lost, as Cardiff did to Blackpool two years ago, it becomes much easier to see a Carling Cup final as a day to be enjoyed rather than dreaded.

"This is a totally different scenario to a play-off final," the club captain. Mark Hudson, says. "The Blackpool game is something I'll remember forever, even though I would quite like to forget it. This time there isn't the same pressure. We are all really looking forward to playing at Wembley because, whatever the result, we know it isn't going to spoil our summer."