Dec 13 2012 by Nick Hilton, The Liverpool Post
THE League One leaders and the bookmakers’ promotion favourites face-off at Bramall Lane this weekend in a showdown that confirms why football at the third tier level can still deliver tales of the unexpected.
No one is in the least surprised to find Sheffield United standing one point shy of pole position as we approach the halfway point of the campaign.
The Blades finished third behind Charlton Athletic and Sheffield Wednesday last May with a total of 90 points which, in most other seasons, would have been enough to secure more automatic promotion. Instead, Danny Wilson’s team had to settle for a play-off spot and lost in the final to Huddersfield.
They are equipped to go one better in 2012-13. With home attendances averaging a little under 20,000, United have the budget to afford one of the largest and best paid squads in the division. They also have the spending power to reinforce when the need arises.
No such cold logic can explain why Tranmere should arrive in South Yorkshire on Saturday as the division’s top team after 21 games.
They are the surprise package of the first half of the season, who hope to surprise their rivals still more by being in the promotion frame when the second half of the season is completed.
Rovers operate on a budget, among the lowest in the division, that would look like a teaspoon when set against the Blades’ carving knife.
Yet the squad put together by Ronnie Moore during the summer has gelled so well as a unit Tranmere led the division through most of the last four months, obliging the bookmakers to re-calibrate the odds against promotion from 16/1 in the summer to between 8/1 and 10/1 this week. Those bookmakers continue to follow the money, offering 2/1 on Sheffield United to reach the Championship.
If the Blades have a handicap, it is the weight of expectation that falls on the shoulders of experienced manager Danny Wilson and his players.
Moore, who knows Wilson well, understands the kind of pressure he is under.
Moore said: “I think Danny is doing a fantastic job. He’s a good pal. I have known him a long time with his connections in Sheffield and mine in Rotherham.
“I felt for him last summer because to get 90 points and not go up is heartbreaking. That sort of thing that happens only very rarely.
“They will be there or thereabouts again this season. But they are expected to be.
“Sheffield United’s expectation at this level is that they should get 90 points, whereas the expectation at Tranmere is that we should be getting 50 points. That’s where the pressure is for Danny.”
United’s promotion drive last season ran out of momentum when they lost the services of leading scorer Ched Evans, who was jailed for rape in mid April.
Wales international Evans, 23, scored 35 league and cup goals in 2011-12 and was on a hot streak of scoring form, notching in seven consecutive games when he was convicted and sentenced.
United failed to win any of their final three League One games without Evans, were edged out of an automatic spot by Sheffield Wednesday, then lost the play-off final to another Yorkshire club, Huddersfield.
This season the Blades cutting edge is being provided by Nick Blackman, a striker signed from Blackburn Rovers who has notched 11 league and cup goals so far.
Wilson’s team went unbeaten through the first 16 games of the league campaign but a high proportion of draws kept them back in Tranmere’s slipstream.
They closed the gap by winning 3-1 at Carlisle United last weekend while Rovers were being held at home by Portsmouth. A United victory on Saturday will put them above Rovers in the table.