MANAGER Ronnie Moore is banking on the confidence of youth and the experience of a couple of older, wise heads to ensure Tranmere are not overawed by the challenge of playing in front of a 20,000-plus crowd at Bramall Lane this afternoon.
The surprise League One leaders face the ultimate test of their promotion credentials against a Sheffield United side rated as short odds favourites to finish top of the pile at the end of the campaign.
The best gate of the season is expected to witness the Blades’ attempt to leapfrog above Rovers on a ground where they have not lost a league game since March.
Moore says he will be disappointed if 25,000 fans are not packed into Bramall Lane.
“It is a fantastic place to play football and Sheffield United are a very good side,” Moore said. “Bramall Lane is a fortress and if they get an early goal it can be a very difficult place to play for away teams. This would be a big test for our best XI, never mind the team we will have to play there. I’ll be disappointed if there’s not 25,000 people in the ground as they will come in their droves in Sheffield and we will bring a decent following.
“Our players have not shown any fear wherever we’ve gone this season. We also have a 40-year-old centre back, Ian Goodison, with all the experience in the world and Andy Robinson, who is 32. They know what it is all about.”
Half a dozen members of the Rovers side that earned a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane last March are likely to figure in today’s line-up, including Owain Fon Williams, Danny Holmes, Ash Taylor, Zoumana Bakayogo, Jake Cassidy and Goodison.
Rovers were fighting to pull away from the relegation zone on that afternoon nine months ago and the result was a major morale booster. This time Tranmere arrive in pole position following a remarkable performance over the first 21 games of the season that left the division’s big spenders trailing their wake.
Moore said: “Sheffield United are a big enough club to be in the Premier League. They have everything in place, the stadium and the following, if they can get it right on the pitch. I think Danny Wilson is doing an excellent job there and I believe that if we finish one place behind Sheffield United this season, we will get promoted.
“We want to go and gain the experience of taking a team to Bramall Lane and trying to win the game.”
Moore can’t take his strongest team because four of the most influential players in the squad – including the spine of the team – are ruled out by long-term injuries.
This week centre-back Ben Gibson was told by a specialist he faces six to eight weeks sidelined by a groin injury. Central midfielder James Wallace and striker Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro are not due to return to action until late January and winger Abdulai Bell-Baggie could be out for even longer.
Taylor and Goodison can be expected to fill the centre back spots in Gibson’s absence with Donervorn Daniels, a teenager on loan from West Bromwich Albion, providing backup from the bench.
Danny Harrison, filling the central midfield gap alongside Liam Palmer while skipper Wallace is on the treatment table, sees today’s game as an opportunity for Tranmere to spoil United’s unbeaten home record.
“That record is there to be shot at,” Harrison said. “That is the sort of mentality we have got here. It will be one of our toughest games of the season but everybody is up for it and the lads are raring to go. We will go and take the game to them.”
Nonetheless, Harrison, who returned to Prenton Park in the summer after five seasons with Rotherham United, is under no illusions about the size of the task facing Rovers.
“I am expecting a big, hostile crowd,” said the 30-year-old. “
United can go above us in the table if they get a decent result or we can put further distance between ourselves and them so it is going to be a cracking game.
“We are top on merit. Nobody has given us those points. We have earned them. If we can go to United and quieten the crowd, we can get something out of it.”
Blades manger Danny Wilson says midfielder Kevin McDonald is “very doubtful” for the Tranmere game after sustaining an ankle injury in the 3-1 win at Carlisle last weekend.
This week’s weather should not be a threat to the game as Sheffield United have undersoil heating at Bramall Lane and officials say the pitch is in good condition.