MANAGER Ronnie Moore paid tribute to the single-minded determination that has helped to put James Wallace on course for an earlier than expected return to action with Tranmere.
The 20-year-old captain, an influential player in Rovers' drive to the top of the League One table until he was sidelined by a medial ligament injury, hopes to be leading the team out in the Boxing Day fixture against Crewe Alexandra at Prenton Park.
That puts Wallace well ahead of the recovery schedule he faced after sustaining the injury in an FA Cup tie against Chesterfield at the beginning of this month.
And it is great news for Moore, who rates the former Everton academy graduate's talents as exceptional at League One level.
Moore said: "James has been pushing himself. He is so keen to get back that he bought his own recovery machine and it helps that he is a quick healer.
"It also helps that Greg Blundell, our physio, is his uncle. I'm not saying James gets special treatment but Greg advises him on what he needs to be doing.
"It will be great to have James back. We miss our captain for what he does in talking on the pitch and for his ability as a player. He has the ability to play killer passes that a lot of players at this level can't. That's no disrespect to the other lads here. James has a gift. He can play little square balls or he can see the 60 yard pass.
"That's why he started his career at Everton and why he will probably go back to Premier League level. It's down to his ability."
Moore says Tranmere's next game, the Friday night visit to Swindon Town, is likely to come too soon for Wallace.
"James is doing a lot of straight running in training now," Moore said. "When you have done medial ligaments it is the twisting and turning, the sideways movement and playing the ball with a side of the foot that are difficult. You have to get over a pain barrier.
"He probably won't be ready for Friday and I would imagine he'll be fit for the Crewe game."
Tranmere are also hopeful that Jean-Louis Akpa Akpro will be back ahead of schedule in his recovery from a broken metatarsal.
The French striker is due to start running this week for the first time since sustaining the injury in the win at Notts County in early October.
Moore said: "Greg has worked really hard with Jean-Louis. We won't know whether the operation has been successful until he puts the weight on his foot when running. If he gets through this week it's down to Jean-Louis to see how quickly he can get back to some sort of fitness. If everything goes well for him we might get him back sooner than the target date, which is the Crawley Town game on January 12."
Moore reckons Tranmere's place at the top of the League One table should be a source of civic pride.
"I think the whole of Birkenhead should be proud of what these lads have done so far this season," Moore said after Rovers clung onto pole position by holding promotion favourites Sheffield United to a goalless draw at Bramhall Lane.
"We competed against the best at this level, against a team capable of playing at the next level up, and we were the team on the front foot. We were the only team who were going to win it in the last five to 10 minutes.
"I have nothing but praise for our lads. Other teams are closing the gap on us but we are still top of the league and we have four great players to come back."
"After Swindon we will have played everyone in the division and we are going to be there or thereabouts at Christmas.
"I'm delighted with the players who have come in for the injured lads. When you look at what Sheffield United have to work with and who they have on the bench, like Dave Kitson, it shows the resources we are up against.
"But our lads are willing to roll their sleeves up and do so well that they make me proud. If we can hang in there and we get our four big players back, we might surprise people in the second half of the season in the same way we have surprised people in the first."