THE last time Tranmere went into December holding an automatic promotion spot in the League One table, back in 2004, Danny Harrison was a young member of a squad rich in the tradecraft and know-how of senior professionals.
Spin the wheel forward eight years and you find Harrison back at Prenton Park. This time he is one of relatively few elder statesman in the young Rovers squad taking the division by surprise.
The promotion challenge being mounted by Ronnie Moore’s youthful team is driven by a very different kind of engine to the one put together by Brian Little in 2004/05. Little spent much of the most generous budget offered to a Tranmere manager over the past decade on players of proven ability with established track records.
He signed Mark Rankine, Paul Hall, Jason McAteer, Ian Goodison, Theo Whitmore and Mike Jackson to back up John Achterberg, Gareth Roberts and Eugene Dadi.
There were some young players in the squad, notably Ryan Taylor and Ian Hume, who were both destined to play at a higher level.
Harrison, a product of Tranmere’s youth development set-up who lived a few miles from the ground in Upton, played just over 30 games that season, half of them as a substitute.
In many seasons, Little’s squad of wise old heads would have been strong enough to secure an automatic ticket to the Championship. They were unfortunate that League One produced two exceptional teams that year: Luton Town, who collected 98 points to finish well clear as champions and Hull City, who finished in second place, seven points ahead of Rovers who were third on 79 points.
Tranmere had to settle for the play-offs and lost a penalty shootout against Hartlepool United, who had finished sixth.
This time Tranmere’s expenditure on the team is modest. Moore put together his squad during the summer on one of the lowest budgets in the division and created a team that has so far proved adept at producing results and playing attractive football.
Harrison, who returned to Prenton Park in the summer after five seasons with Rotherham United, played a supporting role from the substitutes bench in the early months and only began to make regular contributions to the starting lineup over recent weeks. The form of James Wallace and Liam Palmer saw to that.
The 30-year-old is however well-placed to note the essential differences between the two squads.
He said: “There was a lot more experience in the 2004/05 team. I was a young player then, learning about the game and there was a lot you could learn from people like Mark Rankine, Paul Hall and Jason McAteer.
“This year we’ve got a lot of young players and it is a credit to them that we have done so well so far. It can be difficult for a young lad, playing games week in and week out when there is always pressure for results.
“The great thing about this squad is the hunger for success amongst the lads. It is tremendous. They want to taste the glory because most of them have not experienced it before.”
Harrison added: “It is a big learning curve for a lot of them. Some of them were not used to playing for points every week before they came here. We’ve still got to learn about seeing out games.
“But most of the lads have adapted fantastically well. You only have to look at where we are in the league.”
Moore’s first team regularly includes at least five players aged 20 or under. Skipper Wallace is 20, strikers Jake Cassidy and Cole Stockton are teenagers, as is centre back Ben Gibson. Liam Palmer, 21, and Abdulai Bell-Baggie, 20, are playing regular first-team football at League level for the first time.
Harrison, who boats around 370 career games, reckons the positive atmosphere in a harmonious dressing room is also an important factor in Tranmere’s success so far.
“This is one of the best groups of players I have been involved with in terms of team spirit,” he said. “I think it helps that the nucleus of the squad are from around here, like James Wallace, Andy Robinson, Ash Taylor, Danny Holmes and myself.”
Harrison recognises the challenge facing manager Ronnie Moore as Tranmere approach the turn of the year, at which point Cassidy and Palmer may have to be returned to their parent clubs.
“We’re a little bit different to many of the clubs in this division,” said Harrison. “We don’t have 25 or 30 players to call on. So we have to take things a step at a time. We will see where we are at the beginning of January and the manager will see what players are available to bring in on loan.
“We have 39 points on the board after 20 games, which means we have made a cracking start.”