MC: Tranmere manager Keith Hill has propelled the club towards promotion since his appointment in November, what has he changed which is bringing such excellent results?
PH: It’s been a strange season. We started under Mike Jackson, Micky Mellon’s assistant after he left us to join Dundee United. We were pretty dreadful for the first 10 games of the season, before he was relieved of his duties.
Ian Dawes and Andy Parkinson, from the coaching staff, took caretaker charge and got us back playing well and we found a system that works for the players we have.
Keith Hill has come in and continued that really, he hasn’t changed too much. A couple of players came in and left in January, but he’s working with a good squad and is getting a tune out of them that Jackson didn’t manage to do earlier this season.
MC: Rovers currently sit fourth in League Two, just two points away from Cheltenham at the top of the table - are you confident that Tranmere will be back playing League One football next season?
PH: As confident as you can be as a Tranmere supporter! We’ve been here before in a good position and blown it, so I’ll never get carried away, but we have a good squad, an experienced manager who has been there and done it, and we’ve been playing well. So, there’s no reason why we can’t bounce back first time, to where we feel we should be anyway after the EFL debacle saw us demoted at the ‘end’ of the unfinished campaign in 19-20.
I feel the squad is strong enough, but there are a few key players who we need to keep fit and firing on all cylinders to maintain our strong challenge. James Vaughan being out injured for some time is a hindrance, but we do have other attacking options available, albeit not that out and out goal threat like Vaughan. Hopefully, we’ll have enough to see us promoted.
MC: Tranmere have knocked out the likes of Wigan, Manchester City U21s, Leicester U21s, Peterborough, and Oxford to make the EFL Trophy final, did the club set out to take the competition seriously, or has this been a massively surprising run?
PH: The fact we’ve knocked out Under-21 sides is the crux of the matter of this competition, but that’s maybe a debate for another time. I do feel it devalues the competition, which really should be the FA Cup for the bottom two tiers of the EFL.
We’ve made wholesale changes for every round, giving fringe players the chance to shine in this competition, and fair play to them, they’ve done just that and got us to Wembley. It’ll be interesting to see how Keith Hill plays it, stick with the fringe players who have done so well and got us to this stage, or play his strongest XI.
I prefer the former to be honest. They deserve their place at Wembley having got us through the rounds, it would be a kick in the teeth to drop them at the final hurdle, and not give them the chance to play at Wembley.
MC: Sunderland captain Max Power started his career at Tranmere, making 127 appearances for the club, do you think the occasion will be even more sentimental for him and perhaps give more desire to win?
PH: Knowing Max, I think he’s up for every game. I’m sure it has a bit more sentiment in it for him with his connections, but he wants to win every game, no more or no less than this one I’d say. He’s a great lad and a very good player so we’ll have to keep an eye on him if we’re to stand a chance of lifting the trophy.
MC: Charlie Wyke has scored five goals in six EFL Trophy appearances this season and is in the best goal-scoring form of his career, are you confident the Tranmere defence can keep him quiet?
PH: Defensively, we’ve been fairly good of late. Peter Clarke is a collossus at the back, and I think a big target man like Wyke is the kind of player that Clarke is well suited to dealing with.
That said, he’s very good so it’ll be a battle, but it should be interesting. That’s if Clarke plays, indeed! He hasn’t played in this competition so far. Wyke is a handful to League One defences, so we’ll have to put in a great display to keep him quiet, for sure.
MC: Ex-Sunderland striker James Vaughan is Tranmere’s top scorer this season with 21 goals, but he is set to miss the cup final through injury - how big of a blow is that for you?
PH: Vaughan is another who hasn’t featured much in this competition. It’s a blow for us and our promotion chances that he’s going to be missing for some time.
In terms of the final, we’ve not done too badly without him in the past few games so we’ll have to do so again on Sunday. Kaiyne Woolery has stepped up to the plate recently and, although a totally different player to Vaughan, will be a threat to Sunderland’s defence.
MC: Having said that, Tranmere did sign former England international striker David Nugent on loan from Preston in January, does the 35-year-old still have the legs to cause Sunderland problems?
PH: He’s not match-fit, nowhere near, so hard to tell you that one to be honest. He’s played a couple of games and has shown signs of his quality. He’s a clever player who knows where the goal is. Hopefully, he can get up to speed because we’ll certainly need him between now and the end of the season.
MC: Tranmere were incredibly harshly relegated from League One last season when the league was concluded via points-per-game, is your fanbase still massively frustrated by this considering you had won three consecutive games?
PH: Harshly, wrongly, however you want to put it, I think the fans certainly still feel aggrieved by the decision. That we were the only ones who were close to staying up and not given a chance to play ourselves safe is a bugbear, but I think we’ve moved on a little. We just need to get promoted this season to be back where we belong.
MC: Who are the eleven players you believe Keith Hill will select against Sunderland?
PH: As I mentioned before, this has been a competition for the fringe players thus far. I would like to think Keith Hill will stick with that policy, with potentially the first team lads on the bench. It’s anybody’s guess as to who’ll start, but I’d go:
Joe Murphy (GK); Lee O’Connor, George Ray, Manny Monthe, Liam Ridehalgh; Nya Kirby, Liam Feeney, Danny Lloyd; Kaiyne Woolery, Paul Lewis, Kieron Morris.
MC: What style of play can Lee Johnson’s side expect to encounter and how do you think Tranmere will approach the match?
PH: We like to play from the back, through the phases. We’ve got some good footballers in the side and I don’t think that approach will change just because we’re coming up against Sunderland.
We’ve beaten League 1 sides, good ones at that, this season with that approach, so I’m sure not much will alter. It’s a hardworking squad but there’s plenty of quality in there and I’m sure they’ll be chomping at the bit to play on the hallowed turf of Wembley which will hopefully suit that style.
MC: Sunderland won both League One matches against Tranmere last season without conceding - which team is lifting the trophy?
PH: We have a curse at the Stadium of Light, and you caught us when we couldn’t score a goal when you played us at Prenton Park! It’s going to be difficult for us, the lads will be up for it I’m sure but I do think Sunderland will have a bit too much for us.
That said, we’ll give you a game, I don’t think we’ll get a beating. I’ll say 2-1 Sunderland but hope it’s the other way of course!