That the then 30-year-old centre-back would find another team was never in much doubt, but he makes his 400th Championship appearance at home to Queens Park Rangers this evening at the top end of the table for a club that appears to have given him a shot in the arm, and vice-versa. Now Lees has the chance for a promotion he will appreciate much more than his previous one, 11 years ago.
Last summer Huddersfield Town, the team with the worst defensive record in the second tier, made a concerted decision to revamp that part of their team and recruit strong characters with lots of football on their CVs, all on free transfers.
It was, says coach Carlos Corberan, “a key decision for us as a club”, and the signing of Lees is a big reason why the Terriers go into Easter third in the Championship having spent the last four years fighting relegation battles.
If it has worked well for them, it has done wonders for Lees too, a more expansive style of football developing his game and Huddersfield’s approach improving his preparation as he looks to make the most of his last years as a professional with the best facilities and support set-up he has ever experienced.
“The set-up at the club was more important than anything else in terms of the contract or stuff like that,” insists Lees, who made more than 100 appearances for Leeds United then over 250 for the Owls.
“People probably looked at the geography and thought, ‘Oh, that’s easy for him because it’s down the road,’ but that wasn’t the case.
“Compared to the other options I had it was the set-up and the chance to go and show people this is what I can do because I’ve played a lot at this level. That’s why I chose to come here – the set-up, the coaching and the organisation off the pitch.
“I don’t mean it disrespectfully to any of my other clubs but in terms of how you’re looked after it’s by the far the best I’ve been at.
“The staff look after you fantastically and their knowledge and the effort they put in is tremendous. Everyone only sees the XI on the pitch on gameday but there’s a hell of a lot of work goes into it to make sure everybody’s available. We’ve not had too many injuries and the ones we have had probably haven’t been avoidable.”
Corberan is also a coach who encourages his defenders to play.
“Growing up through the academy system you’re always taught that and then it just depends what team you’re in, what manager, what style they play (as to whether you use it),” says Lees. “Here you can show what you can do. Everybody knows their role and it’s clear to me the options I have when I get the ball. That makes it a lot easier.
“I’m really grateful to the coaching and the input given to me since I joined.
“I’ve been given the system to go and do what I can do and a coach that believes in me and I’ve just tried to repay the input.”
Lees won automatic promotion with Bury and played in the play-offs for Sheffield Wednesday.
“These things don’t come around every day,” he points out. “You never know when you might get this chance again.
“At Bury it was one of my first seasons and I didn’t really think much of it, it was almost like it was normal, but it’s a long time since my last play-offs.
“People like me, Hoggy (Jonathan Hogg), Fraizer (Campbell) and Wardy (Danny Ward), we know these chances are few and far between so you’ve got to take it when you’ve got the opportunity.
“We haven’t got there yet but it would be a massive achievement for the club this season. I don’t think anybody expected that. We’re just really determined to make sure we do it.
“It’s the crunch time. There’s not much chance to put mistakes right so it’s all about nailing it now until the end of the season and like we saw on Monday, it’s those tiny little details that matter.
“Everyone’s got to be focused, we’ve got to get those points as soon as we can and we’re not getting ahead of that.
“We’re fit, we’re hungry and I think we’ve seen those energy levels all season. We saw them again versus Luton (in Monday’s crucial 2-0 win), who are quite similar to us in that regard.
“They get after you and want to press and we managed to match that and push on again in the last 15 minutes.
“Everybody’s demanding and everybody wants it – whether it’s younger players who haven’t had the chance to play in these occasions or older lads who probably appreciate it more. I’m not saying it’s definitely our last opportunity but it might not happen again.”
Last six games: Huddersfield Town WWLLDL; Queens Park Rangers LLLLLW
Referee: L Doughty (Lancashire)
Last time: Huddersfield Town 2 Queens Park Rangers 0, December 5, 2020, Championship