BARRY BANNAN has hailed the return of Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Kieran Lee claiming he is “one of the best players” he has played with.
Lee, 28, made his first appearance after over three months out in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Derby County since picking up an injury against Wolverhampton on January 2.
The midfielder feared his season could have been over after undergoing a hip operation.
But his return to action – along with striker Gary Hooper – is a huge bonus for promotion-chasing Wednesday, who can secure a play-off spot today with victory at Ipswich Town.
Scottish international Bannan – a former Premier League player – is a big fan of Lee.
“He’s massive,” said Bannan. “If you had to pick one player not to be injured, it’s probably Kieran Lee. Sometimes you think there are two Kieran Lees on the pitch, he’s everywhere, brilliant.
“I didn’t really know about him before I came here, but he’s probably the one of the best players I have played with.
“You wouldn’t realise that by watching games, but those who come every single week, know how big he is and that showed when he was out of the team.”
Lee is a vital cog in Wednesday’s midfield, netting four times before Christmas, and his scampering between both area and link-up play is pivotal to Carlos Carvalhal’s pressing style of play.
Striker Hooper’s return after four months out injured has sparked a five-match winning run.
I think we have learned from last season. Games this season we have won, last season we would have drawn or lost.Sheffield Wednesday’s Barry Bannan
Midfielder Sam Hutchinson (knee) is also back in training and could make his first appearance today after a four-week play-off.
Bannan believes the loss of these key players – who helped Wednesday reach last year’s Championship play-off final – has been tough to overcome.
“We have got players back from injury, who are big players for this team,” he said.
“At times this season we have not been able to play the team we wanted, who played last season.
“We have a massive squad, but when you have key players injured it’s tough. Any team would struggle, and we have had more than one key player injured several times this season.
“So getting everyone fit for this stage of the season, fighting for their positions, has resulted in the results we have had.
“Gary Hooper and Kieran Lee were two big parts of how we got to Wembley last season. Losing them was a big blow, and, at the same time, it had a double effect.
“Getting them back, with their experience, has been a big bonus.
“The players who have come in have done an unbelievable job. We have a big squad and that’s why the manager bought very well in the summer.
“It shows when we have lost these key players, the boys that have come in have been brilliant and kept us where we want to be.
“With everyone now fit, we have gone on an unbelievable run.”
The Owls are five points ahead of seventh-placed Leeds United with two games remaining and head to Ipswich today before the visit of Fulham next weekend.
“We have two massive games left, and we are just concentrating on ourselves, it’s in our own hands,” said former Aston Villa and Crystal Palace midfielder Bannan.
“We know what we are capable of and it’s just trying to keep that run going. Hopefully, we will get in the play-offs and go one step further than last year.”
Five successive wins – over Rotherham United, Newcastle United, Cardiff City, QPR and Derby County – mean the Owls are the team with momentum.
Not that Bannan believes that will be important should they reach the play-offs.
“The play-offs is a completely different ball game,” said Bannan. “Last season, you would have said we had the best momentum, and we ended up losing in the final to Hull.
“It would be nice to have momentum, but I don’t think it matters too much.
“It’s what happens in the two semi-finals and then the final that counts. I think we have learned from last season. Games this season we have won, last season we would have drawn or lost.
“We have found a stronger mentality in the squad, and we know how to win games.
“Last season, we maybe would have attacked too much, ending up drawing or losing the game,” he said.
“We have found a good balance this season.
“It may not be better on the eye, but we are getting the results and that’s all that matters at this time of the season.
“Sometimes you can’t always play pretty football.”