Sheffield Wednesday v Nottingham Forest – Owls players must prove themselves to Steve Bruce, says Tom Lees

Sheffield Wednesday captain Tom Lees: Frustrated after defeat to Aston Villa.
Sheffield Wednesday captain Tom Lees: Frustrated after defeat to Aston Villa.
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Six places and six points to make up in the final half-a-dozen games may not represent an insurmountable task, particularly when your next opponent is one of the teams you are trying to clamber above.

Yet for defender Tom Lees, Sheffield Wednesday’s crushing defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday evening meant the end of this season’s promotion push and prompted thoughts to turn towards the next campaign.

PROVE IT: Sheffield Wednesday manager,  Steve Bruce. Picture: Steve Ellis

PROVE IT: Sheffield Wednesday manager, Steve Bruce. Picture: Steve Ellis

In truth, Wednesday’s promotion challenge has only been flickering at best this season.

They have spent just 14 days in the top six, way back in October under Jos Luhukay, who then oversaw a downturn in fortunes that saw him sacked in December.

Even under the revitalisting touch of Steve Bruce they have only been as high as ninth, a 12-game unbeaten run – 11 under the new manager – providing them with a glimmer of hope that they might gatecrash the play-offs.

But that defeat to Villa on Saturday was damaging, widening the gap from four points to six and bringing two more teams into the play-off chase.

Whether you’ve got a contract or not, if a manager comes and tells you you’re not going to get a game for the next three years then you’ll go. So everybody has to show they are good enough.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Tom Lees

While mathematically possible for Lees the final six games of the season represent more of a testing ground to discover which players have the mettle to launch a sustained assault on promotion over 46 games next season.

“We’ve got to take the run we’ve been on since December into next season now,” said Lees, a veteran of two play-off campaigns already with Sheffield Wednesday.

“You’ve got to look at how we’ve played since December; we need that strength, that consistency and that mental attitude to see it through for a whole season.

“If we can replicate that through a full season we’ll go up.”

Starting with the visit of Nottingham Forest tonight, the motivation for Lees and his fellow players is proving to Bruce they deserve to be a part of that protracted push for the Premier League.

Bruce’s first pre-season as Wednesday manager already has the makings of a pivotal one.

The Owls have a full team of players out of contract – including Saturday’s goalscorer Gary Hooper – and a manager who knows what characteristics are required in a team to get out of the Championship, having done so on four occasions with Birmingham City and Hull City.

“We’ve got 11 players out of contract at the end of the season and a relatively new manager who won’t be wanting to take his time to get it right. He’ll want to get it right next season,” said Lees.

“As a player you’ve got to show that you’re good enough to be involved in a promotion push next time. That’s the motivation, to make sure you’re here next season. I’m contracted for next season, but in football that doesn’t mean a lot. If the club doesn’t want a player it can change quickly.

“Whether you’ve got a contract or not, if a manager comes and tells you you’re not going to get a game for the next three years then you’ll go. So everybody has to show they are good enough.”

So what has Lees gleaned from the first two months working together about what Bruce looks for in a player?

“The way the manager likes to play, at a high intensity, he likes a lot of energy,” observed the 28-year-old former Leeds United defender. “There are players that can handle that, we all know how tough the Championship is.

“We just need a season with everyone staying fit and have that energy week-in, week-out.

“We’ll have a full pre-season and be ready. Hopefully any additions will help us go the course.”

Not that this season is entirely a foregone conclusion.

With Forest at Hillsborough tonight, plus Bristol City and Preston still to play, three wins against those fellow play-off chasers would count double. The fly in the ointment, however, is away trips to automatic-promotion hopefuls Leeds United and Norwich City following tonight’s game.

“You never know,” accepted Lees. “I’m not sitting here throwing the towel in, but if you’re realistic it’s going to be a big ask.

“Teams have got six points on us with games in hand, so it’s a big ask. At least we showed against Villa that we can handle the high-pressure games.”

Bruce, in the aftermath of a chastening defeat to his former club, knows how quickly planning for next season will begin.

“It’s a ridiculous schedule from now until the end of the season; Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Friday, Monday, and before you know it, it’s gone, season’s finished,” said the Owls’ chief.

“So it will be important to finish as high as we possibly can.”

Wednesday could be without Barry Bannan (hamstring) and Dominic Iorfa (knock) after they limped off on Saturday.

Last six games: Sheffield Wednesday DDWWDL Nottingham Forest LWLDWL.

Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).

Last time: Sheffield Wednesday 3 Nottingham Forest 1; Championship; September 9, 2017.