Sheffield Wednesday captain Tom Lees believes Barry Bannan is displaying the best form of his career at Hillsborough.
The Scottish international –fresh from scooping the ‘Championship goal of the month’ award for August for a stunning volley against Millwall – was the catalyst behind the Owls’ recovery from 2-0 down against Stoke City to take a share of the spoils.
The visitors opened up like a team crammed with Premier League players and the only surprise was that they only had two goals from former Owls loanee Benik Afobe to show for their domination.
Bannan handed the Owls a lifeline when his raking long pass picked out fellow Scottish international Steven Fletcher, who had shrugged off the attentions of Stoke captain Ryan Shawcross.
Fletcher chested the ball into the path of the onrushing Marco Matias, who poked the ball beyond England goalkeeper Jack Butland.
The goal, on 24 minutes, seemed to poke the Owls into life, and their battling second-half display – refusing to capitulate against quality opposition – deserved Bannan’s 82nd-minute equaliser.
The midfielder jinked his way towards the area, only to be dragged down and, from the resulting free-kick 20 yards out, he curled the ball over the wall.Butland was rooted to the spot as the ball struck the inside of the post, before nestling in the back of the net.
“We had everything crossed, just standing there watching Barry,” said Lees, about that late strike in front of the Kop. “You hope he can pull something out of the bag, and he did.
“We all know he has got that in his locker. He is in great form, probably the best I have seen him at the club. Hopefully, that will continue as everything seems to be going through him at the moment and he is doing really well.”
The 28-year-old has been at Hillsborough since 2015 – part of the celebrated midfield quartet alongside Sam Hutchinson, Kieran Lee and Ross Wallace, who twice came close to play-off success.
We all know he has got that in his locker. He is in great form, probably the best I have seen him at the club. Hopefully, that will continue as everything seems to be going through him at the moment and he is doing really well.Sheffield Wednesday’s Tom Lees
But with Hutchinson and Lee injured – and Wallace having departed in the summer – Bannan has stepped forward as Wednesday’s midfield general, and is thriving in the role.
His passing game and non-stop running have never been in question, but he is now proving a goal threat and even Stoke manager Gary Rowett described Bannan as “a little magician” in his post-match analysis.
Owls chief Jos Luhukay believes his team gave Stoke – relegated from the Premier League in May – far too much respect in the opening 20 minutes.
The hosts certainly started sluggishly, as the visitors sliced through their flimsy defence.
Afobe blasted beyond an exposed Cameron Dawson after just 80 seconds, and the same player waltzed through the middle to make it 2-0.
With Ryan Woods running Stoke’s midfield, the visitors dominated and former Huddersfield Town winger Tom Ince came close when his shot crept the wrong side of Dawson’s right-hand post. They had plenty of other chances, with Mame Diouf, Afobe, Ince and Peter Etebo going close.
Jordan Thorniley and Matt Penney – Academy youngsters promoted to the Owls’ defence – were handed a harsh lesson, as Stoke’s movement in attack repeatedly exposed the hosts.
But the two rookies emerged with credit, putting in solid second-half shifts which bodes well for their future.
Left-back Penney could even have grabbed a stunning goal, when he intercepted the ball before racing down the pitch and playing a neat one-two with substitute Atdhe Nuhiu only to be denied by Butland.
“For Jordan and Matt it’s the first time since they have come into the team, that they have faced a challenge which has really tested them,” said Lees.
“Not just them, the whole team, but for the first 10 minutes we were given a tough time.
“It’s how you react that counts and I was really pleased with them because they could have gone under but they didn’t. There were lots of chances, and both teams will be disappointed with either half. Obviously, we were disappointed with the first half and Stoke will probably be disappointed with how they played in the second.
“We gave ourselves a lot to do against a good team. The positive is, it proves we have good character to come back from 2-0 down.
“It was a pressurised situation we put ourselves in. People weren’t happy and we had to show good character, stand up and keep playing like we have been told to, stick to our guns. We got something out of the game, and could have had more.
“In the first half, we just didn’t get to grips with them. We never stopped them playing, it was just far too easy for them. To be honest, they just came straight through the middle of us numerous times in the first 10 minutes. We had to get a grip on that.
“We never have a problem with the ball, it’s just without the ball.”
Bannan’s late equaliser stretched Wednesday’s unbeaten run to four games in the Championship, ahead of back-to-back trips to Nottingham Forest on Wednesday, before Aston Villa on Saturday.
“If you are not going to win the game, don’t lose it,” said Lees. “Stoke are a quality team.
“We would never settle for a point at home, but when you are 2-0 down against a team like Stoke, you have to take it.
“We showed good team spirit, good character, and everybody is competing for places in the team. If you look at the bench today it was really strong, and there’s a good feel about the place.”