Sheffield Wednesday: Popular Owls star bids to make up for lost time
By Tom Lees' own admission, it has been a frustrating couple of months.
A hamstring knock sustained in the Owls’ Capital One Cup quarter-final exit at Stoke City in early December confined the centre-back to a lengthy watching brief.
Lees missed 13 matches and over two months of football - but Wednesday’s performances and positive results made the experience less painful.
“From a personal perspective, I was frustrated not to be involved but I wasn’t frustrated watching us win every week,” he told The Star.
“I worked tirelessly with the physios at the club and went abroad for a bit to try and get as fit and as sharp as I could.
“I just had that movitation to get back in the team and and do what I can. It helped that the team were on a great run.”
Since joining Wednesday in July 2014 from Yorkshire rivals Leeds United for a nominal fee, Lees has been a mainstay of defence, playing a key role in the side equalling a club-record of 17 league clean sheets.
The influential defender had played every single minute of this season prior to suffering a hamstring tear at the Britannia Stadium.
He conceded: “I haven’t had too many injuries in my career. When I was younger, I had a serious knee injury but that was when I was in the youth team at Leeds.
“I’m not really used to knowing how to deal with it.
“Being out for a while just made me appreciate playing every week and not taking it for granted.”
To speed up his recovery, Lees sought the help of Lieven Maesschalck. He spent over a week in Belgium receiving intensive treatment from the Belgian physiotherapist, who is considered one of the world’s best medics in his field.
Maesschalck, who works closely with the Belgium national team, has previously treated Andriy Schevchenko and ex-Brazilian attacker Kaka.
“I went to Belgium for over a week,” admitted Lees. “It was the middle of winter and I had been out for a while. It just got to a point where I thought going somewhere a bit different for a week or two would be a good thing and help me to get my head down.
“I managed to sort it out and it was really beneficial.
“Players from all over Europe go to the clinic. They were brilliant with me and the treatment was really good.
“It was really good and got me sharp and as fit as possible. It was almost like a mini camp for me to get fit and strong for my return.”
Almost a fortnight ago, Lees made his long-awaited return to action at Birmingham City. By his own high standards, he looked a little rusty, failing to clear the ball to safety in the build-up to Clayton Donaldson’s opener. Given how solid and composed Lees usually is, it was an uncharacteristic mistake.
But he appeared more assured in Saturday’s trouncing of Brentford and enjoyed playing in front of the home fans again.
“It felt like a long time since I played at Hillsborough,” he said. “I really enjoyed coming back.
“The sending off helped us straight away and we managed to dominate things after that.
“Our home form has been an integral part of our season. We know we have some tough home games coming up so we just have to try and keep our form going.”
Wednesday are top of the Championship form table for the last 10 matches, collecting 23 points to move up to fifth. Carlos Carvalhal’s side have lost just once in that period, away to promotion rivals Middlesbrough.
Following their superb run of form, Sky Sports pundit Ian Holloway has tipped the Owls to secure a top-five finish.
“I am confident putting Hull, Burnley, Brighton, Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough in the top five,” said Holloway. “I think Hull will get in the top two, Burnley could easily do it, Boro can’t score at the moment but they will be one of the top six.
“Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton will be in there and won’t blow up, then you are talking Derby, Birmingham, Ipswich or Cardiff in a scrap for the last place.”
Wednesday have earned rave reviews for their stylish football this campaign, but Lees is urging the team to stay grounded.
“Everybody is focused,” he stressed. “We are all very professional and not getting carried away.
“We know how quickly things can turn which is why we are focusing on one game at a time. We know how tight it is up there and what the league is like. We haven’t achieved anything yet and there is still a long way to go.
“We have got a great team spirit and guys who are very motivated and want to do well for each other.
“The mindset of the players we have got is that they always want to be challenging for things and playing at the highest level they can.”
Next up for the Owls is a trip to Preston North End where they will be backed by 5,500 supporters.
“It is a really big game for us and hopefully we can kick off another big week with a good result at Preston,” said Lees. “I know the manager doesn’t want us to look past the next game as things can change very quickly.
“In an ideal world, we would love to win every game between now and the end of the season but you know as much as you want that to happen that that probably won’t be the case.”