Scotland the saving grace for Barry Bannan

Country before club was not a choice for Barry Bannan, it was a necessity before his loan move to Bolton. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

Country before club was not a choice for Barry Bannan, it was a necessity before his loan move to Bolton. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS

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MUCH mocking ensued after Barry Bannan let it be known on Twitter that he had gone to see Fifty Shades of Grey. On his own. “I’m sure there are a couple of you that have watched it and not let on,” was the 25-year-old’s limp defence at a press gathering this week. Bannan is fortunate that, when it comes to dark blue, Gordon Strachan’s attitude is pretty black and white.

The Scotland manager knows he will get enthusiasm, high-quality training and a turn from the nimble little attacker, who has earned 19 caps. Club managers haven’t always been so certain. Bannan made his way to Neil Lennon’s Bolton Wanderers on loan in January after appearances largely dried up at Crystal Palace, under Tony Pulis last season, and more recently with Neil Warnock and Alan Pardew.

It meant the player electing to pack up his kitbag for a fifth loan spell in five years – Lancashire his destination after, he says, Celtic enquired and there was “talk between them and my agents” about a stint in his homeland that “I don’t think ever got close”. And, since leaving first club Aston Villa for Palace 18 months ago, he has never come close to experiencing contentment in his career. Except when Strachan names a Scotland squad. The international domain has, Bannan says, been a saving grace, but one he never takes for granted.

“Scotland was what was keeping me going, in a way [before Bolton] ,” he said. “Obviously my club football wasn’t going the way I wanted it to and you could get down from that. But I kept getting picked for Scotland, played in big, big games, against Germany and people like that, and that was what was keeping me going. I was down, obviously, from my club football but, if you are getting picked for your national team, that lifts you.

“It’s great that the manager has shown faith in me. He was picking me when I wasn’t playing club games and that was good for my confidence. There are other people doing well at the moment and he’s stuck with me too. I’m playing at Bolton now and maybe it would have been different had I not been playing at Palace.

“But I’m happy to be in the squad and I’ll give my all when I get to training and I hope repay him.”

Although Strachan has said he will juggle his squad between Wednesday’s friendly at home to Northern Ireland and the Euro 2016 qualifier against expected cannon fodder Gibraltar, Bannan would happily go full pelt in both. “I just love playing football,” he said.

Too often in a career that has smouldered without ever truly catching fire, Bannan has been denied the opportunity to do that in a supportive environment. He has never entirely convinced that his slight, 5ft 7in frame isn’t an issue. Strachan’s willingness to field similar types Shaun Maloney and Ikechi Anya, and the success he has enjoyed in doing so, makes Scotland a place where Bannan can deliver by daring to be diminutive.

In Lennon at Bolton, the forward, who trained and supported Celtic in his youth, appears to have found a manager like-minded to Strachan. “It’s been brilliant move for me. At Crystal Palace, it was getting to the stage where I was playing a couple of games and then be out for a month. I’m just glad to be playing football again and enjoying it.

“It was hard to leave at the time. When the new manager [Pardew] came in, I played the first two games and then missed the next two. Then I left. I wasn’t there for too long under him but I felt that I needed to start playing every week and I didn’t want to hang about and see if he fancied me.

“He [Lennon] was a big influence in me going to Bolton. I spoke to Joe Ledley and Stiliyan Petrov – guys who have worked under him and know him. They had good things to say and I was keen to go and work under him.

“He was at Celtic when I was there as a youngster but we never met. He was a player I liked but Petrov was the one I looked up to as he was more attacking. When you are younger, you like guys who are scoring goals.

“I looked up to all those players in that team but Petrov was the main one. Protecting my Scotland place was also a big factor in the move to Bolton. Everyone can see there is a lot of competition just now. There are so many Scottish players on fire and the gaffer has probably left a lot of boys out who will be unhappy and could warrant a place in the team. I’m just happy that I am playing now and showing people that I’m still here and ready to play.”

The need to build a playing profile again formed the centrepoint of the conversation Lennon had with Bannan as he sought to entice the Airdrie-born player to the bottom-end Championship club.

“He said ‘come up, play games and get your name back out there, your career has stalled a little bit’. That was good for my motivation and he was going on about me expressing myself and enjoying it. That played a big part in me going too.”

n Tickets for Scotland v Northern Ireland on Wednesday, 25 March , kick-off 7.45pm, are available via www.scottishfa.co.uk or 0844 875 1873.

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