Barry Bannan has finally reached the conclusion that playing second-tier football doesn’t necessarily mean you have to settle for being second best.
By his own admission, Bannan “clung on” to his ambitions as a Premier League player in England for too long and probably to the detriment of his efforts to nail down a regular place in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland side.
It has taken the midfielder’s move to Sheffield Wednesday to convince him of the benefits that can come from operating in the English Championship. That was further underlined by the make-up of both the Wales and Northern Ireland squads which made it to the Euro 2016 finals in the summer while Bannan and his Scotland colleagues stayed at home.
Nine of the Welsh squad which reached the semi-finals of the tournament were drawn from below the top flight of English club football, while 13 of the Northern Irish players came from that source.
Bannan, who was named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year last season as Wednesday narrowly missed out on promotion when they lost 1-0 to Hull City in the play-off final, believes he now has better prospects of a starting slot with Scotland than he did when he was in the Premier League with Aston Villa and Crystal Palace.
“When I moved to Sheffield Wednesday I saw it as my last chance of making a name for myself in England and it’s been the best move I’ve ever made,” said the 26-year-old.
“As soon as I went through the door, I played five or six games in three weeks and knew straight away it was the club for me. I got on well with the manager Carlos Carvalhal from day one, we connected immediately, and the fans and players were brilliant.
“Playing in a winning team has also been a big thing for me, really, because I’m better in teams that have the ball. Since going there we’ve been up the top half of the Championship table and that has brought the best out in my game. It’s probably been the best time I’ve had in football.
“I’d been clinging on to the Premier League for a while, as at Aston Villa we only just stayed up when I was there and then with Crystal Palace the club had just won promotion.
“But I had to take a step backwards to build my career again and I think the 18 months I’ve been there has been really, really good. The step back has done me the world of good.”
“For the national team, having players willing to go backwards to get regular games is going to help massively. You really need to be coming to international squads fit and at the top of your game. I’ve done it the opposite way and it’s hard. You get to 60 or 70 minutes and you’re struggling to get through it. So going out and getting regular football is going to be beneficial for Scotland.
“It’s massively unfair to criticise the level of football in the Championship. It really is one of the hardest leagues there is. I’ve played in the Championship and the Premier League and the Championship is a lot more demanding as well as being a lot more unforgiving than the Premier League.
“From the top down, there are probably eight top teams in the Premier League. But below that there isn’t much difference between the rest in the Premier League and the Championship. It’s a tough league, a very tough league.
“If you look at the Welsh boys or the Northern Irish boys a lot of them play in the Championship and they’ve done well at the last Euros. Does that make us better prepared this time compared to last time? It probably does because it’s better playing week-in, week-out. You’ll be feeling a lot more confident ahead of games for your country.”
Bannan’s own confidence could hardly be healthier ahead of tomorrow night’s meeting with Lithuania at Hampden. Something of a surprise choice in a central midfield role against Malta last month, he shone in Scotland’s 5-1 win on the Mediterranean island which opened their World Cup qualifying campaign on a positive note.
It was his first starting appearance for his country since the Euro 2016 qualifier in Germany two years earlier and he is eager to finally find some stability and momentum at international level.
“I was pleased to be back out there playing from the start against Malta,” he added. “That was a big confidence boost for me and I took that onto the pitch. Also, at club level, I’ve been playing in a settled team for more than a year now which has been great for me as well. So I was full of confidence going into the game against Malta and I think I managed to make that show.
“My Scotland career has been a bit up and down. There have been times when I’ve played three or four games and then been out of the team for a while. But hopefully I’m now at a certain age – playing every week at club level – that I can kick on into the last part of my career. The aim is to get settled into the Scotland team as regular starter. Me and the manager chat quite a lot when we are at the training pitch and so on. He has shown a lot of faith in me. I think I have a part to play in this campaign, like everyone has. It’s always good to hear nice things being spoken about you, but you can’t rest on your laurels for a minute. There are a lot of good players here fighting for two or three jerseys in the midfield. You have to give your all every single time you come away with Scotland. It’s up to me to take the chance when I get it.”