“A little Scottish man, he’s better than Zidane.” Sheffield Wednesday fans sing Barry Bannan’s name relentlessly. The midfielder would love to hear the same chorus from the Tartan Army during the World Cup qualifying campaign.
Idolised at Hillsborough, Bannan holds 21 Scotland caps but has flitted in and out of the national squad for six years. His aim, starting in Malta on Sunday, is to properly establish a place in Gordon Strachan’s team.
He certainly has momentum behind him. The 26-year-old from Airdrie is playing the finest football of his life in the English Championship after finally finding a club and manager who suit his passing style.
Previous spells at Aston Villa, Derby County, Blackpool, Leeds United, Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers brought varying degrees of success, but nothing to compare with his exalted status amongst the Sheffield Wednesday support.
“Since day one, the Sheffield Wednesday fans have been brilliant with me,” said Bannan. “The more I played, the more they took to me. It was unbelievable at Wembley in the play-off final last season.
“I had lots of family and friends there who had never been to any of our games before. One of my brother’s mates was a Hull fan and he was there. He phoned my brother up after the game saying: ‘All I heard was your little brother’s name being sung today.’
“They never stopped singing my name at Wembley. It’s a huge morale boost. When you go on to the pitch, you feel unbeatable.
“I don’t know what it is but these fans have been completely different with me. This is the first time I’ve really felt that connection with supporters. It ties in with how I’ve been playing. That bond and hearing them singing my name adds to my game.”
Can he now take it a step further and become a regular in the Scotland midfield? Bannan has been involved in the last three campaigns without ever being more than a squad player.
“My confidence is high and I’m playing every week. I would say this is the probably the best I’ve played over a long spell. I don’t see why I can’t make an impression with Scotland.
“I’m here trying to impress the manager. I want to cement a starting spot in this squad. I’m on top of my game right now so it’s a great chance to get a starting place. This is the start of a new campaign as well. If you start here and do well, you could be in the for the rest of the campaign. That’s my aim. I want to play a big part in this campaign.
“I love coming away with Scotland. It breaks up the club football and it’s encouraging that I’ve been called up for such a massive game.”
Malta away is exactly that. Only a win in the Ta’ Qali Stadium will suffice, for there are much tougher assignments ahead for Scotland in Group F.
Bannan’s ball retention skills and passing ability may be ideal for a game where the tempo will be slow due to temperatures approaching 30 degrees. His success at Sheffield Wednesday is down to quality on the ball and sheer desire off it.
“The style the manager [Carlos Carvalhal] plays is perfect. He’s a foreign coach so we play a lot of possession football. It suits me down to a tee,” he said. “I’m probably a ball player. I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s probably the happiest I’ve been in football.
“We have a few shorter guys who are more technical, like Ross Wallace and Fernando Forestieri. I think your work-rate has to be a lot better than the opposition to overcome that. I think one of the biggest parts of my game is my work-rate. If a game is going to be physical, I’ve got to make up for it in other ways. I do that by running about and being a nuisance, really, rather than going in for tackles and pushing people over.”
He hopes to bowl people over in dark blue over the next 18 months to help Scotland towards Russia in 2018. “We know what we’ve got in this squad and we’re confident. There’s no doubt we have the hunger for it. There are a few people now who maybe see this as their last campaign but we’ve got younger boys in as well. That’s encouraging for the future. We’ll give it our all.”