Sheffield Wednesday: Owls legend Lee Bullen talks play-off joy and play-off heartache

Lee Bullen with Carlos Carvalhal
Lee Bullen with Carlos Carvalhal
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Lee Bullen is a great showman.

The Scot enjoyed taking centre stage at a special charity question-and-answer event last Thursday night.

More than 70 supporters grilled the Owls legend on all things Sheffield Wednesday related. Lee is a genuinely nice, funny person and he had each and every single member of the audience eating out of the palm of his hand.

The evening, organised by Steel City Memorabilia in aid of Bluebell Wood Hospice, was hosted by BBC Radio Sheffield’s Rob Staton and Lee answered fans’ questions on the past, present and future honestly and directly. There’s no bull with ‘Bully’.

Twelve years have passed since Lee memorably wrote his name into Wednesday folklore. He captained the Owls to League One play-off glory at the Millennium Stadium. He is a Wednesday legend and he still gets stopped in the streets of Sheffield by punters who want to re-live that glorious Cardiff triumph.

The 4-2 win over Hartlepool United was the high point of Lee’s playing career.

He said: “There is no better feeling than winning a trophy. It was the most amazing feeling in the world to do that as a player and captain of the team.”

Wednesday were backed by more than 40,000 supporters in the Welsh capital.

“The away following was amazing,” admitted Lee. “They backed us to the hilt.

“It was almost like a promotion party. It was a great memory for me in football.”

Play-off final glory

Play-off final glory

For Lee, the defining match of their promotion campaign was their penultimate league fixture against Hull City. The Owls triumphed 2-1 to confirm their place in the play-off positions.

Lee remembers manager Paul Sturrock getting the players “p*****” the night before the fixture on bottles of red wine and Corona.

“It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever experienced,” acknowledged Lee.

He also vividly recalls Paul Heckingbottom’s wild celebration on the journey back to Sheffield. The M4 was completely gridlocked, prompting Heckingbottom to open the team bus door and dance down the motorway with the play-off trophy.

He said: “Everyone was going beserk and trying to nick the trophy!

“It was an amazing journey back. The party was an anti-climax when we got back to Sheffield.”

It is fair to say Lee fell in love with Wednesday.

After a period away from Hillsborough, Lee returned to S6 in 2011. He started coaching the academy kids and is now one of head coach Carlos Carvalhal’s most trusted lieutenants.

Like a lot of people in this country, Lee was unfamiliar with Carvalhal’s background and admits he had to google his name following the Portuguese chief’s surprise appointment.

It has been an education for Lee, who made 137 league appearances for Wednesday, and the former centre-half described Carvalhal as “one of the most studious coaches” he has ever worked with.

Carvalhal exceeded all expectations in leading the Owls to the Championship Play-off Final in his first season in charge. Ultimately, the team failed to produce their best form in the showpiece final, suffering a 1-0 loss at the hands of Hull.

Losing at Wembley was the lowest moment of Lee’s career.

Lee said: “I fully expected us to win.

“The support that day was unbelievable. The whole Wembley experience was positive apart from the result.

“We could have played better on the day. We unfortunately had an off day but Hull were so solid, methodical and experienced.

“It was an opportunity lost but the whole experience has to be viewed as a positive.”

After falling at the final hurdle, the Owls altered their style of play in the 2016/17 campaign. Lee is acutely aware the team played less “flamboyant” football.

Wednesday finished fourth, two places higher and seven points better off than the previous season, but received criticism in some quarters for their pragmatic approach.

Lee defended their tactics, claiming Wednesday are now an “established team” and had to set up a little differently to combat opponents making life more difficult for them.He cited Burton as an example of a team who packed midfield and put men behind the ball at Hillsborough.

As far as Lee is concerned, the team have improved and added more variety to their game. He is convinced they would “never have beaten” Cardiff City and Ipswich Town last year.

“We dug out results,” he stressed. “We had to find different solutions, and it will be the same next year.”

Lee felt Wednesday were “better prepared” to end their top-flight exile this year.

It is fine margins in the Championship and the Owls lost 4-3 on penalties to Huddersfield Town in the play-off semi-finals after the tie finished 1-1 on aggregate.

He said: “I’m gutted about this season. It is a hard one to take.”

Sam Hutchinson and Fernando Forestieri had their spot-kicks saved in the shoot-out.

“It was a horrible scenario for everyone to go through,” he said. “I was nervous on the bench.”

It was a surprise to many that striker Jordan Rhodes opted against taking a penalty. Carvalhal said the Scotland international “did not feel confident”.

Lee said: “People have to remember that Jordan was not one of the first five to take a penalty for Huddersfield against Sheffield United in 2012.

“Jordan possibly might have taken one had he scored against Leeds.

“We had five lads who wanted to take a penalty and had practised them all week.

“We lost Ross Wallace to injury early on and he was one of our best penalty-akers.

“Jack Hunt scored every penalty he took in training and scored a great one.

“Tom Lees had not missed one all week.

“Sam Hutchinson volunteered and wanted to take one.

“Fernando has been our penalty-taker. He missed against Brighton but you would still fancy him, and we also had Atdhe [Nuhiu].”

When asked if he would have put himself forward in that situation, Lee said: “I would have taken a penalty but I would have been nervous.”

Dwelling on the past is not Lee’s style. He is sure the future is bright for the club under owner Dejphon Chansiri.

He said: “The chairman has lifted the club completely. He has come in, is a businessman but slowly but surely has fallen in love with the club.

“I know he has attended a number of steering-group meetings and it has been a long time since a chairman has gone and done that type of thing.

“Slowly but surely progress has been made. He is trying to do it in the right steps.

“We are lucky the chairman wants to grow gradually and push the club forward. It bodes well for the football club.”

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